Monday, March 30, 2020

40 Knots champions orange wine

Photo:  Brenda Hetman Craig and Layne Craig

In recent years, more and more wineries have begun to release orange wines.

The first examples I tasted struck me as a fad, and one that I hoped would soon die. The wines often had a tannic bitterness on the finish and favours that reminded me of Cuban cigars. There was a time when I enjoyed the occasional cigar. But I never wanted to drink one.

40 Knots Winery, a producer at Comox on Vancouver Island, is making me rethink my views on orange wine. The winery’s current releases include three vintages. All are delicious and none taste like cigars.

Orange wines are white wines that have been fermented and aged briefly on the skins. The wines pick up the orange hue primarily from pigments in the skins. Depending on the varietal and the winemaking technique, some of the colour and tobacco flavours may also come from slight oxidation.

It is a matter of your palate whether you like notes of oxidation. I prefer a wine to be fresh and clean, even an orange wine.

Layne Craig, who calls himself the owner, janitor, farmer and grape fermenter at 40 Knots, seems to have mastered the technique of making orange wines that are fresh.

These wines are made with Schönburger grapes; one vintage also has some Pinot Gris in the blend. Both of these varieties have some colour in the skins of mature grapes.

Schönburger is a lightly pink-skinned variety developed in Germany in 1939. According to Wine Grapes, the book by Jancis Robinson and colleagues, it is a cross of Pinot Noir and Pirovano I. The latter is a cross of Muscat of Hamburg and Chasselas Rosé.
Schönburger, which was only authorized in 1980, is named for the town of Schönburg in Germany’s Mittelrhein wine region. It seems it is more widely planted in England than Germany because it ripens early. That suggests it is well suited to Vancouver Island.

Schönberger is one of the synonyms for the grape.  It is the spelling that 40 Knots uses of its labels. I prefer the spelling similar to the town, as if it matters.

To make the orange wines, Layne places the grapes, without crushing, in an Italian-made terracotta amphora. They are fermented with wild yeast, with gentle punchdowns and with minimal additions of sulphur. The wine remains in contact with the skins for three months. The wine is bottled without either fining or filtering.

The winemaking technique is risky compared with traditional winemaking but, as the cliché has it, “no risk, no reward”.

The rest of the 40 Knots portfolio is relatively conventional.

The 40 Knots winery was opened in 2011 by Bill Montgomery, a former towboat company owner who planted a sizeable vineyard near Comox in 2007 and 2008. The 18 acres include Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gamay Noir.  He put the winery on the market a year after opening when he discovered that it involved an overwhelming amount of work.

The winery was purchased by Layne and his wife, Brenda Hetman-Craig, a business couple from Fort St. John who wanted to buy and operate a family business. They have had the energy to do it.

With consulting help from Okanagan winemakers Matt Dumayne and Michael Bartier,  Layne mastered viticulture and winemaking, Some of the winemaking techniques, like fermenting in terracotta amphorae with wild yeast, are comparatively cutting edge.

Here are notes on the wines.

40 Knots Soleil Rosé 2018 ($36.90). This is a delicious traditional method sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The Pinot Noir dosage no doubt bolstered the pink colour, the fruity aroma and the flavours of strawberry and cherry, The residual sugar, which lifts the flavours, is superbly balanced with lively acidity. 91..

40 Knots Spindrift Extra-Brut 2018 ($36.90). This traditional method sparkling wine is made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The grapes were harvested early, the winery says, “to ensure a higher acidity.” The acidity here is certainly racy (9.7% with no residual sugar). The wine has an active mousse, with aromas of melon and citrus and with tart green apple flavours. 89.

40 Knots Sieg 2018 ($22.90 for 278 cases). The variety in this wine is Siegerrebe, a full-flavoured German white. The winery has resolved the challenging pronunciation by labelling the wine just with the first syllable. The wine has dramatic aromas of lime, lemon and spice that are echoed on the palate. With just 10.9% alcohol, the wine is light and fresh. 90.

