Golden Mile is headed toward sub-appellation status
Photos: Michael Bartier (top) and Bill Eggert
The buzz during the South Okanagan Winery Association’s Banée 2010 was all about the creation of the Okanagan’s first sub-appellation, the Golden Mile.
Observers had expected that the Naramata Bench might be the first sub-appellation. However, it sounds like the wineries on the Golden Mile are a little further along in defining the soil and other terroir characteristics necessary for the formal designation.
One can make a good case for sub-appellations. The current British Columbia appellations are Okanagan, Similkameen, Fraser Valley, Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island.
Most of these were created some years ago as a necessary adjunct to the VQA program, linking the wines of improving quality to the geography in which they are created. The appellations are legal and practical definitions. They have been especially important in helping consumers distinguish between authentic British Columbia wines and those made with imported wines (the cellared-in-British Columbia wines).
It would seem that the term “appellation” gives a wine added credibility. The market-savvy Artisan Wine Company actually releases several cellared-in-British Columbia wines under the Westcoast Appellation. The appellation is entirely Artisan’s creation, inspired by the use of California, Washington and British Columbia wines in the blends.
The British Columbia appellations have the force of law behind them. However, most of them cover far too much geography to say much about the terroir. The biggest appellation, Okanagan, takes in a viticulture area which is 100 miles long, with a bewildering number of soils, vineyard aspects and climates.
There is a vast difference in the flavours of, say, a Riesling grown in Kelowna vineyards compared to one grown south of Oliver.
The motivation behind the move to sub-appellations is to highlight, where possible, the flavours and textures that distinguish one region from another.
More mature winegrowing regions around the world have already done this. Even Ontario has its own sub-appellations. It is a fact that consumers pick up on the individuality of the wines from a sub-appellation and come back to those wines if they like them. That is the commercial drive behind the interest in Okanagan sub-appellations.
What the case for the Golden Mile? One could start with the marvellous Atlas of Suitable Grape Growing Locations, published in 1984 and, sadly, not in print. The Atlas logged sun radiation, heat units and soil types to come up with recommendations that have stood the test of time.
Winemakers who came after the Atlas – like Bill Eggert of Fairview Cellars and Michael Bartier of Road 13 Vineyards – get their grapes from sites rated Class One or Class Two by that prescient Atlas.
Golden Mile is defined by a series of alluvial fans cut by four of creeks coming down from the mountains on the west side of the Okanagan Valley. Much of the soil here was laid down when the last glacier retreated. There is an overall consistency to these soils – some clay, some gravel, lots of rocks that are well worn by having been tumbled by the glacier. These are generally well-grained soils with a modest amount of organic matter.
The vineyards on these fans generally have an east to south-east aspect, with occasional north-east aspects. The vines catch the early morning sun. As Bill Eggert likes to say, a person is at his best in the early morning; why should it be different for vines? The vines are also in the shade of the mountains by late afternoon.
These conditions stand in sharp contrast to the Black Sage Bench directly across the valley (also Class One and Two). There, the vines are on sand – a beach laid down by a glacial-era lake. A few years ago, a winery manager on the bench drilled a well through 410 feet of sand before hitting water. The west-facing vineyards on the bench work hard to add organic matter. Because the water drains very quickly, vineyards need to be irrigated with great care to keep the vines alive.
The Black Sage Bench starts getting sun in mid-morning, bakes through the day, and has several hours more evening sun that Golden Mile.
Obviously, there are varieties, like whites and Pinot Noir, better suited to Golden Mile and others, like Syrah, better suited to Black Sage. Varieties grown on both sides of the valley are distinctively different. As an example, compare Fairview Cellars reds, with their vibrant currant flavours, to the reds from Burrowing Owl, which tend to have more plum, chocolate and liquorice.
While these distinctions can be masked by winemaking or by vineyard techniques, it should be possible to distinguish Golden Mile wines from Black Sage wines in blind tastings. Then it is a matter of deciding which you prefer on any given occasion or with particular food.
Sub-appellations – there is an obvious case for Black Sage Bench as well – will improve our understand and appreciation of what the Okanagan delivers.
There are, of course, wines that are blends of several appellations and thus carry British Columbia as the appellation. Here, winemakers build on the strengths or fix the weaknesses of each appellation or sub-appellation. Here, as well, drilling down into the characters of the sub-appellations is important.