July 20th, 2017/ BY Tim Pawsey

BC’s focus on sparkling wine may indicate the industry has grown up

It’s coming up on 30 years since the great hybrid pull-out effectively launched the modern-day British Columbia wine industry. In a few short decades, we’ve moved (thankfully) firmly beyond Father Pandosy’s communion wine, OK Red, Chancellor — and Baby Duck. (Yes, that sweet ’70s sparkler was once Canada’s largest selling wine, so much so that Brights even launched it in the UK to compete with such major brands as Babycham and Mateus.)

As the BC industry matures, discussions are unfolding as to whether the province should now focus its energies on the varieties it does best. There’s even some consensus that those grapes should be Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Syrah. That said, BC is a multi-faceted, far-from-homogenous wine region. What flies in the South Okanagan does not necessarily thrive in the north, or, for that matter on Vancouver Island, in the Fraser Valley, Lillooet or Kamloops.

The Sparkling Option

While the “time to focus” argument is driven by variety, there’s also no shortage of proponents who believe that sparkling wines could be BC’s best bet. BC sparklers are coming to the fore, as numerous wineries jump on the bubble bandwagon. As to why it took so long, I’ll hazard a guess that with ice wine all but dead and buried (with a firm assist from climate change), it’s sparkling wine’s turn to be in the spotlight, particularly as it sheds its purely celebratory mantle for a more flexible, food-friendly robe.

Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters first came up with the idea that there was a place for BC bubble. Evidently he was right: Sumac’s new ownership has seen fit to brand Steller’s Jay as a stand-alone product.

At the time, beyond a messianic group of committed believers, there were few admirers of BC wine, period. Moreover, the idea that people would opt for an unproven BC nod to Champagne when they could just as easily buy Sonoma sparkling or even Spanish Cava seemed far fetched.

Noted author John Schreiner credits researcher Gary Strachan for coming up with the idea of putting Okanagan acidity to good use by making sparkling wines. According to Schreiner, Strachan launched National Research Council-funded trials in 1983, making several batches at the Summerland Research Station. McWatters became involved (as did winemaker Eric von Krosigk) and Steller’s Jay eventually became a reality.

McWatters’ commercial winery background underscored the value of a balanced portfolio. More to the point, he was convinced that grapes coming from a triangle within the central Okanagan (between Summerland, Naramata and Okanagan Falls) had the right amount of bright acidity to make good sparkling.

“One thing we’ve never been short of is acid, so rather than fight it, we thought, why not capitalize on it?,” he says.

In hindsight, McWatters adds, “It was a way too ambitious project. We made six bottles each of — I don’t know how many — different cuvées, as well as single varieties, using six different yeasts.”

But all was not in vain.

“What we learned from it, still holds true in my mind, especially if we look at what each variety brought to the blend: Pinot Blanc delivers the fruit; Chardonnay, elegance and finesse; while the backbone and character came from Pinot Noir.”

At the end of the day, the point was proven. In fact, McWatters suggests it’s too bad those trials didn’t happen years earlier since they would have been equally as successful using hybrids. “Just look at what Bruce Ewart has achieved [at L’Acadie], in Nova Scotia,” he says.

McWatters went on to develop a legendary love for his bubble. He probably hosted more winemaker’s dinners than anyone else in the BC industry. And each one started with a glass of Steller’s Jay.

His latest venture, Time Estate Winery (housed in a repurposed cinema complex in downtown Penticton) will release its first sparkler in a couple of years, a predominantly Chardonnay–Pinot Blanc blend. “We don’t have access to the Pinot that we’d like right now,” he says.

At the time, it’s fair to say, there wasn’t much love lost between McWatters and Blue Mountain founder Ian Mavety, who were firmly on opposite sides of the VQA fence. McWatters was a founding father of VQA, while Mavety chose not to embrace the program in any way. His prime objection arose from the fact that VQA allows wineries to use the term “estate” on their labels for wines that don’t contain estate-grown fruit. To this day, Blue Mountain uses only estate-grown grapes.

With Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being the priority, it was only natural that Blue Mountain would add traditional method sparkling wines to its collection. However the success of Blue Mountain Brut (in addition to its other styles) has served only to build on the winery’s legendary cult status.

Now in the hands of the brother and sister team of Matt and Christie Mavety, the winery has increased the emphasis on the sparkling wines their father introduced.

Just as for the still wines, “We’ve always tried to let the terroir speak,” says winemaker Matt Mavety.

“Our original approach was very much Champagne style. Plus, the fact that we have always grown our own fruit has been hugely beneficial in terms of experience to draw on.”

