Friday, September 19, 2008

BC Vintners Have Grape Expectations

By Julianna Hayes
Beneath a brilliant September sun, Michael Bartier, the winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards in Oliver, gestures toward a row of vines and describes them as a “crap shoot.”

They are of the Mourvèdre variety, common to Spain but virtually unheard of among the Okanagan landscape. Indeed, they are the type of grape no one would ever imagine being rooted in the soils of the Great White North. They thrive on an extended growing period of mild, frost-free days in order to fully ripen.

The two-year-old plants look healthy enough, which is promising. But everyone knows that the weather above the 49th parallel can be unpredictable and the winters especially harsh and unforgiving – even in the Okanagan, which has come to be recognized for its unique microclimates that nurture grape growing.

Still, Bartier is hopeful for the Mourvèdre and the other challenging varieties he’s attempting, which include Grenache, Roussanne and Tempranillo. After all, merely 10 years ago, few would expect a grape like Syrah – among the world’s most sought after and responsible for the Australia’s famous Shiraz wines – would survive, much less thrive here. But it took the pioneering spirit of local growers and vintners to ignore the naysayers – as they have with Merlot, Chardonnay and just about every noble variety – and plant it anyway. Today, the grape is considered one of the area’s best performers.

“Mark my words,” said Bartier, during the tour of his “experimental” vineyard. “Syrah will become the Okanagan’s signature wine.”

Statements such of these are bold. But they are a testament to the boundaries that those in the local wine industry are willing to push. And thankfully so. If they acquiesced to the critics, regional cellars would be still filled with such atrocities as Fuddle Duck and Hot Goose, the vineyards with such native grape curiosities as Okanagan Riesling, or have died out altogether.

Local growers, of course, owe a lot to the world’s changing climate. While it's spelling potential disaster overall, it has ironically been a boon for more northerly wine regions. There have been countless reports and papers about how areas previously considered unsuitable for wine grape growing are now being cultivated for vineyards.

But that’s not to say it’s making things easy in the Okanagan. Each year presents its own unique challenges and this one is no different. With the fall harvest rapidly approaching, all vintners – especially ones like Bartier, who have tackled extra challenges – are in nail-biting mode. They are doomed if they get complacent.

So how is the harvest shaping up? Despite all talk of global warming, the summer of 2008 can hardly be called a splendid one. The spring was wet and cool and growers were worried they might have to drastically thin the crop of some of the more challenging varieties by as much as half to encourage ripening.

But by the end of June, the sun and heat arrived with a vengeance and was steady for several weeks. By late July, many vintners indicated they were pretty much caught in the vineyard.

By mid August, however, summer sort of petered out and they found themselves slipping behind again. Kenn Oldfield, owner and general manager of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, said the grapes on his winery’s Oliver site are about one-to-two weeks behind where the winemaking team would like them to be.

Indeed, most growers would agree they need to milk September for all its worth. It’s a crucial time in the vineyard when the sugars and flavours fully develop in the grapes. The good news is the sun has been shining pretty steadily since the beginning of the month, with daily daytime highs climbing well into the 20s.

“A week of above normal in September can make up for two to three weeks of poor weather in May,” said Mission Hill winemaker John Simes several months ago. “That’s when the weather really counts.”

Still, many vintners have been proactive and opted to thin the grape crop just the same. With less of a load, the plant can focus all its energy on ripening the remaining fruit.

What this means, however, is less quantity and ultimately less wine, when supply is already a problem in the valley.

Bartier doesn’t need to worry about his experimental varieties at the moment. That’s because the plants have already been vested of their fruit. At just two years of age, they are too young to be relied upon for producing good quality berries, thus they are pruned before any bunches form in order for the vines to put all their energy in growing healthy and strong.

It will be at least a couple years yet before anyone gets a taste of the first Okanagan Mourvèdre – if Bartier’s science project proves a success.

Here’s a look at some of the challenging grape varieties being attempted by Bartier and others in the Okanagan:

Tempranillo
This black grape native to Spain is the main variety used in Rioja. Its name is the diminutive of the Spanish temprano, which means early, a reference to the fact that it ripens several weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes, but still later most varieties common to the Okanagan. The wines tend to be dry, deeply coloured and scented with relatively low alcohol. They also are know to be low in acid, which has been a drawback, but the Okanagan's cooler climate may well drive those acid levels up.

Mourvèdre
This grape may be the most challenging of all Bartier's experiments. It's extremely late-ripening - about two weeks behind Syrah in hotter climes, and its production is known to be irregular. One year it may produce a good yield, followed by a poor one, for no apparent reason. But the effort is apparently worth it, as the grapes produce wines of serious power, colour and flavour. Spain grows the lion's share of this grape.

Grenache
This is considered a workhorse of a grape which is used a lot for blending. The wines it produces are fruity, spicy quaffable reds and pinks. In fact, Bartier is considering the variety for a rose. Grown in Spain, California and other warm-weather regions, it is late ripening and favours arid, hot climates.

Roussanne
This white Rhône grapes is often blended with Marsanne and such a blend has already been made in the Okanagan from valley fruit by Inniskillin, as part of its discovery series. Late-ripening for a white, it features a rather distinctive herbal, floral tea character and relatively high acid. In the southern Rhône, it is only one of four grape varieties permitted in white Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Marsanne
In the Rhône, Marsanne is the most widely planted white wine grape in the Hermitage AOC where it is a component of the white Hermitage wines in a blend with Roussanne. On its own it can produce deeply-colored, full-bodied white wines with distinctive floral and nutty aromas.

Carmenere
This is a recently revitalized European variety that was one of the original six grapes of Bordeaux. Now with of its plantings in Chile, it has found its way into the Okanagan by way of Black Hills winery. It produces wines that are intensely crimson in colour - in fact, that is where it gets its name - with characteristics of red berries and spices.

Zinfandel
Despite its association with the sweet, sickly, low acid white Zins of the 80s and early 90s, Zinfandel is a red grape capable of producing wines of impressive power. It's a very late-ripening variety, yet several Okanagan wineries have been growing and producing stunning versions for several years.

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he best wines - from "Grand Cru" vineyards - of this region are usually grown from the middle and higher part of the slopes, where the vineyards have the most exposure to sunshine and the best drainage, while the "Premier Cru" come from a little less favourably exposed slopes. The relatively ordinary "Village" wines are produced from the flat territory nearer the villages. The Côte de Nuits contains 24 out of the 25 red Grand Cru appellations in Burgundy, while all of the region's white Grand Crus are located in the Côte de Beaune. This is explained by the presence of different soils, which favour Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively. Further south is the Côte Chalonnaise, where again a mix of mostly red and white wines are produced, although the appellations found here such as Mercurey, Rully and Givry are less well known than their counterparts in the Côte d'Or. Below the Côte Chalonnaise is the Mâconnais region, known for producing large quantities of easy-drinking and more affordable white wine. Further south again is the Beaujolais region, famous for fruity red wines made from Gamay. Burgundy experiences a continental climate characterized by very cold winters and hot summers. The weather is very unpredictable with rains, hail, and frost all possible around harvest time. Because of this climate, there is a lot of variation between vintages from Burgundy.
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