Nichol Vineyard or Why the Okanagan Matters

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On rare occasions it can take only a few days to reshape years of preconceptions. Often such experiences happen unassumingly, perhaps of necessity arising when you’re looking for something else. When I first visited the Okanagan Valley about 7 years ago I knew little but was extremely open minded about new wine. What I encountered then, admittedly at random, were enjoyable wines to a novice palate but nothing that excited me to proceed to that next level of wine appreciation.

Seven years and thousands of wines later and I headed back to the Okanagan for a second time to attend the Forum for Women Entrepeneurs Vine Forum conference on the wine industry and to take in some of the wineries on the Naramata Bench. During my four days in the Valley I tasted through wines of surprising suaveness and sophistication and well ripened high quality fruit, but despite some impressive quality and increasing deliciousness it was a small winery that has been sitting quietly near the northernmost reaches of the Naramata Bench since the early 90’s that made me ask some of the most interesting questions I’ve asked myself about the Okanagan.

The Who, the What and the Why

In wine education most begin approaching a region by asking what it is. What is grown there, what is the climate, what soils predominate, what are the best wineries.

Marketers approach wine mostly from the perspective of a constructed ‘who’. Who makes the wine and what is their story? For most marketers, the what and the why of a winery are derived from the who. This helps to tell a coherent story, create empathy, and forms a base from which to build a consumer’s experience of a particular wine. In many ways this makes sense in a celebrity obsessed culture. We aspire to associate with impressive individuals living a particular lifestyle.

During my time in the Okanagan, which I’ve often criticized for pandering to uneducated palates and a perceived lowest common denominator customer uninterested in challenges, I started to realize that it wasn’t the what or the who of a region that mattered, but the why. I started to ask why does the Okanagan matter? I didn’t think of this question in a commercial sense – a job I’ll leave to the accountants acting as trustees for bankrupt wineries who see only the numbers and none of the passion – but rather I asked myself why we should care about this place. For some reason this has never been a question I’ve truly asked myself, but I now think it is a question that ultimately becomes the raison d’être of any significant wine region.

This has prompted me to think about the Okanagan in a deeper way than I’ve found in most media. Let’s not think about the valley from the perspective of an inferiority complex (whether that manifest as dismissal or as sycophancy and perverted hype), but rather from the perspective of an offering. What does the Okanagan offer to the wine world?

Wine as Life Cycle

While I appreciated, and even enjoyed, some of the Valley’s best made suave and sophisticated wines working in an international style, I found that simplicity and youth can be an offering far greater than sophistication and charm. While there is a place for both, it is humble exuberance that for me drives the greatest wines and wine regions in the world. Strangely, these are qualities that usually come with simple routine and tradition. It’s life’s basic cycles that retain mystery and beauty as time plods forward.

How do you reflect a life cycle in a glass of wine? You must shed the pretence of perfection, and even a certain sense of consistency (I can hear the marketers gasp in horror). You must accept nuance as given rather than manufactured. You must be prepared to let foibles speak. And most importantly the aromas of a wine must be coaxed softly but fully out of a wine to allow it to speak for it is our nose that is the most sensitive to the subtle changes of the earth. Taste is a function of smell: pleasure a function of experience. Diverse experience allows for a greater variety of pleasure, but only if we focus on more than that feeling in our bodies and open our minds to what the sensuous qualities of a wine can tell us about a place.

So why does the Okanagan matter? It matters because of its youth and its potential to be more than what it is aspiring to be. It matters also because of its limits: we can only grow so much in quantity. That leaves us with a dilemma. Do we accept the easy answer that we will often underproduce demand (BC only produces sufficient wine to satisfy 25% of the province’s market)? Or, do we accept the challenge and realize that the only way we can make an impact is by finding the unique mark of our finitude – what are the very few sites and very few wines that say something and say it differently from anywhere else?

Nichol Vineyard: Purity and Deep Varietal Typicity

There was an everyday simplicity to my time at Nichol and a quiet that left time for reflection but didn’t require it. A place where geeking out was unassuming; where all discussion came down to simple moments of silence, punctuated only by smelling and sipping. That such a youthful winery and such a young team (Matt Sherlock in Marketing, Matt Chittick as assistant winemaker and vineyard manager, and Ross Hackworth as head winemaker and proprietor) could teach me that there are those in the Okanagan who understand that the vines’ silence can tell us more than any megaphone you place in front of them, well that’s special and that’s why the Okanagan matters.

I feel I can be frank about these wines. I don’t always feel that. The 2008 reds were tasty and well made but still searching for their meaning. I could taste the quality of fruit underlying the wines, but they seemed somewhat awkward and out of their skin. Everything changed with the 2010 vintage (the vintage that Matt C, who studied in New Zealand and Burgundy, and who I think is a man to watch in the Okanagan, took over as assistant wine maker).

The 2010 whites aren’t the lush hedonistic wine we’ve come to know from the Okanagan. As such they can be jarring initially. But that’s a misnomer. And as your brain readjusts you may realize, just as I did, that these wines speak of something more varietally pure and deep than most of any other whites in the Valley. Both the 2010 Pinot Gris and the 2010 Gewurztraminer stay simple (forget overt oak flavours, batonnage sillyness, and extreme fruit ripeness), but in doing so they bring out more complexities in the varieties than most will be accustomed to in BC. Both are fermented dry, a particularly surprising move with the Gewurztraminer, which is traditionally at least slightly off dry. This is done without aggressiveness or painful acidity. Rather, these are extremely delicious wines that, gasp, both drink well alone and with food. I can personally attest to being very impressed drinking a considerable amount of Gewurztraminer, a grape I almost never enjoy.

If the 2010 whites were enjoyable in their simple complexity, the 2010 reds (still in barrel) prompted me to rethink what was possible in the Okanagan. I should qualify that statement by noting both that these have yet to bottled, and that it was ultimately the Syrah (planted in the early 90’s) that made me rethink my preconceptions about B.C. wine. Nevertheless, the 2010 Syrah smelled nothing like the 2008, instead prompting memories of pepper, spice and game. Much like a Crozes-Hermitage or Saint Joseph, this wine was extremely aromatic and persuasively savory on the palate. Fruit was secondary to the leather, pepper and meat. This is varietally pure cool-climate Syrah made with grapes grown in a quite northerly stretch of the Narmata Bench. Sandy soils (with some clay) keep the phylloxera louse at bay from these own rooted vines, and the risk seems to pay off with what is perhaps the most interesting red wine in the Okanagan. Why is it interesting? Because it is so varietally pure, so aromatic, and so ready to embrace its basic life cycle.

The 2010 Cabernet Franc was also aromatically exciting, and finished with chalky tannins uncommon for the grape in B.C. I had a hard time pronouncing a verdict on the 2010 pinots and blends, except that I see great potential. But analysis of the wines only goes so far.

The 2010 wines from Nichol are the only wines in the Okanagan that I think true wine lovers, nay obsessives, are compelled to experience. These are varietally pure wines that taste like where they are from. They eschew perfection and embrace honesty. How many wineries in the world let alone the Okanagan can lay a claim to that?

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