In the last post of my Spotlight on New World Pinot Noir I move, finally, to my home, British Columbia. I decided to approach this region last in order to reflect back on my experiences with the various New World regions as I searched for a BC Pinot Noir that could stand up in quality to these other regions. This is undoubtedly a tough task right now since the region is so young (at about 30 years) and the growing conditions for Pinot Noir not ideal.
In fact, British Columbia is one of the world’s most northerly wine growing regions, with an extremely short growing season and early frosts. However, on the other side of the spectrum, since it is the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert, the inner Okanagan Valley also sees heat spikes up to 40 degrees centigrade in the summer. This sort of heat can shut the metabolic processes of wine grapes down completely, making for uneven ripening and unbalanced sugar levels. The large Lake Okanagan does produce a lake effect and so offers a cooling influence that can temper the impact of the severe temperatures (whether hot or cold), but there are still many challenges for growers in British Columbia.
Many believe that BC, and the Okanagan in particular, is best suited for high acid, fragrant white wines such as Riesling. I do not disagree; in fact, most of the best wines I’ve tried from BC are white. However, at the recent Taste BC tasting, I discovered that some producers are also having a very serious go at making high quality Pinot Noir; and, while not many producers are succeeding, some are pushing the boundaries of what I thought was possible in British Columbia. One such winery is Le Vieux Pin.
Le Vieux Pin started as a project to produce “terroir” based wines in the Okanagan, mimicking the style of French wines from cooler climates, such as Burgundy and Alsace. The winery is located on the East Bench of Oliver, in the South Okanagan Valley and produced its first vintage in 2005.
In order to achieve its goal, Le Vieux Pin crops at a very low yield level, dry farms (which must be a challenge in the low-precipitation Okanagan), and uses minimal fertilizer. They also claim to have distinct soil compositions in each of their vineyards, with soils ranging from sandy to high gravel, and heavy claim and loam. These distinct soil conditions are the basis for the variation in their wines rather than particular wine making techniques. Le Vieux Pin produces three single vineyard Pinot Noirs, each of which receives the same treatment in the cellar. While I only have had the opportunity to taste one of the wines from this range, I was impressed with its structure and personality, and I did feel it was expressing a particular place.
In fact, I could not place this wine anywhere in the spectrum of New World Pinot Noirs I had tasted so far. The nose was reminiscent of an Oregon Pinot Noir, but the body clearly derived from far less ripe fruit, even while it had greater tannin density than many of the Oregon Pinots I’ve had. In fact, the palate was distinctly earthy and driven by more herbal flavours than you would expect after smelling its nose of cherry cola, baking spice, and cassis. Le Vieux Pin calls this a Pinot Noir for Syrah lovers, and I can actually see what they are getting at. While less ripe than all of the other Pinot Noirs (save perhaps the Rippon from New Zealand), it was still fresh and fruity enough not to taste sour or underripe. My suspicion is that they may have had a difficult time ripening the tannins (skins) in the grapes for this wine as the grapes sugar levels are clearly sufficient. It’s not a perfect Pinot Noir, but it is a wine with personality, and I appreciate that achievement.
Given this uniqueness I would love the opportunity to do both a vertical tasting and a horizontal tasting across the various vineyards.
$45 at Viti, Sutton Wine Merchants, and other private stores
*Full disclosure: I received this bottle of wine as a sample.
To wrap up my Spotlight on New World Pinot Noir series, in my opinion there are distinct styles being made across the New World and Pinot Noir seems to have a far greater diversity of personality than Cabernet Sauvignon does in these regions. In particular, the flavour and style variations I experienced in Oregonian Pinot were exciting, and I think that while this region is young now and learning the ropes, it has the potential to evolve into a mature region producing singular wines with personality. It has a ways to go, but I’m excited at its potential.
New Zealand also continues to be a region for me to watch, although I think it has a considerable challenge with respect to its pricing. The quality is just not there to justify prices mostly above $60 for the higher quality wines. There are just too many Pinot Noirs from elsewhere that have a better quality to price ratio.
Despite my amazing experience with Sojourn Cellars, California continues not to excite me that much. Clearly there is potential here, as Sojourn proves, but too many of the wines are good but not great, and have a more fundamental sameness than the Pinot Noirs from further north. Chile, for me, is also not quite up to par overall with Oregon, even as I did enjoy the Matetic considerably. Again, Chile is a region with potential, but a long way to go. I would put Australia in this category as well. The great producers, such as Grosset, can make good Pinot Noir in the right regions. But, overall, Pinot Noir from Australia generally disappoints, and Grosset is making wines far above the norm.
Lastly, British Columbia is the youngest region in the spotlight, and it shows. That said, good producers are pushing the boundaries and I think it will be possible to produce some good Pinot Noir in the province. However, doing so will be expensive and will rely on the appropriate sites. Most of British Columbia still remains suited to aromatic whites. But, I appreciate that there are wineries out there to make wine with personality and ‘terroir’ rather than simply producing wine to achieve great commercial reviews and maximum extract and fruit.
In the end, this has been a fascinating journey and I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it.
Up next is a special series for the Olympics that will focus on some of our best BC wineries – with particular emphasis on the small guys, who, in my opinion, are not getting fair or proper exposure in the Olympics (that’s the topic for another rant). I hope people will spread word of these profiles around a bit so that some visitors might happen upon some of the articles and wines and truly taste what BC has to offer.