40 Knots Auxerrois 2018 ($24.90 for 163 cases). Auxerrois is an Alsace white variety that was embraced by the early estate wineries, but less so by consumers – for no good reason that I can discern. Layne takes the variety seriously: this wine was fermented in French oak and aged in barrel and on the lees for seven months. The wine has a slight blush. Oak notes are barely perceptible. The wine has aromas and flavours of apple and cantaloupe. It also had good weight on the palate, with a dry finish. 90

40 Knots Pinot Noir 115 Amphora 2017 ($42.90 for 167 cases). The clone 115 Pinot Noir was fermented as whole clusters in the terracotta a amphora, with extended maceration. After pressing, the wine was returned to the amphora for nine months and then finished in neutral oak barrels. The wine has a lovely silky texture. It delivers aromas and flavours of cherry and spice. 90.

40 Knots Gamay Noir 2018 ($26.90 for 343 cases). This is a bright, light-bodied wine with aromas and flavours of cherry and cranberry. There is a hint of pepper on the finish. 88.

40 Knots L’Orange 2016 ($36.90 for 1,132 litres). This wine is made with Schönburger grapes fermented with wild yeast in an amphora. The wine remained in contact with the skins for three months. The wine has a lovely orange hue and aromas of mango and orange. It has flavours of orange peel and spice. The finish is dry. 90.

40 Knots L’Orange 2017 ($36.90 for 1,743 litres). This is a blend of Schönburger and Pinot Gris. Again, the wine begins with aromas of tropical fruits leading to flavours of orange peel and spice. The finish is dry but lingering. 91.

40 Knots L’Orange 2018 ($36.90 for 107 cases). The hue is more of a blush. Everything about this wine is slightly less intense – a touch less spice, a touch less orange peel, lighter weight on the palate. That is not a criticism; it seems to reflect a vintage variation. 90.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

COVID-19 and BC wineries

Photo: Lorraine and Ted Kane of River Stone Estate Winery

It is clear that the wine touring season that should have started in April in British Columbia will not happen. Most consumers are restricted to their homes in the fight to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

This is very dire news for wineries. Several key sales channels, including sales to restaurants, are seizing up. However, wineries and the BC Wine Institute are moving quickly to revitalize other channels for selling BC wines.

The first response of most wineries has been to offer free shipping of wines to on-line customers. A recent BCWI survey found that 86% of the responding wineries now offer free shipping (most wineries also said that their usual retail channels are holding back from ordering wines).

Online sales may well prove the salvation of the wine business at this time. A recent report from Rabobank, an American bank dealing with agribusiness, said that “E-commerce is exploding across the industry.” The bank reported huge percentage increases in wine sales from both existing winery customers and from new customers.

“Wineries are set to see a dramatic drop in tasting room sales,” the bank said. “Data shares with Robobank indicates that winery tasting room sales were down 40% during the first two weekends in March, compared to the February average.”

The same trend is likely to play out for British Columbia wineries.

The closure of restaurants has been catastrophic for winery sales in the United States. Rabobank reports that the “on-premise channel sells about US$ 10 billion per month. If the ban on sit-down dining lasts two months (perhaps at a very minimum), the channel would likely see at least US$ 15 billion, likely closer to US$ 20 billion, in lost sales for alcohol alone.”
Obviously, the numbers in Canada will be much lower but the trend is likely the same.

That is why wineries are working so hard to rev up on-line sales with free shipping. Typical is this recent announcement from Mission Hill Family Estate:


Our online shop is stocked with current vintages of our Legacy Collection, Terroir Collection, and Reserve Collection wines as well as a hand-picked selection of library releases that are drinking beautifully right now.

Our commitment is to accommodate our guests’ request with minimal interruption. Going forward, all orders, regardless of the quantity purchased, will receive complimentary shipping until further notice.