Blue Mountain’s Gold Label Brut has become the BC “gold standard” for bubble, although it no longer goes unchallenged as the quality and scope of BC sparkling wines continues to increase and expand. In addition, rosé, Blancs de Blancs and RD Vintage wines continue to assist in maintaining Blue Mountain’s pre-eminence as a sparkling wine producer.

Steller’s Jay Brut ($22)

Gold in the glass, with lively, fine bubbles and a solid mousse, the house style that emerged from McWatters’ original trials yields stone fruit and berry notes on top before a nutty, toasty palate with textured leesy notes and a lengthy end.

Blue Mountain Brut Rosé R.D. 2012 ($24.95)

This is one of those classics that never fails to impress. A firm mousse and persistent stream of bubbles, followed by aromas of red fruit before a palate of subtle strawberry and citrus with a definite vinous edge, good texture, some leesy notes and a lingering end. Think salmon of any kind.

Blue Mountain Sparkling Brut Gold Label ($25)

From one of the pioneers who identified the potential for Champagne-style sparkling very early on, this refreshingly clean, traditional method Pinot-Chardonnay sparkler sports a stream of fine bubbles with a toasty nose and mouth-filling mousse, elegant apple-citrus notes through the mid-palate. Still one of the “gold standards” for BC.

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Natural Brut 2013 ($35)

Fine stream of bubbles with medium mousse and earthy, mineral aromas; forward green apple notes with flinty notes before a vibrant, citrus, lemon lime palate driven by keen, juicy acidity with crisp apple skin in a clean finish.

Gray Monk Odyssey White Brut 2013 ($25)

With its solid mousse, creamy mouthfeel, apple, citrus and stone fruit notes, no wonder this stylin’ Riesling and Pinot Blanc bubble scooped a coveted Platinum medal at this year’s BC Wine Awards.

Gray Monk Odyssey Brut Rosé ($27)

A blend of Pinot Meunier and Gamay Noir, with a gorgeous salmon colour and stream of lively bubbles, has more than a hint of fresh-cut rhubarb on the nose, followed by a well-textured, broad palate with red berry hints, such as strawberry, and a touch of melon, before a clean finish that tastes drier than it is. In true Gray Monk style, the fruit rules, but there’s also no shortage of polish and structure.

 

 

The Showman

The other member of the original BC sparkling triumvirate is Summerhill, whose founder Stephen Cipes has, over the years, contributed more than his share of panache to an often staid industry.

When Cipes and winemaker Eric von Krosigk established Summerhill in 1991, the original idea was to produce nothing but sparkling wines — pyramid aged, of course. That turned out to be not as feasible as first thought. However, it didn’t prevent the installation of a giant champagne bottle and ornate glass sculpture that became an Okanagan fixture. In true Cipes style, it was erected without a permit. “Forgiveness is the best permission,” he quipped.

Von Krosigk left to make wine at LeComte — later Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (which made HMV sparkling Riesling) and now See Ya Later Ranch — but returned to Summerhill to put the sparkling program firmly on track, bringing the Cipes Brut blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay no shortage of recognition and international awards. Over the years, Cipes has gained a well-earned reputation for innovation, producing the first ice wine dosage sparkling wine, as well as rosé, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, a traditional cuvée and a series of vintage reserve wines.

Cipes Brut also gained considerable traction by being served at the Yeltsin–Clinton Vancouver summit in 1994, as well as at Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s inauguration.

A long-time proponent of organically farmed grapes, Summerhill just produced its first entirely certified organic sparkling wine, a complex process, says Von Krosigk, who’s never shied away from a challenge. It will be released in a couple of years.

When 2011 yielded a difficult vintage, a particularly slow-ripening block of Cabernet Franc in Osoyoos, usually destined for ice wine, nudged its way to 19.5 Brix. Von Krosigk elected to use the grapes to make sparkling. But, before picking was completed, a snowstorm hit and the baskets didn’t get to press until two days later. At the time, the temperature was plummeting and the crush pad was busy making ice wine with grapes from elsewhere.

“It was bizarre, pressing grapes for sparkling in one press and ice wine in the other,” says the winemaker. However, the wine that resulted — cleverly named Franc de Noir — turned out very well.

Summerhill Cipes Brut ($24.95)

Eric von Krosigk’s Riesling (70%), Pinot Blanc (20%) and Chardonnay (10%) blend produces appealing apple, citrus and pear notes on top, with lively bubbles and a creamy mousse, followed by firm, food-friendly acidity and a broad, creamy mouthfeel.

