Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Of Wine and Dirt

By Julianna Hayes
The next time someone yaps on about how glamorous my job is, I'm going to tell him about the day I spent staring at dirt.

I was on a media tour focusing on the geology of the Oliver/Osoyoos region, where we studied the soil and the lay of the land. Thanks to a rather brisk April wind, I think I tasted about as much dirt as I did wine that day. So if I describe a wine as being “earthy” you can bet I know what I’m talking about.

Truthfully, this is the part of my gig I like best - digging deep, literally, into what makes B.C. wines unique. The varied landscape of the Okanagan, in particular, often means no two wines will be alike, even when made with identical varieties planted on the same plot.

At Oliver’s Covert Farm, for example, we stood on a breathtaking bench where 30 acres of organic grapes are grown for Dunham & Froese Winery. If you were to scratch beneath the surface, you’d find sections of gravel, sand and dense loam, all which lend different characteristics to the fruit that will ultimately end up in the glass.

Across the highway at Quinta Ferreira Winery, the terrain there can only be described as beach-like. Excavation work being done on a building project the day we visited revealed metres deep of soft, astonishingly white sand. And to add to the mix was the discovery of an ancient fossilized tree and a second believed to be still living, according to an archeologist consulted by owner John Ferreira.

Just a stone’s throw away, metaphorically, we scoped out the rocky vineyards of Gehringer Brothers. Proprietor Walter Gehringer described clearing operations that took the better part of a year to complete in order to simply prep his land for planting.

“Some places are like the Great Wall of China,” he quipped.

Some people might file all this dirt in the “who cares?” category. But in my humble opinion anyway, great wines are grown, not made. Understanding the land – the “terroir” – enables me to relate better to what is in my glass. And it also seems to improve the taste of the wines I drink.

Not everyone is as inclined as I am to traipsing through the vineyards, turning over rocks and sifting through the dirt. In fact, most would probably argue that every appellation boasts a unique mix of soil types that sets them apart. And they wouldn’t be wrong.

But aside from what’s underfoot, the Okanagan Valley’s varied elevations and exposures as winds its way around lakes and mountains has also created individual micro-climates. Thus, the same site not only can feature mixed pockets of stones, clay and sand, but could also be several degrees hotter or cooler from one end to the other.

How the plots are managed is another factor. Gehringer prefers a manicured operation. His rows are straight and neatly planted with no weeds between the vineyards. That’s fairly old-school, but Gehringer argued that vegetative growth encourages insect activity and raises humidity levels which can lead to mildew and other diseases.

“We tried using straw but had a problem with mice which ate chewed the vines underneath,” he said. So he sticks to the tried and true formula of weed killer.

Meanwhile, vineyards for Dunham & Froese are less pretty to look at, but the latter system is tantamount to blasphemy at Covert Farms, where organic growing practices forbid the use of weed sprays.

Gene Covert said the family relies on mechanical weeding and some bio-dynamic practices and have no problem with humidity.

“It’s about developing an eco-system that works for you, such as planting wild roses or using ladybugs which do most of our pest control.”

Some growers choose to keep vegetation between vines on the long side, saying that pests, like the dreaded leafhopper, will take the “path of least resistance” and won’t climb or hop on the vines, if they can feed on the weeds below.

Even if you don’t care about any of this – the terroir, vineyard maintenance or blight and disease control - the vineyards in the Okanagan are worth exploring if only for the scenery.

They are easily amongst the most stunning of spaces as they are often set on plateaus, with unparalleled views of lakes and mountains, the grids of green vineyards magnifying every dip and roll. I’ve stood in many vineyards over the years and felt almost dizzy by their topsy-turvy sightlines.

I have yet to snap a photograph that does winery lands justice. It’s one of those “you-just-have-to-be-there” situations.

Poplar Grove 2007 Chardonnay
The price tag belies the elegance and quality of this yummy Chardonnay. French oak lends itself to a toasty nose full of baked apple, butterscotch, white blossoms and orange peel. Tree fruit flavours and citrus with butterscotch
Body and Finish: Lovely butter on the palate without being overdone and a good balance of acidity on the finish.
Would I Buy It? Definitely
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Score: A – Like finding a designer outfit at a knock-off price
Price: $22
Availability: Winery, private retailers

Dunham & Froese 2007 Merlot
Aromas of blueberry, mocha, plum, licorice, some meaty notes and a touch of pepper. On the palate there are ripe blue fruits, dusty chocolate, white pepper and some smoky flavours
Body and Finish: Ripe entry with some chewy tannins and a bit of a drying finish but no bitterness.
Would I Buy It? Yes, to cellar
Cellaring Potential: Let it age a year or so to soften the tannins
Score: B – Nice solid effort with good varietal character
Price: $22.90
Availability: Winery, VQA shops, private retailers

B.C. Buy of the Week

Thornhaven 2008 Rose
Sippable style full of fresh wild strawberries, herbaceous and floral notes, sweet cherries and hint of spice. Some citrus on the palate with some residual sugar for easy drinking, but I would like it drier. Add a splash of sparkling soda for patio parties.
Body and Finish: Light- body, crisp palate and clean finish.
Would I Buy It? Once in a while
Cellaring Potential: Drink up
Score: B- - Would be a much better buy at $14.90
Price: $16.90
Availability: Winery, VQA shops, private retailers

Import of the Week

Domaine Roc des Anges Segna de Cor 2006 (France)

This blend of Syrah, Mouvedre and Grenache features all those earthy barnyard and savoury aromas that many consumers seek in an Old-World red. Pepper, some dark red fruits and acid on the palate with a touch of smoke.
Body and Finish: Mouthfilling but not overly weighty and some freshness on the finish.
Would I Buy It? For a special occasion
Cellaring Potential: Drink over the next several years
Score: A- - If you like savoury over juicy fruit, this will fit the bill.
Price: $35
Availability: Private retailers