As a typical example from a small winery, here is what Michal Mosny at Winemaker’s CUT has released online:

As the situation caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) quickly evolves, we want to assure you that Winemaker’s CUT Estate Winery is operating as usual, and all our vineyards and wines are being well taken care of.
During COVID-19 pandemic we would like to offer FREE SHIPPING on any order of 4 bottles and more. This offer is valid until the state of emergency in our province will be called off to support social distancing / isolation.
Some wineries limit how far afield they will ship wines. Others imply, or say so expressly, that they will ship directly to consumers across the country, including into Alberta or Ontario.
“It is still technically illegal,” BCWI president Miles Prodan said in a webinar this week. “What is the risk of shipping direct? It depends on your risk tolerance. It is up to your individual decision – but I can’t imagine they would be enforcing the rule with vigor.”
Neither can I but one never knows with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
The BCWI has encouraged the wineries to have websites up to date. The BCWI itself is developing digital tools to help the industry. It is also advocating with government for concessions to help wineries conserve cash. That includes asking that fees be waived and asking the Liquor Distribution Branch to pay wineries for product within 30 days rather than 60 days.
No doubt, wineries are communicating even more often with the members of their wine clubs. Even if those members are themselves conserving cash, wineries need to look down the road to when the world is normal again. Out of sight, out of mind is not a strategy for survival.
I was struck by the commentary to customers by Lorraine Kane, co-owner with husband Ted of River Stone Estate Winery, a small producer near Oliver with excellent wines. It also happens that she is a physician.  Let me reproduce her words here:
I have to confess I have been pretty stressed for the last week. As you may know, in addition to my small contributions at the winery, I am a rural GP. It has been a week since I saw the Italian ICU doctor talk about having to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. Then, COVID19 was declared a pandemic.

As we all now know, this virus is coming soon to a community near you. No longer is the question ‘if’ but instead ‘when’ and ‘how’.

I am worried about our parents, our kids, my patients, our staff and our customers and way down the list, our business. Mostly, I just want to keep everyone safe. At my clinic, we have changed all the visits we can to virtual visits and are trying to keep up with who to test and how to prepare.

At the winery, we are no longer doing tastings and have set up a drive through service. Honestly, our whites were just bottled last week and aren’t ready for release yet and usually we aren’t even open yet, so not doing tastings is not that big of a deal. We opened early last weekend to help with cash flow as we have purchased another piece of land! So much for that, but there is always the line of credit. We will be okay.

This new land purchase is exciting news, and this is not how we wanted to tell all our wonderful supporters, but there it is. The land is another 10-acre parcel, already planted and nearby. Ted has been busy planning and pruning now that the 2019 whites and rosé are in bottle.  Spring is progressing despite COVID and soon the vines will start pushing and budding out so the pruning needs to get done.

With regard to the wine shop, we are hoping to be able to have guests safely use our patio and picnic area. Maintaining mental health and social connections is very important and will become even more so as our worries become reality. I am very proud of the water feature we put in last spring and it looks like the fish have survived the winter. Stay tuned on how you can safely visit us. It is about physical distancing while maintaining social connections. For those who are stuck in more urban areas, we are planning to do virtual tastings and vineyard tours.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Meyer wine is tribute for artist Gordon Smith

Photo: Vintner and art lover JAK Meyer

Meyer Family Vineyards has the tradition of making a “tribute” Chardonnay each vintage, with $5,000 going to a cause associated with the honoree.

Over the years, the choices have certainly been eclectic. They have ranged from Kenny McLean, a legendary rodeo rider from Okanagan Falls, to hockey greats Steve Yzerman, Pat Quinn and Kelly Hrudey, to Olympians figure skater Joannie Rochette and Donovan Tildesley.

That suggests that winery owners JAK and Janice Meyer have a strong interest in sports; they have an equally strong interest in the arts. The first two Tribute Chardonnay wines in 2006 and 2007 honoured the Emily Carr School of Art and Design; and artist Bill Reid.

The Tribute Chardonnay in 2018 returns to honouring an artist: West Vancouver’s Gordon Appelbe Smith, who died in January at age 100. The winery’s donation goes to the Gordon & Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists.

Smith was born in Britain; his father was an amateur painter. Smith came to Canada in 1933 with his mother and brother. They settled in Winnipeg where he took classes at the Winnipeg School of Art.