Summerhill Cipes Blanc de Franc 2011 ($35)

One of the more interesting bubbles to come out of the Okanagan is this rosé-style wine made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes. Has an elegant and structured drop, a pretty mousse and a crisp, dry finish. Pioneering winemaker Eric Von Krosigk made this wine in a year when it wasn’t possible to make ice wine.

Summerhill Cipes Blanc de Blanc ($35)

Slightly chalky-toned Cipes Blanc de Blanc 2010 (100% Chardonnay), with a creamy top, orchard fruit and good bubbles. Four years aged sur lie, this layered and complex wine yields apple and nutty notes with a zesty end. Tuck it away for a few years and it will reward with an even more creamy personality, says the winemaker.

Jay Drysdale, founder of Bella Wines.

The Next Generation

Arguably the most committed, and so far only exclusive BC sparkling producer is Bella Wines. Founder Jay Drysdale says “bubbles” became his “go-to” wine when he was a sommelier. He and his partner, Wendy Rose, established Bella in 2011.

“Whether we had chosen bubbles or another varietal, I would’ve kept it super focused,” says Drysdale, who adds: “Bubbles offers so many different expressions and variations; it’s become an amazing monster within itself.”

Bella has grown from a mere 250 cases in 2011 to the around 2,000 cases it will produce in 2017, representing over a dozen different labels. When the couple’s recently planted four-acre vineyard comes fully on stream, they should be able to produce a total of 3,500 cases. They also work with three or four contrasting Naramata vineyard sites producing Chardonnay and Gamay.

From Day One, Bella has doubled down on comparisons between different terroir, always allowing the fruit to speak for itself.

“I really love the single vineyard expressions and that’s where I find more organic, sustainable options,” says Drysdale.

This year, Bella made seven natural sparklers under its Ancestrale label, a reflection of “immense interest” in natural wines.

“We can’t keep them in stock,” says Drysdale. “They’re almost the first to go, as the winery always sells out — this year [2016] by the end of July. I find there’s an appreciation for knowing what’s not in the wine. It’s the same with our ‘regular’ sustainable wines.”

“Just as people are seeking out local or organic food products because they’re concerned about what they put in their body, it’s the same with wine. They like the authenticity and transparency that we offer.”

Summerland’s Okanagan Crush Pad, also a relative newcomer, has brought the same kind of forward-thinking evident in the rest of its portfolio to its sparkling program. In a brief five years, Haywire has succeeded in adding one more sparkler to the BC fold that’s become a wine-loving household name.

Alison Scholefield is Haywire’s sales ambassador — and she’s also the daughter of Christine Coletta and David Scholefield, formerly husband and wife and now collaborators in Haywire. “The Bub” was Alison’s nickname as a baby and it seemed a natural segue to christen Haywire’s inaugural traditional method sparkler with the same name. Made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, The Bub’s clean, fresh, forward style and simple packaging was an instant hit, so much so that a Pink Bub, also bottle fermented, followed.

More recently, Haywire-dedicated sparkling winemaker Jordan Kubek and winemaker Matt Dumayne have embarked on a natural wine program under the Narrative label, still using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but with a secondary fermentation in custom Charmat tanks. “XC” (the Roman numeral for 90) sees 90 days of lees contact, while the Narrative Ancient Method is an entirely non-interventionist sparkling Chardonnay. Haywire is bulllish on the future of bubble and has now embarked on a reserve program.

Okanagan Crush Pad Narrative Ancient Method 2013 ($40)

From near Black Sage, unfined and unfiltered, a bone-dry expression of Okanagan Chardonnay, creamy mousse and fine bubbles, with citrus and bready notes on top, before a yeasty, broad and well-textured creamy palate with citrus plus some sage and earthy notes and a crisp end.

Fitz Brut 2012 ($32.50)

The inaugural Brut from this new venture by one of the Okanagan’s pioneering wine families combines Pinot Noir (69%) and Chardonnay (31%) in a traditional method with 36 months on lees, as well as time in neutral oak. Orchard, citrus and stone fruits on top, fine bubbles and a well-balanced, creamy palate with some flinty hints and a lengthy, clean finish.

Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc ($40)

Citrus, pear and biscuit notes on top with a fine, persistent mousse and endless stream. Great fruit–acid balance with tremendous length, green apple with leesy notes, good fruit expression and excellent varietal character. Crown cap.

JoieFarm Plein de Vie Sparkling Rosé 2015 ($20)

Charmat method Pinot Meunier (40%), Chardonnay (40%), Pinot Noir (20%) Prosecco-style sparkling yields medium salmon rose in the glass, with strawberry and earthy notes, crisp acidity and citrus on the palate with some watermelon hints to close.

