January 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

B.C. Growers Explore New Grape Varieties

Try Zinfandel, Malbec, Barbera in cool climate

by Peter Mitham
B.C. Growers Explore New Grape Varieties
PHOTO: Brian Sprout

  • Warm-climate reds help British Columbia wineries diversify.
  • Selection balances environmental and market considerations.
  • A lack of tradition surrounding the grapes leaves room for experimentation.
  • Cool-climate setting facilitates gradual, balanced maturation of the fruit.

A mix of ambition and audacity is prompting wineries in British Columbia's arid Okanagan Valley to experiment with red grape varieties more often seen in warmer climes.

Building on the southern Okanagan's reputation for premium red wine production, wineries such as Inniskillin Okanagan and Sandhill are adding a touch of the exotic with little-grown varieties such as Zinfandel, Malbec and Barbera. In a region where Merlot is the single biggest red variety in production, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, the smaller varieties aren't about to shift the balance of production. But they are demonstrating what can be done in a cool-climate region with proper vineyard management and attention to the winemaking process.

B.C. Growers Explore New Grape Varieties
Outside the mainstream

Stepping away from mainstream varieties at Inniskillin Okanagan (above) was the idea of winemaker Sandor Mayer, who was excited by the fact that the Okanagan enjoys none of the restrictions growers in many parts of Europe face regarding which varieties they may grow. The freedom was an opportunity Mayer was eager to exploit.

In the mid-1990s, Mayer suggested planting varieties that could diversify Inniskillin's portfolio and deliver locally grown versions of wines traditionally grown elsewhere.

"This valley is so versatile in terms of climate and soil and type, we decided here in our winery that we'd like to be a kind of pioneer and try some really good quality varieties that have never been grown in the Okanagan before," Mayer says.

Discussions with Inniskillin's brand manager led to the selection of several varieties deemed to have good potential in the climate of the southern Okanagan, as well as an appeal to consumers. Then part of rising star Vincor International, acquired by Constellation Brands in 2006, Inniskillin eventually planted enough vines to yield approximately 5,000 cases for its Discovery series of wines. The varieties, both red and white, account for just over one-tenth of Inniskillin's annual production of about 45,000 cases.

B.C. Growers Explore New Grape Varieties
Inniskillin's new Discovery Vineyard was prepped and planted in spring of 2006.
PHOTO: Troy Osborne
Zinfandel was the first variety to go in, finding a home in the Bear Cub vineyard Inniskillin was developing on the Black Sage Road south of Oliver. Other varieties followed as new vineyard locations were developed, including Malbec and Pinotage. Tempranillo vines were grafted on old Gewürztraminer vines at the home winery in Oliver.

When the first harvest of Zinfandel came off the vines in early October 2002, the results were better than expected. While the variety typically requires a long season, the 6-acre planting delivered exceptional fruit.

"The grapes loved the place we planted," Mayer says. "We were so surprised and happy to see the maturity, and the quality was high."

The grapes yielded a wine that wasn't a great deal different from those in California, save that it possessed a richer fruit character that Mayer attributes to it being grown in a cooler climate.

"It's still the Pacific region," Mayer says. "But it is different because we're farther north."

Alternative text
"The grapes loved the place we planted. We were so surprised and happy to see the maturity, and the quality was high."
--Sandor Mayer
The wine's quality was recognized when judges at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles awarded the 2003 vintage a Great Gold, an honor recognizing the top wines entered in the competition.

By far the most prestigious award the Discovery series wines have yet received, the award was also an acknowledgement that the varieties didn't have to toe the line established in regions where the varietals are more familiar.

Indeed, Mayer says the goal wasn't to replicate what other regions did, but to allow the various varieties to express themselves in the B.C. context. Pinotage is a case in point, given the differences that exist between the Okanagan and South Africa, with which the grape is most closely associated.

"That particular wine is very different here in the Okanagan. But also, I think the wine is so clean (and) shows the pure varietal character," he says.

A tasting of the 2006 Pinotage reveals a lighter wine than many of its counterparts from South Africa, but with a hint of the distinctive spiciness showing through the plum notes of its Pinot Noir parent.

