Pinot Noir is the bad boy of the BC wine scene
Is Pinot Noir getting a bad rap? If not, then how come people the world over still refer to it as the “heartbreak grape”? It’s a reflection of the belief that, even in a good vintage, and for the most seasoned of vintners, Pinot can pose significant challenges. But that may not be so much the case in BC, where Pinot Noir has been flying under the radar for some time now.
If the variety truly is as soul crushing as its reputation suggests, then how come there aren’t a whole bunch of broken-hearted BC winemakers lying around lamenting their failures? If anything, the opposite is true.
All around BC, Pinot appears to be coming into its own — even if it’s still somewhat overshadowed by Syrah. Indeed, you could be excused for thinking it’s the latter that has emerged as BC’s red grape of choice. Following a string of good vintages, the Rhône variety has rightly gained plenty of attention, scooping up medals like nobody’s business.
But the numbers speak for themselves.
Syrah, which is actually planted mainly in the South Okanagan, on Skaha Bluffs and the Naramata Bench, actually accounts for only 4.1 percent of the province’s production and ranks seventh in production (2015). By comparison, Pinot Noir continues to make gains, especially in areas once considered outliers or “borderline ripening” wine regions. In fact, it now accounts for 7.83 percent of the province’s total production and ranks fourth overall, after Merlot, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
As overall plantings in BC have increased dramatically in the last few years, Pinot Noir has more than kept pace, recently eclipsing Cabernet Sauvignon. Yields have almost doubled in five years, which seems to have come about for a number of reasons.
In the last two decades, a changing climate has had many implications. For instance, plantings of Pinot Noir in the south Okanagan, once quite common, are now a rarity. Only a few remain, as wineries explore with other more heat-tolerant varieties — such as Syrah. Elsewhere, however, the reverse is true.
There are also less tangible reasons as to why Pinot Noir is on the rise. As the BC industry matures, and winemakers seek out a more sophisticated customer, there’s a need to fill a niche that maybe wasn’t there before, in a post-Parker world that heralds a return to elegance and subtlety long overlooked. Plus, as BC’s food and wine culture matures, Pinot Noir is emerging as the more flexible red that works with everything from wild salmon to mushrooms, duck and more, as well as many local cheeses.
In any case, the number of BC wineries choosing to concentrate on Pinot is steadily growing, from a short list including the likes of pioneering Blue Mountain (the first BC winery to focus on Pinot Noir), Cedar Creek and Quails’ Gate, to well over a dozen very Pinot-driven purveyors, such as Spierhead, Meyer, Tantalus, Howling Bluff and more.
What’s also changed is that BC Pinot Noir is no longer an “also ran” varietal but has emerged as a serious, terroir-driven contender that can hold its own beside wines from Pinot-centric regions around the world.
Fuelling that image is the realization that Pinot Noir offers a more precise expression of the terroir than most other varieties. What this means is that Pinot is very much part of the movement that’s drilling down which grapes do best in specific pockets of the Okanagan and elsewhere.
Moreover, a by-product of the warming climate, regions once considered inhospitable to red vinifera have stepped forward. On Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, in particular, Pinot Noir has become increasingly successful, with some formidable proponents, such as Averill Creek owner Andy Johnston.
Johnston has been leading the Pinot charge on the Island for well over a decade now. He was among the first to grasp the true potential for the variety, convinced early on that, handled properly, Pinot could produce a wine comparable on a world scale.
Averill Creek also helped sow the seed for others. At nearby Unsworth Vineyards, which was established less than a decade ago, Pinot Noir is emerging as the flagship wine. In fact, Unsworth’s 2014 Pinot Noir was selected as this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships Gold Medal Plates Mystery Wine. Another Island winery making a name for itself, Blue Grouse Estate Winery, is also highly committed to its program, now producing a single-vineyard Cowichan Valley Pinot under its Quill label, as well as a fuller bodied, more firmly oaked, estate-grown wine.
Other outliers beyond the Okanagan now coming on stream include Fort Berens in Lillooet, 250 km northeast of Vancouver, and Baillie-Grohman, in the Creston Valley. While by no means as Pinot focused, both of these producers have shown they have no problem in growing satisfactory Pinot Noir, with plenty of potential.
The drive for perfection
Given that BC at large, and the Okanagan in particular, are such young growing regions, most people when they jump into winemaking don’t have their minds set on making Pinot Noir, says Howling Bluff’s Luke Smith.
It may not have been his original intention but the Naramata Bench winery owner is among a handful of winemakers taking Pinot to the next level. His wines consistently win medals at important competitions, including no fewer than four notoriously challenging BC Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in BC Wine, which recognize only a dozen out of some 400 entries each year.
Smith who, along with his son Daniel, turned a former peach and experimental apple orchard into an award-winning vineyard, believes some of the Pinots being grown around him are already “world class.”
