June 28th, 2018/ BY Tim Pawsey

Syrah is winning the BC Red Wine Sweepstakes

It’s a well-known fact that prior to the great “pull-out” of the late 1980s there wasn’t much of anything worth drinking in the way of red wine coming out of the Okanagan. With the exception of a few hybrids such as Chancellor (even then made by former Calona Vineyards veteran winemaker Howard Soon), most people would rather have foregone wine entirely than drink a glass of BC red wine.

Happily, in hardly more than a generation, all that has changed. BC’s winemakers have developed what was unthinkable at the time: the ability to produce red wines that compete with any from around the world.

The performance of Syrah in particular has turned more than a few heads. In the inaugural 2015 Judgment of BC (in which BC wines were tasted blind beside comparable international bottles), Syrah scooped three out of the five top spots. The result prompted visiting international judge and critic Steven Spurrier to say that BC Syrah is “correctly French in name and style” and “attracting justified attention.”

The BC Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Wine (now merged with the BC Wine Awards) used to be one of the more unique competitions held anywhere in the world. Attracting upwards of some 400 entries, it bestowed only — at most — a dozen awards annually. In other words, a wine’s odds of winning were about 34 to 1. Over the years, the LG’s Awards became not only one of the most prestigious contests of its kind but also a barometer by which the progress of the province’s different varieties might be judged. There was no predetermined distribution of awards by wine style or colour. Wines were judged on their own merits and, relevant to this discussion, varieties vied with each other for attention.

Those early Lieutenant Governor’s contests witnessed a fairly even split between the awarding of Bordeaux varieties and Meritage blends, along with a smattering of still-neophyte Syrahs. However, as Syrah plantings increased and the grapes became more available, Rhône-inspired reds have eclipsed their Bordeaux cousins in more recent judgings, at the rate of about two to one, suggesting that something big was afoot.

In short, Syrah has eclipsed Cabernet and Merlot in BC — possibly with good reason. But how come?
Painted Rock John Skinner
Painted Rock's John Skinner

Small Beginnings

The first hint that Syrah might be viable happened in 1991, when pioneers Alex and Kathleen Nichol made an impressive wine from their small Naramata Bench vineyard, demonstrating that you could indeed grow good Syrah in BC. As with most things viticultural, it was a case of location, location, location — in this case a hot spot at the foot of a steep hill.

After a relatively slow beginning, more plantings of Syrah began to take hold. However, it was an uphill struggle, as Cabernet Sauvignon still seemed to represent the holy grail for most — regardless of the myriad challenges it presented.

In 2004, Okanagan Syrah acreage stood at a scant 191 acres. It’s now the fifth most-planted red in the province, with some 530 acres planted and accounts for about 5 percent of the total red grape production. Syrah’s acreage is similar to increasingly popular Cabernet Franc, and looks to be gaining ground on Cabernet Sauvignon. (Some of that growth can be credited consumers embracing Australian Shiraz, often credited for turning a whole generation on to wine.)

For the most part, BC Syrah is made predominantly as a stand-alone variety, although increasingly, winemakers are co-fermenting with small amounts of Viognier, emulating Côte-Rôtie.

While several producers make single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety’s principal raison d’être is as a component of Meritage. Indeed, BC Meritage is highly dependent on the capricious nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. Even in a “good” year, it can still be challenging to fully ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. By comparison, Syrah in a prime site can generally be relied upon to yield solid if not excellent results, regardless of vintage.



The Vine Whisperer

When it comes to the story of how big reds came into their own in the South Okanagan, there’s nobody more central than veteran and now retired grape-growing guru Richard (Dick) Cleave.

If you’ve ever tasted a BC red that impressed you (or even one that came close), chances are that Cleave had a hand in it somewhere along the line.

In 1991, he was the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Okanagan Valley. At the time, it caused quite a stir but also motivated others, such as Harry McWatters, to plant larger parcels.

“The powers that be told us we’d go broke; that I should be planting Pinot Noir,” chuckles Cleave, who said he was pondering his future just after “the big pullout.”

“I went and saw my accountant … and he said “Grow grapes. You’re good at it …”

“So, that’s what I did, and I’m eternally grateful to him for it!”

Cleave planted his Phoenix Vineyard, now owned by Black Hills/Peller Estates. As it turned out, the Pinot actually didn’t do so well — but the Cabernet proved everyone wrong.

Cleave and his company, R & R Vineyard Management, went on to be the most respected consultants and managers in the Okanagan Valley, eventually planting some several thousand acres for major players ranging from Burrowing Owl to Sumac Ridge to Mission Hill, and many more.

When asked about what’s up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cleave gets right to the point.

“I can tell you the number one problem is leafroll type 3. It’s a virus and all those original plantings have it badly.”

Cleave explains that most of the vines came from France and were propagated with wood from the French rootstock (SO4) in Ontario. He adds, “We did all those big plantings with those kinds of vines.”