In the Second World War, he served overseas, working initially as an intelligence officer producing topographic drawings. Wounded during the invasion of Sicily, he returned to Vancouver in 1944, worked in the advertising department of the Vancouver Sun and had his first showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The winery’s notes on his career are as follows:

“Gordon Smith was a celebrated Canadian artist whose work can be seen in important collections such as the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“This dedication to the arts led Gordon to mentor young artists including some of today’s most influential names in contemporary Canadian art. … For the better part of his long life, he was to find time to mentor young artists and give painting lessons to children in his neighbourhood.

“Many often remark that Gordon’s wife Marion had two careers – as a celebrated social worker and as Gordon’s boss. Her opinion and great eye for art influenced Gordon; he always asked her opinion on his latest work. Her career in Social Services for the City of Vancouver was marked by her strong belief that supporting the arts created healthy communities. …

“Together, their tireless work and dedication over the past 50 years has strongly influenced the progression of Canadian art and helped shape the lives of thousands of young artists.”

Some of Smith’s work, among with works by other leading Canadian painters, can been seen at the Gordon Smith Galley in North Vancouver. The gallery also has programs fostering art by youth.

On the same week that I was reviewing the Meyer wines, Shafer Vineyards of California sent out one of its periodic Line on Wine columns. The latest one offers 10 facts all about Chardonnay which, according to Shafer, is the most widely planted white wine grape in the world.

Legend has it that Charlemagne had Chardonnay planted in Burgundy because his wife was “fed up with the red wine stains in his beard.”

There is also an explanation for the so-called buttery flavours in some Chardonnay wines. It comes from “diacetyl, an organic compound, [and] a by-product of malolactic fermentation.” That fermentation converts the malic acid in the wine to lactic acid – hence the buttery flavour.

Here are notes on the Meyer wines.

Meyer McLean Creek Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($33.00 for 680 cases). The wine begins with buttery citrus aromas. On the palate, bright fruit flavours mingle with a subtle note of oak. 91.

Meyer Tribute Series Chardonnay Old Main Road Vineyard 2018 ($35 for 640 cases). There are abundant buttery notes that mingle with the aromas and flavours of citrus and apple. The texture is full. The finish is persistent. This is a very elegant wine, and fitting for a tribute wine. 92.

Meyer McLean Creek Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($40 for 1,000 cases). This wine was fermented with indigenous yeast and, after maceration, spent 11 months in French oak (25% new). It begins with aromas of cherry and plum which are echoed on the palate. The wine is still youthful and firm and should be cellared for several years to unlock the potential here. 91.

Meyer Old Block Pinot Noir 2018 ($50 for 363 cases). Dark in hue, this full-bodied Pinot Noir has aromas and flavours of cherry, plum and spice. The finish is persistent. 92.

Meyer Blanc de Blanc Methode Traditionelle Extra Brut 2014 ($40 for 350 cases). The base wine for this Chardonnay sparkling wine was aged for two years before being bottled for its secondary fermentation. It spent 28 months on the lees and was then disgorged without dosage. The result is an elegant wine with a fine mousse and a creamy impression on the palate. The wine, with toasty and lemony notes, is fresh and fruity on the palate. 90.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sandra Oldfield offers sage advice

 Photo: Sandra Oldfield  (credit Chris Mason Stearns)

More and more British Columbia wineries have stopped offering tastings. Some may have shut their wine shops entirely to further social distancing in this time of COVID-19.

At the same time, most are offering free shipping within BC, and sometimes nationally, to encourage online wine sales because the usual sales channels have seized up..

This is, in fact, a time to consider ordering from your favourite wineries. This will help them stay afloat as their restaurant sales are cratering and when there is no prospect of serious winery tourism before mid-year, even when wine shops are open.

Typical of what wineries are telling their customers now are emails from just three Okanagan wineries.

This from Blasted Church Vineyards:  

“This is a most difficult time for everyone, but like you, we are all determined to making a difference for the common good.

“If you would like to support us and our team, please consider purchasing wine from our website. We are pleased to provide free shipping, and timely delivery to your homes.

“We are eternally grateful to everyone who continues to support us.” 

Or this from Kitsch Wines in Kelowna: “In the spirit of community and our love for this great country and all of those in it, we are offering FREE CANADA WIDE SHIPPING for all online purchases of 4 bottles or more. We ship in quantities of 4, 6, 8 or 12 and mix & match is totally cool.”