He admits it’s purely subjective but bases his opinion on comments made by visitors to his wine shop from all over the world, whom he always asks what they think. He’s noticed a real change in the typical tasting room visitor compared to five or seven years ago.
“Then, the average person was learning about wine and would say ‘what have you got?’ Those people still come. But now, a significant number will say, specifically, ‘I’ve heard about your Pinot Noir.’”
He says many travel from south to north, starting in Russian River, through Willamette and ending up in the Okanagan, tasting Pinot all the way.
While he’s happy to offer accolades for peers elsewhere — citing more northern 50th Parallel as an example — he feels the Naramata Bench, in particular, offers a unique series of varied terroirs.
Smith feels that the Naramata Bench is unique in that there are three observable differences. “All you have to do is drive a convertible [in the] early evening in late summer along Naramata Road. What you’ll notice is significant temperature variations. What you feel is the cold air being channelled down the chutes and streams. It’s important, because it shows the presence of cooler air so beneficial to Pinot Noir,” says Smith.
“On average, everything on the east side of Naramata Road was never underwater. The soil is glacial till, gravel boulders, rocks and so on. By comparison, everything on the west side is ‘stardust’ from millions of years ago, where it hit Okanagan Lake and created hundreds of feet of silt. Literally, in a space of just 15 metres, you get wildly diverging soil types. Add to that where these cuts are, where a stream has occurred. Over time, as it carved its way through, it brought materials down from the east side of the road to the west.”
For Howling Bluff, says Smith, that results in three distinct terroirs: “very mixed material, rocks of all sizes, from what used to be the bottom of Three Mile Creek; 10 metres away, nothing but silt; and then, on the other side of the road, just rock, gravel and dirt.”
“All that, combined with the microclimates caused by the cuts, as well as the warming effect of the lake in winter, and cooling in the summer, results in a narrow band that’s ideal for Pinot Noir,” he suggests.
A plethora of Pinots
No better proof exists of Pinot Noir’s newfound popularity than the annual BC Pinot Noir Experience, which attracts more than 300 enthusiasts to Kaleden’s Linden Gardens. The 2017 edition featured 34 producers grouped among the rose bushes and leafy walks, along with canapés from prominent chefs, a break-out session on clones and a wrap-up live band and dancing. On hand to offer his comments on was Richard Hemming MW, who writes for jancisrobinson.com, as well as many others. (At the inaugural BC Pinot Noir Experience in 2015, keynote speaker Steven Spurrier suggested BC’s potential might one day rival Burgundy.)
As fully intended, the event is anything but a typical, formal wine tasting. Rather it’s more a down-home celebration of the variety, with a chance for everyone to connect with the people behind the wines. And it’s all and only about Pinot, with a range of styles and vintages poured from across the province.
Now in its third year, the festival was the brainchild of Meyer Family Vineyards winemaker Chris Carlson, who brought it to fruition with JAK Meyer and Luke Smith. Another key organizer, Tantalus winemaker David Paterson, makes no bones about his love for the variety.
“We believe that Pinot Noir is the number one red grape in the Okanagan,” says Paterson, who also happily embraces the opportunity that BC enjoys as a still emerging region.
“I think one of the best things about BC Pinot right now… is that everyone is only now learning their terroir. Every year it seems to get better. Most of the best sites are only 10 to 15 years old.”
Paterson suggests the more northern, granite-based soils (such as at 50th Parallel) “yield ethereal, lifted wines.” Further south, the more full-bodied wines reflect their more dense, silty soils. He reckons the variation in terroirs “is what makes BC Pinot special” — and reminds us that globetrotting viticulturist and soils specialist Pedro Parra likes to compliment the Okanagan for its “glacial barf”!
In the absence, so far, of an Okanagan flagship grape, says JAK Meyer, “We feel that Pinot Noir is one of the few that should be a signature varietal — and that it’s starting to emerge that way.”
Howling Bluff’s Luke Smith is even more bullish. He says, “We’re maybe just a vintage away from the world taking notice of BC Pinot Noir.”
And as for that “heartbreak grape” thing? Not exactly true, says Smith.
“It’s more like the ‘hard-work grape,’” he says. “Because not once — from spring, through bud-break, harvest, crush from barrel to bottle — can you turn your back on it. While every other variety just behaves, the instant you finish whatever you’re doing, Pinot Noir does not. The heartbreak happens if — at any one of those stages — you don’t keep your eye on it.”
Averill Creek Pinot Noir 2014, Cowichan Valley ($27)
From higher elevation, 200 m, south-facing vineyards, a mix of glacial sand and gravel. Forward dark cherry, floral, perfume and leather hints precede a well-balanced cherry and plum palate wrapped in silky tannins, with some spice and savoury notes before a smooth finish.
