Monday, August 24, 2015

Pinot Noir - the celebration

 Photo: Pinot Noir pioneer Richard Stewart

One of the earliest blocks of Pinot Noir in Canada was planted in 1975 by Richard Stewart, now the elder statesman of the family that owns Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.

The winery’s literature describes that as a “research project following his [Richard’s] research into the heart-break varietal in France.”

It was a prescient choice. Quails’ Gate has become one of British Columbia’s best producers of Pinot Noir. It was one of 26 wineries at this year’s B.C. Pinot Noir Celebration. The three Pinot Noirs at its table included the 2012 Richard’s Block Pinot Noir, a wine released last year to honour his pioneering viticulture.

It would not have been made from those 1975 plantings. The Davis 1 Clone that he planted has since been replaced by better Dijon clones. Quails’ Gate grows seven or eight clones. The oldest plantings now date from 1987. The majority of its Pinot Noir plantings were put in between 2003 and 2005, as the winery set out to make this variety its flagship.

In his 2004 book, North American Pinot Noir, John Winthrop Haeger (an American writer) included five pages out of 445 on British Columbia. It indicates how far British Columbia Pinot Noir was off the radar when he was researching the book fifteen years ago.

“No one knows for sure when the first Pinot Noir was planted in the Okanagan,” he wrote. “The oldest planting I have discovered is a tiny block measuring only a fifth of an acre set out in 1975 at Quail’s Gate. … The next may have been Ian Mavety’s planting ten years later at Blue Mountain.”

Quails’ Gate and Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars deserve most of the credit for proving that great Pinot Noir can be made in the Okanagan. Another quote from Haeger’s book, which had a skeptical edge to it, shows where Pinot Noir production was 10 years ago.

“A few wineries like CedarCreek and Quails’ Gate, which have produced a few exceptional bottlings, say they have made a ‘commitment’ to pinot noir and expect it to represent a growing percentage of their total production,” Haeger wrote. “Most, however, are in the position of Mission Hill, where management is at the point of trying to decide ‘whether to get really serious’ about pinot.”

The only British Columbia winery to get a full profile in Haeger’s excellent book was Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars.

It is too bad that he has not been back to the Okanagan (to the best of my knowledge) to discover how many wineries have become serious about Pinot Noir, including Mission Hill. The winery’s Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011 won a major award two years ago at a London wine competition. The rich and full-bodied 2013 vintage of that wine was, in my opinion, one of the best at the Pinot Noir celebration.

And Mission Hill has built a Martin’s Lane Winery and further consolidated is commitment to Pinot Noir by purchasing CedarCreek Estate winery two years ago.

Like Mission Hill, numerous wineries have climbed onto the Pinot Noir bandwagon. The acreage of Pinot Noir has doubled in the last decade, as is shown by the industry’s periodical vineyard censuses.

British Columbia Pinot Noir Acreage

1,073 acres
   948.7 acres
   793 acres
   599.7 acres
   568.6 acres

The suggestion that the variety is a heart-break grape comes from the title of a 1994 book by Marq De Villiers, about a California winemaker named Josh Jensen.

“Josh Jensen, the wine-besotted hero of this adventure/love story and founder of the small Calera Wine Company, set out to produce a California wine to rival the best French burgundies--an impossible quest, he was told by vintners,” according to a Publisher’s Weekly review. “De Villiers traces Jensen's apprenticeship in the vineyards of France, his frustrating search in California for the right limestone soil and climate, his acquisition of a barely accessible mountainside in the central part of the state and his dedication to his goal, which ruined his marriage.”

As that indicates, the title of the book had more to do with Jensen’s personal life than with the viticultural challenge of Pinot Noir. The variety performs quite well in most British Columbia terroirs and is no more challenging to winemakers than most varieties.

The other bit of recent Pinot Noir literature (I use the term loosely) was Rex Pickett’s 2004 book, Sideways: A Novel, which was turned into a popular movie shortly after. The story involved two characters in California who guzzled great Pinot Noir and bedded accessble women. I disliked the book so much that I skipped the movie, which was much better, according to reviews.

The movie had a spectacular impact on Pinot Noir sales. Tony Stewart, the president of Quails’ Gate, told me that, before the movie, he had trouble convincing restaurants to offer Pinot Noir by the glass. After the movie, the wine shot out of the door. That seemed to coincide with a planting spree by Quails’ Gate and other wineries. British Columbia Pinot Noir has been on a roll ever since.

The first Pinot Noir Celebration two years ago was small enough to be accommodated at Meyer Family Vineyards at Okanagan Falls. The winery’s owner, JAK Meyer, is one of the forceful promoters behind staging these events. His winery has become a leading Pinot Noir producer.

Last year, so many wineries applied to be at the event that they were chosen by a lottery. This year, when even more applied, a tasting panel of sommeliers screened the wines. Some excellent producers didn’t make the cut, which may have more to say about the judging than the wine quality.

This year’s format allotted just two hours to taste the wines, which was totally inadequate. At least three hours, if not four, should be available. I managed to taste just 26 wines, less than half of what was on offer. I never got to the tables of such notables as Blue Mountain, 50th Parallel and Tantalus Vineyards.

But what marvellous wines! All but two that I tasted scored 90 points or more. The styles vary considerably but, in general, all showed classic aromas and flavours that ranged from strawberry to cherry to spicy plum. Some were light; some were full-bodied. Almost all had the silky texture of good Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is among the most versatile of red wines. The sensuous character of the aromas, flavours and texture means that it can be enjoyed on its own more easily than bigger reds. As a food wine, it pairs especially well with salmon. My absolute favourite food pairing is a simple mushroom risotto.

I already noted the impressive Mission Hill Martin’s Lane Reserve 2013. Others that were particular standouts included Privato 2012 Pinot Noir; LaFrenz Pinot Noir Reserve 2013; Meyer Mclean Creek 2013; Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve 2012; Road 13 Castle Vineyard 2012; and Stoneboat 2012.


At August 24, 2015 at 7:42 PM , Blogger Maatje Stamp-Vincent said...

Pinot Noir is a wonderful wine. The movie Sideways was definitely one to take a pass on.


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