A Lesson in Okanagan Terroir: Le Vieux Pin’s Equinoxe Program

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The Okanagan is still discovering its terroir, the line goes, so give it a break. A fair request, but only for those who take up the challenge. Le Vieux Pin has been exploring and experimenting from day one, and while their marketing projects a sleek image of exclusivity, there is real substance behind what they are doing.

A perfect example lies in their decision to tear out all the Pinot Noir vines they had planted because they were unsatisfied with the results. Pinot, they say, is not suited to their unique terroirs. Their latest experiment, with Syrah, is showing far greater promise and, based on examples I have been tasting, may be the grape that will ultimately produce the greatest wines of the Okanagan.

At a recent tasting of LVP’s Equinoxe line of wines lead by winemaker Severine Pinte and general manager Rasoul Salehi, I had the opportunity to see how this philosophy has translated to the glass.

Experimenting for Terroir

Vine training system, pruning, barrel regimes – all of these are up for grabs at Le Vieux Pin who cherish experimentation more than any other winery I’ve encountered in the Okanagan. Not only is this the reason that I think they will eventually surpass nearly every other winery in the region, but it also gives one faith that they are uninterested in pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes.

Their label, which sits unabashedly on the face of the bottle, is further testament to this principle of transparency, providing more detail on region, soils and vinification than any other winery in the Okanagan.

What is Equinoxe?

Equinoxe is Le Vieux Pin’s “highest tier” of wine, produced in extremely small quantities from the best fruit and the best sites. It began with a bottling of Cabernet Franc and has since moved to include Merlot, Chardonnay and now, Syrah. The goal is to produce transparent wines that demonstrate the typicity of the southern Okanagan.

This concept of typicity is important. One might initially think of it simply as a typical and true expression of a particular grape. When you layer on climate, aspect, soil and geology, then typicity gains considerable complexity. How is it that we can tell whether a wine is ‘typical’ for all those aspects at once? This requires not only trial and error by the winemaker, but also by the taster. Eventually, and with enough dedication, a region’s typical character may begin to express itself through its wines. Thus, the journey for typicity is of a double aspect: an attempt to discover the voice of a certain place and an attempt to make a wine that is true to that voice. It is this dual character that makes the goal so simultaneously daunting and aspirational. It is all too easy to make a ‘fresh’ wine with some fruit and minerality and declare it typical for the Okanagan. It is also all too easy to declare that a certain sub-region has an essential voice before time has cut the excess from the core. As general manager Rasoul Salehi mused, perhaps typicity comes from blending rather than single parcels (a la Clape or Chave). It is too early to tell.

Few in the Okanagan are taking the task of voice and typicity seriously by putting their money where their mouth is and endlessly experimenting. Le Vieux Pin is one of those few who are and I think the Equinoxe program is successfully showing the results of their experimentation. Is it perfect? Far from it. But the integrity is there.

The Wines

Equinoxe Chardonnay 2009: A nutty, tropical and new world inflected wine from 37 year old vines. This is pretty fresh in the mid-palate but also rich. This was the least exciting of the wines for me, despite the age of the vines. It seemed somewhat covered up by batonnage and I would have preferred and even clearer expression of the fruit. Very Good.

Equinoxe Syrah 2008: Here’s where things get interesting. An atypical vintage for the southern Okanagan, 2008 produced a minerally and peppery syrah that is certainly ‘typical’ for the grape when grown in cooler climates. This was briary with black fruit and plenty of spice. The finish concludes with minerality and makes the wine more angular than its 2009 sibling. I thought it was a wine well worth drinking. Very Good+.

Equinoxe Syrah 2009: The Viognier elements came through very strongly in this vintage, and as such the wine is plush and floral, with a fairly viscous texture. The rich red fruit is big but fresh and the wine gains character through a pleasurable gamey component. This is powerful wine, but avoids being overly so. A superb example of Syrah and probably the best I’ve had from B.C. Very Good+ to Excellent.

Equinoxe Cabernet Franc 2007: Quite fruity on the nose, this has a ton of black currant aroma. The palate is silky and plush and tastes on the sweeter side. It is initially tasty, but I would personally find it difficult to drink a tremendous amount of this wine because of the sweet intensity of the fruit. Fruit lovers, however, will find plenty to admire. Very Good.

Equinoxe Merlot 2008: While I tend not to enjoy merlot from the Okanagan, this was quite an impressive wine, even though it is also a tannic beast that may never be tamed. Le Vieux Pin has experimented with temperature control in the ferments, punch downs, etc. to reduce the tannins, but never with any success. As Rasoul explained, this is an example of site trumping everything else. I found the wine to be impressive and idiosyncratic. It successfullly demonstrates the weirdness of south Okanagan terroir (lots of fruit and ripeness but also high tannin and high acid). Very Good+

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