Archive for October, 2011

To Oak or Not to Oak…That is the Question!

October 26, 2011

Apologies to Shakespeare, but time for the annual blog on wines and oak. I though Beppi did a good job on the weekend giving an overview of the issue in the Globe, so I will expand on it with reference to BC wines.

But for those who need a refresher on oak, here’s the Coles Notes. A lot of wine — red and white — is fermented and/or aged in oak barrels. Doing so can accomplish a range of good things (from softening harsh red tannins and adding lovely vanilla/butterscotch/butter aromas and flavours) and, to my tastes, not so good things (like excessively herbal and woody flavours that can sometimes competely overwhelm the fruit). The kind of oak used, whether it is new or old oak, how long the wine is kept in it — all have impacts.

But, for me, the most interesting thing about oak is that, more than almost anything else, it drives the style of the wine. And as anyone who reads this blog knows, style is one of my big things!

Nowhere is that seen better than in some of BC’s most expensive and prestigous Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. For example, Occulus (from Mission Hill), Osoyoos Larose and Nota Bene (from Black Hills) all have lots of oak in them. They are made in a ‘Bordeaux-style’, which emphasizes herbs, wood and tannins over fruit. That style is very poplular (French Bordeaux is arguably the best fine wine in the world to most experts) and people will pay a lot for it (the BC wines listed above are over $50 a bottle, with some Bordeaux costing thosuands!).

The other end of the spectrum is what is called a California style. Oak is still used, but the result is a vanilla overlay to ripe, black currant and cherry fruit. In BC, La Frenz’s Cabernet is the best example — it is yummy (yeah, I know, I am giving my preference away!).

For whites, Chardonnay is another great example of how oak can have impacts. Oaked versions like those from Township 7 and Ferreira have deeper colour, vanilla/buttery noses, and lush, buttery/sometimes nutty fruit. Its sometimes called the California style, although some great French Burgundies (like those from Meursault) are also like this.

Completely unoaked Chatrdonnays – using stainless steel for storage and called a Chablis-style – couldn’t be more different. Green apples, minerals; those are kinds of flavours you get.

So which is best? That’s what is so great about wine — it depends on the style you like! My preference is the La Frenz and Ferreira styles, but everyone is different.

What’s important is understanding these different styles, finding the one you like, and then those wines that fit in to it. How much you are willing to spend on that style is a whole different question…but just make sure you spend it on the kind of wine you like!


If the BC Wineries are Struggling, Maybe Some of Them Should Look at Their Prices

October 17, 2011

Interesting couple of stories the last few days in the Globe and Mail about BC’s wine industry, with the focus on the Okanagan. Today’s was all about how high costs — land, grapes, etc. — were causing many wineries to struggle to survive. But as I read it, I found myself wondering if some of the wineries profiled were missing a key point.

Yes, land is expensive there for grape growing. One restaurateur from Vancouver told me a couple of years ago that, on a per acre basis, land was actually more expensive than in Napa! So I don’t doubt that is a factor.

The nature of the business itself also provides natural challenges. Large capital expenditures (particularly for new wineries), product that often needs to be stored for at least a year or two (or more) before it can be sold, with no revenue coming in during that time. And, of course, the vagaries of our weather — that delicate balance between sun, rain and cold can be all the difference when it comes to quality.

But another factor that many wineries have brought upon themselves from a cost perspective is who they are making their wines for. Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows that I have a huge problem with BC wines that reach — and go over — the $40 mark. Frankly, from a quality perspective, few if any of them can justify that kind of money.

Now, I’m fine paying a bit more for BC wine — $5 a bottle extra if the product is excellent. But at $40, there are Austrialian, French, Italian and Spanish wines that are way better for the same (or less). So what gives?

Well, the same restauranteur who told me about the $/acre problem also told me this — that the market for many wineries isn’t you and me in BC, but tourists, particularly from the U.S. Many of those folks used to spending $50, $60 and even more on wine — and looking for a souvenier to boot — may actually be looking for expensive wines, regardless of whether the quality is there or not. Personally, I expect that some of the old guard (like Mission Hill with its Occulus, Quatrain, Compendium, etc. and Osoyoos Larose) and newbies like Le Vieux Pin and Black Hills (Nota Bene) are doing just that. Even factoring in that their wines are not my style to begin with, I see no justification for wines of that price anywhere in BC!

And it is definitely not about quality, because you can make the best wine in BC for far less. So many examples are out there — virtually all of La Frenz’s wines are under $40, for example. Nichol’s Syrah is closer to $30, Blue Mountain’s Reserve Pinot Noir is about the same and Kettle Valley’s Reserve and Hayman Vineyard Pinots are under $40. Even new kids on the block — like Moon Curser and Mt. Lehman in Abbotsford — are well below that $40 threshold. Oh, and by the way, almost all of these wines sell out every year at these prices.