The virus, he says, causes a mix of marginal or under-ripe fruit, even in a so-called good year. “The leaves turn a reddish-purple colour when they are in their prime sugar-producing phase and they’re absolutely useless because they don’t synthesize. You end up with half green seeds and basically green flavours,” says the veteran grower.

And there is no cure. “They have to be pulled out and replaced. It’s a lot of acreage. Everybody knows it, but it has to be done.” The good news is that the problem will be solved over the next few years, as the pull-out of infected vines and replanting [with more suitable vines] is already well under way, says Cleave.

Bartier Bros. Syrah 2015 ($26)

From a west-facing slope below Black Sage Road, with dense loam over limestone and granite. Lifted notes of red and black fruit precede a well-structured, mouth-filling, well-balanced palate of pepper and mineral hints and well-integrated tannins through a lengthy close.

Maverick Estate Rubeus 2015 ($25)

From the east side of the valley south of Oliver. Co-fermented blend of 50% Syrah, 35% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc yields upfront aromas of anise, spice and cranberry before a luscious palate of plum and cassis supported by firm tannins with a lengthy finish.

Vanessa Vineyard Meritage 2013 ($45)

From a hot, extremely stony, south-west-facing rocky slope in the Similkameen Valley. A blend of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc and 24% Merlot. Aromas of floral and herbal notes with toasty undertones before a luscious, full-bodied and well-structured palate with vanilla, mocha and black fruit before a long close.

Vanessa Vineyard Right Bank 2014 ($45)

A blend of 77% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon delivers hints of wild red berries before a juicy, well-structured and complex palate of spice, raspberry and blackberry with a distinct mineral streak and excellent tension, layered, smoky and lengthy.


Bartier Bros Winemakers
Michael Bartier (left) and brother, Don, from Okanagan's Bartier Bros.

A question of yields

However, the bigger issue for Cabernet, as it has been all along, is clonal selection and rootstock. Cleave recalls that, at the time of the first red Bordeaux vinifera plantings in the South Okanagan, nobody, including “the majors,” was prepared to go to the time and expense to properly trial and experiment under what conditions the varieties would perform best.

When, in 1996, Cleave planted his now much celebrated Phantom Creek vineyard (which he sold to the Bai family last year), he embarked upon a series of thorough trials — which eventually turned the vineyard into the country’s most awarded. Phantom Creek is renowned for producing a series of stellar competition winners for Sandhill Small Lots. It didn’t happen by chance.

“That vineyard has very light style, so I decided to plant the most restrictive [slower-growing] rootstock I could find,” he explains. “I got some pretty big Cabs out of there. But I was also cut down to three pounds per plant,” he says. “If you go much over three pounds, the quality of fruit suffers accordingly. The cropping levels are really critical. If you go up to four or five pounds per vine, you’re out of the running as far as high-end wines are concerned.”

(Cleave says he works in pounds per vine due to the variation in the valley of plants per acre.)

The same applies to Cabernet Franc, which is very similar, he says but adds: “Although, I think, done well, we can grow some of the best Cabernet Franc in the world.”

The thinking on yields and quality have changed considerably since those early days, says Cleave. “The theory was that you needed a big engine. That means having a fair-sized canopy to mature the fruit — which has since been proven completely wrong.”

“I think now that everyone knows what the problem is you’ll see a drastic improvement in those Bordeaux varieties. They’re late varieties. Cabernet is very late. Merlot is more mid-season, so you can get away with. We can grow great Merlots in some places. But with Cabernet you can’t do it.

The ripening issue is further complicated by the fact that vines shut down at around 33 to 34 Celsius — a common occurrence at the height of a South Okanagan summer. Even in a hotter summer, without an extended warm spell prior to harvest, fully ripening Cabernet can still be a challenge.

Perseus Invictus 2013 ($42)

A blend of 42% Cabernet Franc, 38% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Malbec sourced from various sites in the south Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. Aromas of vibrant black fruit and earthy notes lead to a mouth-filling palate of anise and damson with mocha hints and approachable tannins through a long finish.

Black Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($100)

From Black Sage Bench, the inaugural single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, at a premium level, yields upfront red and black fruit. Earthy hints and pencil shavings precede a firm, well-balanced palate led by ripe blackberry and cassis, underpinned by approachable tannins. Spicy, leathery and peppery notes through a plush and rounded palate to the spicy close.

CC Jentsch Syrah 2014 ($30)

Golden Mile Bench and 24% Black Sage fruit co-fermented with 9% Viognier. Black fruit and pepper on the nose, followed by a luscious but well-balanced, well-textured palate of black fruit and spicy notes. Approachable tannins are wrapped in good acidity and definite oak before a lengthy finish.

Syrah: a short-term affair?

Nonetheless, for many, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the Meritage’s critical component. Former Sandhill and Calona head winemaker Howard Soon, who now makes wine and heads up viticulture at the Similkameen’s Vanessa Vineyards, says Syrah may be “more showy” but it doesn’t deliver the complexity and interest that Cabernet brings to a blend.