Or from Wild Goose Vineyards, which plans to open its tasting room next month: “If you would like to order wine and are uncomfortable with coming into the winery just call up ahead of time and we will bring the wines out to you in the parking lot! If you don't live locally and would like to order our wines, we are providing free delivery on a case (12) or more, until the tasting room opens on Good Friday. To place an order either call us at 250-497-8919, email us at or go online and place an order  at (Please call if you have any troubles). Some couriers are not requiring signatures right now but rather anyone accepting wines from a courier will need to be visually verified for age.” 

Let me also reproduce advice to wineries posted earlier this month by Sandra Oldfield, the former president of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards:

It occurred to me that many BC wineries were not in existence since our last major crisis–not the month-long disruption caused by forest fires, SARS and Alberta boycotts but September 11, 2001. Even for wineries that were in business 19 years ago many may have forgotten how that impacted our industry. When tourism was disrupted as it was post 911, it not only resulted in fewer people walking into cellar doors but it also had a big impact on sales in the Lower mainland and beyond. People ate out less in restaurants, retail sales were mostly flat (in some cases slightly up) and events were non-existent.
With the COVID-19 virus the same thing is happening but on a much larger scale. We have been rather isolated where most wineries are located, the Okanagan Valley, because as I write this, the outbreak has not yet taken a foothold here–but it is only a matter of time. Tourism will be impacted to an even greater extent because during this crisis, even locals may start staying away from wine touring. In contrast, after 911 the locals seemed to still support our industry and it was mainly the international tourists that stayed away.
The other phenomenon that happened after 911 was the huge rebound that happened 9 months later when the crisis was over. Pent up demand to get back to traveling and spending took over and British Columbia had its largest tourism year still to date in the summer of 2002. Having just attended the BC Tourism Industry Conference in Victoria last week this was confirmed by Caroline Beteta, President and CEO of Visit California, who discussed the bounce back that happened after the multiple natural disasters that state has been plagued with. After the crises were over, there was an inevitable increase in visitations. BC wineries also need to be prepared for that once the COVID-19 virus fades away.
Below are my ideas for what wineries should be doing right now—and I mean now—to prepare for the crisis that is upon us:
1.      Find A Buddy Winery
If there is one thing that many BC wineries are good at, it’s their ability to isolate themselves from the rest of the industry. Now is not the time to do that. I suggest every winery seek out a buddy winery—one in their area—that can help them weather this storm. This can be a winery that you already have a relationship with or one you may have always wished to have a relationship with. It doesn’t matter if you’re the same size or not. It doesn’t matter if you are new to the industry and they have been around for decades. You can always learn from one another.
Buddying up with another winery will allow you to combine information that you are hearing from the marketplace, coming up with strategies on how to handle sick employees or ones that want to work from home and even to begin conversations on how you can share part time employees during this time. There are many part time employees that may not survive this crisis because they may be the first to go with cost savings measures. Before you tell that part time person that you don’t have hours for them, talk with your buddy winery to see if between the two of you there is capacity to share employment to keep that person in our industry. Once they are gone they may be gone forever so it’s time to start getting more flexible and creative and employee sharing is one strategy to do that.
2.     Do an Employee Inventory
If every employee, both part time and full time, seasonal and permanent, had to work from home, could they do that? The answer is probably “no” but often wineries stop there. “No, cellar, vineyard and hospitality employees cannot work from home” I can hear you say. Don’t discount this idea out of hand. Every employee has work that must be done at the winery, there is no doubt about that, but almost every employee also has work that can be done at home.
Your tasting room employee, if underutilized because the tourists aren’t walking in the door in their usual numbers, can update mailing lists from home. They an update credit card information for your wine club and they can look for innovative items for sale in your tasting room for when the flow of customers surge again. Cellar employees can get caught up on paperwork, inventory, bid equalization, capital purchases, packaging decisions and procedure writing from home. When they have to come in to do cellar work, they don’t necessarily need to be at the winery for a complete day. Vineyard employees may not be able to do much work from home but it is a great time to begin implementing a more rigorous health and safety program and maybe that can be done for a few hours in the afternoon once fieldwork is complete. Get good at using Google hangouts or Zoom or any of the various programs out there that help with video meetings. If you’ve never held a management meeting virtually, now is your time to learn. If you don’t learn now, you won’t be ready for the next crisis—and there will always be a next one.
