La Stella Winery
I don’t get the opportunity to taste too many British Columbia wines, despite living in the province. I have been curious, however, about BC’s potential as a wine growing region and I know this topic raises great debate and often ire between wine geeks, your everyday BC wine drinker, and the wineries themselves. Personally, I always hope a small region can make a name for itself, but I also believe that a name must be made on quality and not hype.
It is always difficult when drinking wines from one’s own backyard to be completely objective – one usually wishes to support the local industry and foster future development. This is a good thing in many ways. However, such an attitude goes beyond its positive influence if it supports sub-standard quality, corporate marketing techniques, and parochial dogmatism. True pride comes when you can hold up a product from your home and objectively declare its quality. This is very different from just running a business, and I know wineries are out there to make money.
It is easy, from a business perspective, to forcefully promote the greatness of your products whether they are actually great or not, and I certainly believe this attitude is not solely found in BC. Many sub-standard California wineries promote their wines in this way, and that is fine as a business model if it works for them. Luckily for me I am not interested so much in making money from wine, but in providing objective insight, information, and balanced opinion to the wine drinker. When thinking about wine from this perspective, one must as a duty look past the marketing, past the tendency to support one’s local and home industries, and to the grapes and ultimately the wines themselves. That is the essence of thinking about just grapes.
Notwithstanding our ludicrous shipping laws, if BC is to grow as a wine industry, especially if it wishes to grow internationally and gain the respect of wine lovers from around the world, it needs to focus on the right side of things. Wine will always be dominated by business models and marketing – but the heart of wine lies in the authenticity of its appreciation, the stories it creates, and, ultimately, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s utter ability to stop you in your tracks.
All that said, I do think there ARE wineries in BC pursuing the quality-based model and I also believe that BC is incredibly young as a wine region and has yet to develop great vineyard sites and attract truly great winemakers. I do think both a legal and a culture shift is necessary to precipitate these things, but I also believe they are possible. Now, if that’s enough pontificating on the state of BC’s wine industry for you, it’s time for some tasting notes!
La Stella Winery
La Stella is located in the Oakanagan Valley of British Columbia, on its south side near Oliver, BC. Most of the vineyard sites are either near a lake or at relatively high elevations, which protects the grapes from the severity of the Okanagan’s massive heat spikes. This allows the grapes to ripen and not shut down in extreme temperatures. Furthermore, La Stella uses certain practices to promote ‘sustainable farming’, such as not using herbicides, pesticides, and keeping irrigation to a minimum (its top wine Maestaso only generally receives around 36 hours of irrigation a season). La Stella focuses on Italian style wines similar to those from the Friuli and the coastal region of Tuscany where some of the best super tuscans are made. La Stella is also the sister winery to Le Vieux Pin, which focuses on French style wines.
The nose on this chard had peach, nectarine, lime, guava and banana. Cold fermented completely in steel, this wine is fairly acidic and has a palate that is very up front with lime, pineapple and guava. While the acidity is certainly firm, the wine is also crisp and finishes clean with some slight mineral lacing. A bracing chardonnay without tons of depth or uniqueness, but which will also certainly drink well on a hot day.
Vivace Pinot Grigio 2008
The nose on this grigio was interesting with loam, stone fruits and pear. The palate, however, was surprisingly more like a sauvignon blanc than a pinot grigio and had tons of grapefruit, some basic citrus notes, fresh grass and some pear on the finish. The acidity here was a bit overdone on the mid-palate, and while still sippable, there is nothing particularly interesting going on here.
La Stellina Rosé 2008
Made with 100% merlot, the nose on this had a little caramel and light red berries. The palate on this rosé was very caramelly and honestly tasted a lot like a Jolly Rancher with candied cherry and strawberry notes. The wine, while simple, was also balanced and while some would certainly dislike the sweetness in this Rosé, I found it well wraught, even if the wine was a bit too candy-like for me. A solid but innocuous rosé. At this price go for a nice dry Tavel or Lirac rosé from France.
A full-on 100% merlot, this wine avoids the negative stereotypes people associate with the grape. Instead, the nose here had red berries, mint, chocolate, and a bit of cherry candy. The palate was very woody, perhaps too much so, but also had nice notes of chocolate, plums, blackberry and some savory dried herbs with serious earthy notes. While perhaps somewhat a bit distorted with heavy wood-notes, I enjoyed this wine and think it shows surprising potential for a grape that one would think might not grow too well in the Okanagan climate. My biggest gripe, however, is the price. For $38 one could also get a top Gigondas from Les Pallieres, a solid bottle of merlot-based Bordeaux, A Ribera Del Duero from the excellent Tinto Pesquera, and even a solid Washington syrah, like Kestrel’s. The list could go on.
Fortissimo Red Blend 2007
Made predominantly from merlot, but also with a sizeable amount of cabernet sauvignon and a dabble of cabernet franc, this red blend had a nose of blue and black fruits, with chocolate and a little cedar. The palate again had a lot of oak spice on it, wood, graphite, and some secondary fruits such as blackberry. This is tasty, but it is lacking layers and complexity on the mid-palate which I expect more of from a wine at this price point. The wine finishes with decent length but also with simplicity. The tannins weren’t oppressive, but at the same time they seemed a little out of place – I would suspect this might improve with a little bottle age. Overall, a pretty tasty wine.
Maestaso Merlot 2006
This is the top wine from La Stella and it shows. Cropped at half the quantity of the Allegretto, the Maestaso is a very well made wine. The nose was still a little subdued, probably because the wine is still quite young, and offered notes of red fruits and baking spices. The palate was fairly impressive with lots of black fruits, caramel, subtle vanilla, and baking spices, especially up front. As you drink this wine you notice its smoothness and integration, which stand out dramatically from all of the other wines offered by La Stella. The tannins are also smooth and well integrated. This is definitely a well made wine, but once again I question its price point.
La Stella certainly shows great potential for BC, although I do think it has a ways to go before it can justify its prices. When I ask the ultimate question – would I buy any of these wines? – unfortunately the answer is no. This leads me to ask: why are BC wine prices so disproportionately high given the quality? I am not completely up on this issue, but it seems to me that BC wineries don’t have to pay import duties, and have way lower shipping costs than out of province wineries, and yet still charge tremendous prices for their wines. If the wines I tasted were 30-50% cheaper, then things would make a lot more sense to me. As it stands, I am not sure why I would buy an $85 bottle of very solid merlot when I can spend $85 and get a mind-blowing Barolo from Italy, a wicked high end sauvignon blanc from the Loire, etc. If someone can answer this, please let me know. And, I can’t buy ‘land prices’ as a justification considering how much land costs in places like Napa where even though wines are very pricey by US standards, they still have a better QPR than what I’ve tasted from BC so far. Nonetheless, I am still very open minded about BC wines and I will continue to taste as many as I can get my hands on.