“It’s like a short-term relationship, gratifying to begin with but you get tired of it after a while,” he jokes.

Soon feels that the new program at Vanessa, which will see more time both in barrel and in bottle, will produce significant results for the winery’s Meritage blend.

Also, suggests Soon, when you taste Syrah beside a Bordeaux blend in competition, there’s a different expectation. The Bordeaux needs more time to open up to fully reveal its subtleties and the various elements of the blend.

“I think the gloss has fallen off Syrah,” he says.

Not so for winemaker Michael Bartier of Bartier Bros., who’s a solid fan. He says there are a lot of good sites in the Okanagan for Syrah. (One would be Painted Rock’s Skaha Bluffs vineyard, which seems to have no problem ripening either Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.)

“The vine adjusts to its surroundings as well as what style it produces. The same genetic material produces very different wines in the Northern Rhône compared to the Barossa Valley,” he points out.

“I think Syrah in the South Okanagan Valley has a distinct character. It’s delicious; and can be achieved quite easily — whether you’re above or below Black Sage Road. There’s a minerality both from the sand and the rocks.,” he says.

However, hang time is critical. “The trick is not to let it hang too long, otherwise you lose that sense of where it came from. I can’t count how many times I’ve regretted letting the grapes hang too long. Yet I can’t think of a single time where I’ve regretted picking too early. You get much better character if you’re picking on the early side as opposed to later,” he says.

Overall, Bartier feels it’s too hot in the parts of South Okanagan for Cabernet Sauvignon. He points to cooler Coonawarra and Bordeaux, which have maritime climates, as ideal Cabernet regions.


Black Hills Winery

The pragmatist

Just south of Oliver, Maverick Estate winemaker Bertus Albertyn, who hails from the Cape, and was at one time winemaker at Burrowing Owl, has a foot in both camps. “I’m fond of Syrah. It has a wide range … all the way from a cool-climate style on some of the valley’s cooler sites through to the really ripe Australian style. Both in their own way can be high quality.”

Maverick is one of a handful of Okanagan wineries that blends both Cabernet and Syrah (in their flagship Rubeus red blend). There’s a good reason for that, says the winemaker, who finds Syrah in his location and climate is just easier to work with — and more versatile.

He uses between 10 to 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in his blend. “Originally we had a higher percentage of Cabernet but we brought it down just because the tannins make it really tough to work with in the cooler years.” The site is on the west side of the valley and doesn’t get the afternoon sun experienced by Black Sage, which has a better chance of ripening.

Albertyn adds: “The only negative about Syrah is that it’s not tannic enough — it’s too soft. That’s why I add the Cabernet; it seems to me that combination is what I really like.” The Maverick Cab is a newer clone (169) that doesn’t have a leafroll issue, he says.

“I do like the backbone [from Cabernet] but the problem is that often it’s too tannic. And in those seasons where you can get it ripe, you have to let it hang for so long that, by the time it softens up, it’s too alcoholic. So you lose out in other ways.”

Albertyn feels that, as time goes on, Syrah’s presence in the Okanagan will become even stronger. And as for the quintessential red blend?

It’s still early days, he suggests, but adds: “I honestly feel that the Syrah/Cabernet combination will be the best,” he says.

We’ll give Richard Cleave the last word:

“I think you’ll see some great improvements — and, of course, winemaking techniques in the valley have substantially changed. There’s a lot of expertise from different countries — and different opinions. But I think once we get the combination of great grapes with great winemakers, this place is going to go far … The best is still to come.”

Which suggests, perhaps, that at the end of the day, any Syrah versus Cabernet discussion is somewhat academic in the first place.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2015 ($45)

From sites in Naramata and Osoyoos, a blend of 45% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot yields upfront red and black fruit. Some earthy hints before a medium- to full-bodied palate buoyed by well-integrated tannins and juicy acidity through a lengthy end.

Laughing Stock Syrah 2013 ($34)

Syrah from estate-owned Osoyoos vineyard plus 4% Viognier. Côte-Rôtie-inspired blend yields deep, inky indigo in the glass with aromas of cassis and black cherry followed by a palate of plush and plummy intense blue fruit. Leathery, peppery, meaty edge, assertive mouthfeel and viscose with a definite black pepper finish.

Painted Rock Red Icon 2015 ($48)

Estate-grown Skaha Bench fruit, this flagship blend of 45% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon yields forward black fruit and spice aromas before a seamless, elegant palate defined by structure and power. Flavours of blackberry, cassis and plum are layered and complex, emphasized by freshness and good acidity, underpinned by well-integrated tannins and measured French oak through a lengthy, peppery finish.

Painted Rock Syrah 2015 ($40)

Estate-grown Skaha Bench fruit. Inviting aromas of seductive red and black fruit, pepper notes and some meaty hints precede a mouth-filling palate of mulberry, black currant and vanilla. Plush but not overt, with a deliberate, structured core and firm but approachable tannins. Well-managed French oak precedes a peppery and persistent close.



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