Work from home will also help general managers and winery owners get better at another skill they often lack—trust in their employees. It’s hard to micromanage someone who’s not in the building, but learning how to better trust employees working off site is a skill that this industry needs to get much better at.
3.     Time to Up Your Game
A possible slow down in business allows every person who works at a winery to do those activities that they often put off during the year because they are running at breakneck speed. When was the last time you took a look at your updating your business plan? When was the last time you had a strategic planning session? What was the last innovation you put in action? Right now the BC wine industry is launching the new sustainability certification program—is that something you can now tackle? Do you have all the human resource programs in place at your winery? Have you renewed your marketing plan? Do you have a social media-planning calendar? Have you put in place a preventative maintenance program or updated your WHMIS sheets or started Health and Safety workplace inspections? When was the last time that you had heart to heart conversations with your employees outside of a performance review? Do you even do performance reviews?
When times are tough it is not time to pull back and withdraw. It’s time to leap frog over your old self and reinvent your new self. Grow the pie. Up your game. I can guarantee that your smart competitors will be doing this.
4.     Find Efficiencies
There are two ways to make money—increase your revenues and decrease your expenses. Now is the time to figure out ways to do the later. At the winery I used to run we called this a “rock list”.  In other words, what rocks could we look under and find cost savings. You may be thinking you are already running lean, and that may be true, but this time get all your employees in a room and brainstorm. They are the ones working the front lines and often know areas of fat that can be reduced without an appreciable loss to your image or business. The very last place to look for cost savings, in my opinion, should be with your employees but often wineries start there. In 2001 after 911 happened our winery was in the middle of digging a huge pit for our barrel cellar. We knew there would be a big disruption to tourism and revenues and we started looking at ways to save significant money. We opted to order flat bottom glass rather than the deep punted glass that we usually used and at our volumes, that was a $40,000 savings in that one year. Because of that decision, we did not have to let one of our employees go. I can say in all of the 23 years we ran our winery, we never one time let an employee go for cost saving reasons. A statistic I am most proud of to this day.
Get your employees in a room and come up with ways to shave costs. Put a dollar amount next to each and you will be surprised how small savings add up. Remember, there are two ways to make money and raising your prices or expecting bigger sales during the time of COVID-19 is just not a logical expectation. Do it by finding efficiencies and who knows, you may get into the habit making a “rock list” even when times get better.
5.     Prepare for Growth
As stated at the beginning, a period of increased tourism and growth will follow this downturn and you want to make sure your winery is positioned properly for when that comes. You will need to ramp up tasting room employees—where are you going to find them? Are you keeping prospective employees in the loop as to when you will need them again? If you aren’t, your neighbor winery might be, and you will be struggling to get people in place at the same time that many other wineries will be looking to do the same thing. Have you planned for events that can be rolled out at any time of the year to take advantage of this increase in travelers? Are you producing marketing materials for your sales agents to utilize when restaurant orders pick up? There are a million ways to get your business ready for growth but you need to know that growth will inevitably come.
Is your winery going to be ready to pivot and be prepared to capitalize on the increased sales opportunities or is it going to be caught flat-footed?
I hope this has given you some things to think about in preparation for this upcoming drop in business. Imagine in a few months your winery has formed a new friendship with another winery, has learned to trust employees and given them the flexibility they need to thrive, become more innovative and efficient and become more proactive rather than reactive. Can your winery take the challenges and make them into something meaningful? It is not the crisis that defines us but how we deal with it.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Complications of French wines

Photo: Burgundy's Laurent Drouhin

“C’est compliqué!”

With that phrase, wine writer and co-moderator Jon Bonné set the theme for the plenary session on French wine at the 2020 Vancouver International Wine Festival.

