On 2007, Barbara Philip became Canada’s first female Master
of Wine with a thesis examining whether Pinot Blanc should be signature variety
of the Okanagan.
Barbara has since become a senior portfolio manager for BC
Liquor Stores with more responsibility for listing imported wines than Okanagan
wines. That reflects the fact that the very challenging course of study for an
MW equips the graduates with an extremely broad knowledge of the wines of the
One of fewer than 350 MWs in the world, she may well be the
best qualified portfolio manager that BCL has ever had, even if her peers and
her predecessors also know more about wine than most of the rest of us.
Barbara and her thesis came to mind when I was tasting the
splendid Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2015. When Barbara was doing her research,
we spent a long and delightful lunch discussing the suitability of Pinot Blanc
as the Okanagan’s signature grape.
The case for Pinot Blanc is its bullet-proof reliability. It
was the most successful variety in the Becker project (1977-1985), in which
European varietals were grown in two test plots in the Okanagan. On the
strength of that, significant acreages of Pinot Blanc were planted.
In subsequent years, it has been overtaken by Pinot Gris,
Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. These are all
varieties (except for Chardonnay) that produce more aromatic whites. Chardonnay
is a chameleon that winemakers can shape into great wines.
Pinot Blanc? The problem with Pinot Blanc, I suggested to
Barbara, is that “it is the Holiday Inn of grapes: there are no surprises.”
The delicious Blue Mountain wine reminded me that my
flippant wise crack was a bit unfair to a very reliable and drinkable grape.
I believe I also argued that the Okanagan’s terroir is so
complex that no single variety does well everywhere in the valley, with the
possible exception of Riesling. Ten years ago, when Barbara was tasting good
examples of Pinot Blanc, Riesling was just starting to get the profile it now
I don’t think we even talked about Sauvignon Blanc which, by
then, had established itself as New Zealand’s signature grape.
The style of Okanagan Sauvignon Blanc is all over the map.
Some producers make wines with the zesty gooseberry notes of New Zealand.
Others producer riper wines with lush tropical flavours. Some barrel ferment the
grapes; or blend them with Sémillon. Some produce wines that are herbal,
reminiscent of Sancerre.
The Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc is steely and smoky and
herbal. Think of Sancerre.
I don’t know whether consumers get confused as they navigate
through the Sauvignon Blanc landscape. But I am sure they never are confused by
Pinot Blanc. Perhaps Barbara has a point after all.
Here are notes on the two wines.
Blue Mountain Pinot
($18). Some 55% of this wine was fermented and aged in stainless
steel while the rest was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and aged on
the lees for five months. All fermentation was with native yeast. The wine
begins with aromas of melon, apples and cantaloupe, leading to flavours of apples
and pears. The wine has good weight on the palate with a crisp finish. 92.
Sauvignon Blanc 2015
($19). Seventy-five per cent of this was fermented
with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. The remainder was fermented in two
to four-year-old French oak, aging on the lees for five months. The wine has
complex aromas of herbs and grapefruit which are echoed on the palate. A
mineral backbone contributes to the wine’s crisp finish. 90.