 

 
Winemaker Bailey Williamson (right) with Blue Grouse Estates proprietor, Paul Brunner.

The Island Wines

The surge of bubbles is by no means restricted to the Okanagan. On Vancouver Island, a growing cadre of sparklers is testament to the fact that the Island’s more temperate climate and even variable vintages may well be beneficial. Many of the more significant players, from Venturi Schulz and Averill Creek to Unsworth and Blue Grouse are increasingly involved in sparkling wines.

Stalwart Vigneti Zanatta (opened in 1992) pioneered sparkling wine on the island and has made traditional method wines for years, including the Glenora Fantasia Brut (100 percent Cayuga) and a Brut tradizionale (100 percent Pinot Noir).

Venturi Schulz, also a trailblazer, was the first to employ a crown cap closure — and even hung a cork around the bottle neck to assuage the feelings of those who felt they were missing something.

Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Williamson made his first sparkler at Road 13, a perennially award-winning Chenin Blanc.

“I like the process — that you have a couple of times in the production of the wine when you can influence its flavour profile. Also that you don’t need to have any complicated equipment. Because all you do is put the crown cap back on it.”

Williamson notes that when the extra 7.5 acres planted this year come to fruition, the winery may well have to become more mechanized in its bubble production.

“I figure I touch the bottle almost 100 times before it reaches the customer,” he suggests. “It’s amazing how much time and effort goes into it. In some ways, it’s very much a labour of love.”

Sparkling wine, says Williamson, “is infinitely suitable for our region … When I first came here, out of every 10 years, you probably got three good vintages where you could make good wine. It seems to have changed now to the point that we get three that are not so good in 10 years.”

Williamson thinks Island wines can “be the net benefactor” of climate change. “In those bad years, I will make all sparkling. And it will probably be the disgorging date that goes on the bottle rather than the vintage.”

While several Island wineries have embraced Charmat to make their wines (there’s even an Island sparkling proprietary name, “Charme de l’Isle”), Williamson remains committed to traditional method.

He understands the appeal that Charmat holds, especially in getting the wine to market more quickly. However, he says: “I like the [method] biscuit and leesy character.”

Williamson says it’s exciting to be part of the journey. But he also acknowledges, “It takes time.”

“Champagne didn’t just arrive on the scene. It took them a few hundred years to work on the process to figure it out and get their blends down.

“That’s what’s exciting for me. There’s a lot of room to experiment.”

One more sign that BC bubble’s time has come is the pioneering Fitzpatrick family having transformed their Greata Ranch property into what they promise will be a premium sparkling wine house. On a west side bench overlooking Lake Okanagan, Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards loses its afternoon sun considerably earlier than elsewhere, notes Ross Fitzpatrick. All the more reason to devote most of the production to bubble, he suggests.

In a region not short on impressive panoramas, the new winery and casual but polished bistro and reception centre boasts breathtaking views up and down the lake. No doubt this spectacular site will be a magnet for weddings and other events. And initial sips of “Fitz,” the inaugural Brut, suggests the wine is well deserving of the views.

Blue Grouse Paula Sparkling, Vancouver Island ($25)

Winemaker Bailey Williamson makes good use of Island-grown Germanic varieties to come up with a good example of what could be taking place on Vancouver Island on a broader scale. Traditional method, mainly Ortega (37%) and Pinot Gris (38%) with Müller-Thurgau (10%) and Oliver-sourced Pinot Blanc (5%). Aromas of brioche and earthy notes, followed by an apple-toned palate with a hint of citrus to close.

Unsworth Charme de l’Isle 2014, Vancouver Island ($23)

One of a growing number of Vancouver Island wineries who’ve adopted this proprietary name, this Prosecco-styled Charmat sparkler sports a good mousse with bright orchard notes, green apple and zest, with a flinty touch.

40 Knots Spindrift Brut 2012, Vancouver Island ($37)

Estate grown on a windswept site near Comox overlooking the Salish Sea, this traditional method blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay spent 4 years sur lie. A fine stream of bubbles with definite brioche and melon aromas before a well-defined palate with distinct Pinot notes and creamy texture and a lengthy, dry end.

Salt Spring Vineyards Karma, Salt Spring Island ($32)

This sparkling is unique, being the only sparkling wine produced on the Southern Gulf Islands. Traditional method, made with all estate-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, pale gold with a fine stream, yeasty toasty notes on top before a palate of orchard fruits wrapped in a firm texture with a crisp, clean finish.