“It is complicated,” he repeated for his unilingual listeners. That is not to reflect negatively on French wines, which Bonné believes are still the greatest in the world. It is just that winegrowing in what is now France began about 600 BC. Complication is inevitable with that much history.

For example, when Laurent Drouhin from Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy speaks of climat, he does not mean climate. A climat in Burgundy is a vineyard. There are thousands, each very likely with an individual terroir.  

Terroir is another complicated concept originating with the French. It is a definition of all the elements, ranging from soil to climate, that govern the character of individual wines. Note how the term was used by Châteauneuf producer Bernard Duseigneur. “My approach is mainly a terroir approach,” he said. “The identity I am looking for in a wine comes first from the soil because we have different terroirs. We have all the soil types and they give different wines using the same grapes.

Viticulture, in pursuit of sustainability as well as better terroir expression in the wines, has become more complicated. Typical is the decision taken by Caroline Frey after buying the historic Domaine Paul Jaboulet in the Rhône in 2006: the vineyards were transitioned to organic production and now are adopting biodynamic practises. The same is happening at Drouhin in Burgundy.

“We are not doing it for marketing reasons,” Laurent Drouhin said. [We want to] “transmit those vineyards to the next generation in good shape.”

The complication confronting all French vignerons is climate change. While it means better Champagnes, it is a challenge elsewhere. Producers are coping by adapting viticultural practises. After a serious drought in 2017, Bernard Duseigneur believes Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers soon will need to install irrigation.

Riper wines with higher alcohol levels are a consequence of global warming. “When I was a kid, I remember my father being happy when he got 12 degrees [alcohol],” Drouhin said. “Today, 13.5% is very common, even close to 14%.”

The challenge is to continue making wines that are balanced. “We are working at green harvesting,” he added. “There are ways to offset the global warming. Mother Natural is resilient. It changes. The problem lately is that those changes have been so fast that I doubt Mother Nature can adapt that fast. We constantly have to keep an eye on that, but until now, we are able to offset and make sure we still have overall balance in the wines.”

Drouhin believes “we can still be able to produce the Grand Cru wines, and maintain the quality and the typicity in the Grand Cru. It will be more and more difficult to get that and to keep that balance in the wines.”

Palates also adapt, he said. “We are getting more tolerant to those high alcohol wines, darker, deeper wines from Burgundy. Go back to the 1970s and taste those wines. Some of you might consider them to be too light. At that time, they were not considered that way.”

One conclusion seems certain: “The wines produced 100 years from now are probably going to be different,”  Drouhin says.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Osoyoos Larose offers Le Grand Vin vertical

Photo: Raphaël Merlaut

Osoyoos Larose Winery had a clever strategy at the Vancouver International Wine Festival: it offered a four-vintage vertical of its flagship Le Grand Vin.

Perhaps that emerged as a way of getting selected for the festival, given that Osoyoos Larose has just two wines. The festival’s selection committee expects participating wineries to offer four or five wines.. Osoyoos Larose got around that by dipping into its library, supplementing its current release with older vintages.

This may also inspire consumers not already doing so to buy and cellar some Le Grand Vin each year. This is one of the top Okanagan reds and it is ideal for building a tasting vertical.

Think of the fine Bordeaux reds that have been collected since Thomas Jefferson’s day and which appear regularly for vertical tastings. The Osoyoos Larose wine is on of the the Okanagan’s most collectible wines.  The reason: the Bordeaux-inspired viticulture and winemaking has informed Osoyoos Larose from its very first vintage in 2001.

Originally, the winery was a joint venture between Vincor International, the Canada’s largest wine group, and Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux. Vincor’s intention was to tap the knowledge of the Bordelaise for the benefit of the Okanagan.

“We had been doing wines in prestigious Bordeaux wineries before we were introduced to the possibility of a joint venture,” I was told last summer by Raphaël Merlaut, the grandson of the founder of Groupe Taillan. “We had a legitimacy in winemaking expertise. Vincor chose our group because they needed a signature.”

