Why a “Signature Grape” for BC Doesn’t Make Sense

There has been some media coverage in Vancouver recently regarding a debate that is apparently going on between local “wine geeks” about whether British Columbia has – or should have – a “signature wine grape.” But lost amidst the “Pinot Noir vs Syrah vs etc.” has been the fact that, in my opinion, this is a silly question to begin with!

Are there grapes that grow better in BC than elsewhere? Of course there are! But there is also significant climate variation here, not only between our main wine regions (the Okanagan, Similkameen, Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley) but also within those same regions. Anyone who has driven from Kelowna down to Osoyoos can see – and feel – that. As a result, grapes that grow well in one area may not in another.

But even that is the main reason I think this is a silly question. Because, the fact is, even if you have perfectly ripe grapes, a winemaker still has to make the wine. And that’s where both expertise – and style – come into play.

Interestingly, from my perspective, style is actually a bigger factor. There are lots of well-educated, experienced winemakers working in BC right now. Give them ripe fruit, and they have shown the ability to make technically sound wine just about everywhere.

But style? That’s where it gets interesting – and why a “signature grape” doesn’t make sense.

One example is Pinot Noir.

It is grown in just about all regions, but the style and quality can vary significantly. In the hands of some winemakers, it can be leafy, herbal and woody. From others, you get a classic California style wine with rich, ripe, red cherries and strawberries, a touch of spice and just the right amount of oak. Leading examples include Blue Mountain (in Okanagan Falls), Eau Vivre (in the Similkameen) and Kettle Valley (their Reserve and regular Pinot Noir from Naramata). Finally, a few – very few – make a “Burgundian” style Pinot Noir – with darker cherry fruit, still ripe, but with fascinating secondary flavours and aromas of earth and mushrooms. The best example is Kettle Valley’s Hayman Vineyard – a truly extraordinary wine!

And what bout Syrah? At Nichol in Naramata, they make a wine in the true Rhone style, with peppery, earthy black cherries that are ripe but not jammy and which can age for 8 – 10 years. Yet only a few miles down the road, Marichel makes another gorgeous wine that is closer in style to a Shiraz than a Syrah. And La Frenz actually makes a Shiraz!

Finally, there is Cabernet Sauvignon. Hard to get ripe anywhere in BC, it is often made into a tannic, woody, herbal – and expensive – monster. And yet, La Frenz manages to make a ripe, fruit-forward, California style wine for under $30, as well as a more Bordeaux-style that still has more fruit than wood for a few bucks more.

With this kind of variety in style – and I have only talked about the red wines, even though it applies to whites as well – I don’t know how you could pick a “signature” grape for BC. Because, by doing so, it would imply that grape turns out wines of similar style and quality all across the province. And that is obviously not the case.

So why don’t we forget about this debate and instead focus on what is important – finding the style of wine you like and the winemakers who make it best?




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2 Responses to “Why a “Signature Grape” for BC Doesn’t Make Sense”

  1. Luke Smith Says:

    Good points all however I would like to add to the debate: ripeness versus maturity. To use a potentially politically incorrect analogy every red blooded male knows that a 20 something woman is “ripe” no-one would argue that the same 20 something is mature. The same goes for grapes here and elsewhere, many varieties can be ripe; high brix good acid etc. but that does not mean those grapes are mature. Certain varieties in the valley are simply a waste of time in certain parts of the valley. While you may not like my Pinot Noir or simply not have tried it, my two Lt Governor awards and Canadian Red Wine of the year, all for my Pinot Noir suggest that there is a second way to look at the skill of the wine maker; much like a world class chef the winemaker is constrained by the same simple facts. Give a wine maker crap fruit and you will get a well made but crappy wine, give a skilled wine maker world class fruit and the potential exist for a world class wine. No one can turn second rate fruit into first rate wine. You may want to look at the source of the fruit for those wines you find outstanding I would suggest the fruit in most cases comes from areas where that particular grapes not only ripens but matures.
    Luke Smith
    Howling Bluff Estate Winery

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