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
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Davis 1 Clone that he planted has since been replaced by better Dijon clones.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’
The only British
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
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
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
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
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.