Baillie-Grohman Pinot Noir Estate 2014, Creston Valley ($25)
From a high-elevation site at 650 m by Kootenay Lake. Single vineyard, sustainably grown and handpicked and aged in French Oak (15% new) for 12 months. Vibrant wild berry and floral notes with spicy hints before a well-textured plate with black fruit, savoury, mushroom and plum notes through an elegant finish.
Cedar Creek Platinum Block 4 Pinot Noir 2014, Kelowna Mission ($54)
From a select block on the east side of Okanagan Lake, using 25% whole clusters. A powerful expression of the variety yields intense dark fruit and floral notes on the nose followed by a robust and well-structured palate with black cherry, plum and a mineral hint wrapped in firm but well integrated tannins through a smooth finish.
Howling Bluff Summa Quies Pinot Noir 2014, Naramata Bench ($35)
From the oldest planting and consisting mainly of silty deposits. Vibrant, lifted plum and red berry notes, followed by elegant layers of cherry and strawberry on a light to medium palate with some earthy undertones and well-integrated tannins.
La Frenz Desperation Hill Pinot Noir 2015, Naramata Bench ($30)
From a steep, west-facing slope with sandy loam and clay soils, high above the lake at 450 m. Five clones, hand-harvested and fermented separately. This elegant and delicate wine has a red colour especially deep for the variety. Lifted notes of black fruit with earthy tones precede a plush palate with well-integrated tannins, vanilla and dark cherry alongside a pleasing savoury edge.
Laughing Stock Pinot Noir 2014, Naramata Bench ($32)
From heavier, silty soils on a high Naramata bluff. Handpicked, destemmed and whole-berry fermented, then aged 16 months in a mix of new and used French oak. Forward notes of ripe cherry and strawberry with earthy undertones on a well-rounded, supple palate with excellent balance and structure.
Maverick Estate Pinot Noir 2014, Golden Mile Bench, Oliver ($29)
From one of the valley’s southernmost Pinot plantings, south of Oliver, on an east-facing slope. Hand-harvested and whole-bunch fermented in a large wooden vat, then aged in mainly used French oak. Forward cherry and raspberry notes with layers of red and black fruit and good acidity, on a gently spicy palate with lingering mineral and spice in the close.
Meyer Family Vineyards McLean Creek Pinot Noir 2015, Okanagan Falls ($40)
From the steep, south-facing home vineyard, established in 1994, on alluvial and glacial deposits, gravel and sandy loam. Black cherry and violet up front with some earthy undertones before a well-structured balance of fruit and acidity. Medium-bodied with expressive fruit flavours, some forest-floor notes, well-integrated tannins and a pleasing savoury edge through a firm finish.
Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir Clone 828 2014, West Kelowna ($60)
From above the west side of Okanagan Lake, this clone is usually blended but bottled alone in exceptional vintages such as this one. Aged in French oak for 10 months. Lifted strawberry and red berry notes precede a well-balanced palate shaped by elegant acidity, with cherry, spice and earthy notes for a pure expression of the variety — which winemaker Nikki Callaway dubs her “Audrey Hepburn” Pinot.
Stag’s Hollow Renaissance Pinot Noir 2011, Okanagan Falls ($40)
Cherry, earthy mushroom blend of Dijon clones that uses entirely estate-grown fruit aged 15 months in 100% 2nd fill French oak barrels. From a challenging vintage, now benefitting from a few years in the bottle and showing lifted dark cherry, earthy and spice notes with fine tannins and still fresh fruit.
Summerhill Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Chandra Vineyard, Oliver ($35)
100% organic. Crushed dark berries on the nose with hints of strawberry, plum and raisin before a complex and layered palate of plum and cedar notes underpinned by earthy and savoury elements, with hints of clove and five spice, black fruit and spice supported by firm tannins through the close.
Tantalus Pinot Noir 2014, East Kelowna Bench ($28)
From glacial, silty soils over gravel, aged 11 months in new and used French oak. Up front herb, spice and black fruit, followed by a perfectly balanced palate of floral, cherry and raspberry wrapped in a mineral streak, with elegant mouthfeel, well integrated, structured tannins and a lingering, gently stony finish. “A classic BC Pinot Noir vintage. If you couldn’t make a good Pinot in that year, you probably shouldn’t have,” says winemaker David Paterson.
Tightrope Pinot Noir 2015, Naramata Bench ($30)
Grown on a less heated, north-facing slope, on silt clay soils. Vibrant black fruit and floral perfume notes invite before a dark-fruited palate emphasized by dark cherry and cassis, with spice, herb and mocha notes, supported by approachable, silky tannins.
Unsworth Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015, Cowichan Valley ($27)
From clay and gravel soils over an alluvial base and aged 15 months in French oak. Forward red berries with layers of raspberry, cherry, vanilla and spice notes. Medium-bodied, with juicy acidity, earthy undertones and an elegant mouthfeel through a gently spicy close.