Alternative text
"We don't want to have a big oak statement here. We want to show the good honest taste of Barbera and Sangiovese."
--Howard Soon
Ciao, Italians

Howard Soon takes a slightly different approach at Sandhill Estate, a division of Ontario-based Andrew Peller, Ltd. Sandhill's Small Lots series of wines offers a version of Malbec that keeps pace with Inniskillin, but Soon is also busy working with the Italian varietals Barbera and Sangiovese. All told, Sandhill produces about 3,000 cases of its Small Lots series of wines, a fraction of its total output of 35,000 cases. The wines will eventually be the core of a new boutique winery Andrew Peller plans for the Okanagan within the next five years.

The Barbera and Sangiovese vines were originally planted in 1993 by Jim Wyse (now proprietor of Burrowing Owl Winery) and vineyard manager Robert Goltz, who wanted to make a bold statement about the Okanagan's stature as a premium winemaking region. Having proven their viability, 3.5 acres each of the vines were replanted in 1999 at a vineyard Sandhill was developing south of Oliver at the base of a granite cliff facing due west.

"We decided that this was a very hot area, so we said it would be ideally suited to Italian varieties like Barbera and Sangiovese," Soon says. "And that's what the name of the game has been."

The approach extends to the winemaking, where Soon has actively incorporated elements from the grapes' past to express their character in a distinctive New World style.

Chief among the points Soon mentions is the use of BM45, a yeast strain from the region of Brunello with which the Sangiovese grape is closely associated.

B.C. Growers Explore New Grape Varieties
Sangiovese and Barbera were planted in 1999 in Sandhill Estate's vineyard south of Oliver, B.C.
"It kind of fits in with the idea, because Sangiovese is the main grape of Brunello," he says. "We're trying to keep within the tone of it all."

The yeast also works slowly, allowing a gradual extraction of the components that contribute to a more complex flavor in the wines. A minimal use of oak complements the work of the yeast to ensure the local character of the grapes comes out in the wines.

"I think it's an attempt to protect the terroir," Soon says. "We use older barrels that don't have a lot of oak flavor to them. We don't want to have a big oak statement here. We want to show the good honest taste of Barbera and Sangiovese."

What the vineyards offer

Both Soon and Mayer also acknowledge the important contribution vineyard conditions make to the wines. The natural vigor of the Barbera and Sangiovese is partially controlled by the sandy soils and desert conditions of the southern Okanagan, but the vines also require vigilance to ensure they don't yield too heavy a crop.

In addition, Mayer says intense, arid summers with long finishes demand that he pays attention to the grapes to get the most out of the season. While many of the varieties he's experimenting with are traditionally grown in climates with more sustained periods of warmer weather, the danger in the Okanagan is that the grapes will take advantage of the intense summer heat and bulk up on sugars without developing a complete flavor profile.

"If the vineyard is taken care of well at the beginning and in the middle of the season, then you have this nice, even ripening, and you want to pick these late ones at the very, very last days of the season," he says. "If you take advantage…of the last one and a half months up until the end of October, you are able to take advantage of the whole season without risking the ripeness or the crop."

Peter Mitham is a freelance agricultural writer based in Vancouver, B.C. He can be reached at edit@winesandvines.com.

New selections help coastal grower

Trials with warm-climate red grapes aren't limited to British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. David Avery, a grower just outside Vancouver on the province's south coast, is working with crosses developed in Switzerland by Valentin Blattner. The disease-resistant selections require significantly less heat units to mature than standard red grape selections, allowing Avery's Lotusland Vineyards to grow Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Zinfandel grapes in a climate where cold, damp weather is no stranger.

Avery says the past year was a good test, noting that wet weather and a cold summer dealt a severe blow to coastal growers who had enjoyed a run of good years. Not so for him.

"We harvested all the Blattner varieties; the fruit was impeccable, the numbers were right--they were 22º to 25º Brix, 9 grams per liter of acidity and about 2.95 to 3.2 pH. So for coastal wines, they were absolutely perfect numbers," he says.

While the only one of the Blattner selections to be brought into commercial production to date is a Cabernet Sauvignon cross, Avery has high hopes for the viability of the other varieties he's testing. Trial batches of wine from the vineyard are promising, and this year has proven to him that the vines are able to produce even under unfavorable conditions.

"The trick is being able to make wine from the fruit that you grow every year," he says. "So this year, which was a lousy year--it took an extra two to three weeks to even mature the Blattner varieties--but they did mature, and they did it without any disease."

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