So what’s the moral of this story? Well, it is undoubtedly expensive and challenging to make good wine anywhere. But it doesn’t have to be ridiculous. And if you make your home your target market, you can even do it and make a profit too. But if you choose to market to someone else — don’t come crying the blues to me!


The “Food Wine” Myth

October 12, 2011

I saw so many comments regarding “wine and food” leading up to Thanksgiving that I couldn’t resist blogging on it again this week.

Now, don’t get me wrong; there are definitely some foods that go great with some wines. Port with Stilton cheese; California Chardonnay with cream sauces; Zinfandel with BBQ; Chablis with oysters; Riesling with curries — all compliment each other beautifully! One of my favourites is Grenache with Roast Turkey, as the Provencal herbs go so well together. Hence my choice once again this year to serve Gigondas at Thanksgiving.

So if you have a chance to match some of thewe up, then go for it! But when I see reviews that say “this is a wine made for food”, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

You know why? It implies that the wine doesn’t taste good on its own and somehow needs the right food to make it better.

What a crock! If you don’t like a wine when you taste it — regardless of its style — food will only cover that up. This is especially the case with woody, herbal red wines (the ones that always seem to get these kind of recommendations). Think about the logic here for a second. The analogy is putting ketchup all over your food to mask the taste. That’s what you are saying if a wine “needs” food!

This is especially infuriating if you paid a lot for the wine. Can you imagine buying a $30 or $40 piece of meat, cooking it up and then telling someone “oh, just pour ketchup over it and it will taste great!”. Absurd, right? But that is what is really going on when someone tells you it is a “food wine”.

So watch out for that kind of recommendation — from anyone. Its way better to find a wine whose style you like and stick with it regardless of the food you are eating. At least that way, you can enjoy each on its own.


Wine Award Competitions — What are they really all about?

October 4, 2011

I was going to blog on the current Fall Okanagan Wine Festival this week but — on going onto their website — I got sidetracked by something called the “2011 Fall Wine Awards”. Intrigued, I clicked on the icon and then, after reading the criteria, the pdf of the winners. After that, I was simply shocked!

None of the wineries I think are the best in BC — yes, none of them — received any awards! La Frenz (widely considered the best winery not only in BC, but in Canada), Kettle Valley and Blue Mountain (with their amazing Pinot Noirs), Nichol (with the best French style Syrah in BC) — none were on there. Instead, there were lots of the usual suspects i.e. Jackson Triggs, Mission Hill, etc.

So after a few moments of outrage, I calmed down and tried to figure out what was going on. The idea that these wineries — and their wines — would be completely shut out seemed absurd. Surely, at least some of them would have won at least bronze awards.

So perhaps the wineries didn’t submit their wines? I can’t confirm that, but it must be the case. And if it is, the question has to be “why”?

Wines made in too small quanitities? Could be — some of Kettle Valley’s Pinots (like the Hayman) are in the hundreds of cases. But many of La Frenz’s wines are made in pretty good numbers, as is Nichol’s Syrah.

Lack of confidence in how they would place? That I find hard to believe, especially since many of these wineries win awards and recognition not just in BC but across North America for their wines (for example, La Frenz regularly cleans up at the Northwest Wine Awards and renowned British wine writer Jancis Robinson has said Nichol’s Syrah was a standout).

No interest in the publicity from winning? As a PR person by trade, I find that hard to believe as well. Awards can only increase profile and potentially sell more wine.

Don’t need to participate because their wines sell out anyway? That may very well be part of it. Many of the wines from the wineries I mentioned above always sell out, and a number are available only on the mailing list of the winery itself. So why go through the effort, time and expense if there is nothing to gain?

The last possible reason is the most controversial — that the judging may somehow be suspect. I looked at the names on the panel, and recognized a number of them. They are definitely well known. So you wouldn’t think that would be the case. And yet…

What about if it all comes back to style and profile? As I read through the list of the wines, I noted that a lot of the reds were in the “big red wine category”, meaning lots wood and herbs, less forward fruit, and strong tannins. If that is the definition of “gold medal”, why would a La Frenz, Blue Mountain, Nichol or Kettle Valley submit their more fruit forward wines? They would starting from behind. That seemed to be confirmed by the fact that Moon Curser’s Syrah and Merlot only received bronze awards (for wines that are beautifully full of ripe fruit).

So I don’t know the solution to this conundrum. But it is troubling for a number of reasons, the most important of which is — if your best wineries aren’t participating, can you really call it a wine awards competition?