The 80-acre Osoyoos Larose vineyard on a spectacular site overlooking Osoyoos Lake and the south end of the Okanagan was planted entirely with Bordeaux red varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

The winery itself was set up in the back corner of Vincor’s sprawling Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver. The only shortcoming of that was that Osoyoos Larose never had a tasting room.

Vincor was taken over in 2006 by Constellation Brands, a big American wine company with little interest in Canadian wineries and even less in joint ventures with the French. Constellation closed Le Clos Jordanne, an Ontario joint venture with a Burgundy group that made fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (Arterra Wines Canada, which bought the former Vincor’s Canadian wineries, is re-opening Le Clos.)

 Constellation did not get the chance to close Osoyoos Larose because Groupe Taillan bought total control in 2013.

After that transaction, Osoyoos Larose was given notice to move out of the Jackson-Triggs winery within five years. The search for a suitable location has taken longer. The 2019 vintage was done in a leased building at the Bordertown winery just outside Osoyoos; and the 2020 Osoyoos Larose wines will be made there as well.

This happened because Groupe Taillan hesitated at the cost of putting a winery on the vineyard, even though space had been set aside for that under the original joint venture. There was a long search for sites closer to Highway 97 with easier access to water, electricity and other services winery needs. The Agricultural Land Commission shot down at least one site.

Groupe Taillan finally gave in: the permanent Osoyoos Larose winery is to be built on the vineyard over the next two years. It will include a tasting room.

What is remarkable is that Groupe Taillan has not walked away from this project and all the headaches.

“A family can have a long-term view, a long-term plan,” Raphäel said “If we were to do something that makes no sense, I guess the long-term future of the company would be at stake. So we cannot do something that does not match with Osoyoos Larose winery, in the sense of quality. It should also reflect the level of quality that we aspire to. And it should also make sense about the future of the winery. We cannot take a risk that would be putting the future of Osoyoos Larose at stake.”

Speaking of the absence of a tasting room, Raphaël drew an amusing parallel between Osoyoos Larose and the dancer in Georges Bizet’s opera, L'Arlésienne, whose face is not revealed.

“It will not last forever that you cannot see this beautiful dancer,” he told me last summer. “We just need to be sure we are making things right. We cannot rush into something. We are trying to build for the long term and we are trying to be faithful to the idea of Osoyoos Larose, which is to be a luxury wine without showing off too much.”

Osoyoos Larose makes just two wines, for a total of 15,000 cases a year. The premium label is called Le Grand Vin and the second label is called Pétales d’Osoyoos. Given that the winemakers have all been from France, there is a strong Bordeaux influence to the style.

Since the release of the first vintages, Le Grand Vin and Pétales d’Osoyoos have been distributed widely in private and government wine stores. One wonders how many more fans this winery would have if there had been a tasting room.

 At least there was one for three days at the Vancouver wine festival. Here are notes on these impressive reds.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2013. The blend is 57% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. This is a harmonious winewith aromas of vanilla and cassis and flavours of black cherry and black currants, along with hints of espresso and dark chocolate on the finish. The texture is still tight, reflecting the ability of this wine to age. 91.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2014. The blend is 68% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot and 5% Malbec. The wine reflects of the finest of Okanagan vintages, beginning with dramatic aromas of black fruits mingled with spice and chocolate. The flavours are intense and concentrated, showing dark cherry, black currant and dark chocolate. 94.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2015. The blend is 71% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. Bold and generous, this wine reflects the warm vintage and its abundant ripeness. There are aromas and flavours of dark cherry and black currant mingled with dark chocolate and tobacco. 93.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2016 ($47.99). The blend is 62.5% Merlot, 12.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11.8% Petit Verdot, 7.7% Cabernet Franc and 5.5% Malbec. This is a marvellous wine. To begin with, the tannin management has made this a little more accessible in its youth than many previous vintages of LGV. It has aromas and flavours of cherry, currant and blueberry. The flavours are bright and lively and the finish persists. 94.

Osoyoos Larose Pétales d’Osoyoos 2016 ($28.99). The blend is 81% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc and 1% each of Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is a juicy, fruit-forward with aromas and flavours of cherry, black currant and blueberry. The subtle, well-managed tannins bring a polished texture to this wine. 91.