There was a time, not long ago, when one could have reasonably argued that British Columbia possessed two signature grape varieties. Merlot was, and still is, the most prominent component in the south Okanagan Valley’s powerful Bordeaux-style blends, which account for most of the cuvées often described as trophy reds. Meanwhile, on the white front, there is pinot gris, a grape that clearly does well in the Pacific Northwest and is also considered a signature of nearby Oregon.
Many fans of other grapes produced in the valley would beg to differ, of course. But don’t set your vineyard dogs loose on me just yet. I’m not saying merlot or pinot gris are somehow superior. And my intention is to make a contrarian point anyway. Today, it’s obvious that those grapes are looking over their shoulders as other varieties elbow their way in and grab a bigger share of the spotlight.
I’m talking about such compelling examples as syrah, cabernet franc, grenache, tempranillo, pinot blanc, sémillon, sauvignon blanc, riesling, gewürztraminer, viognier and even grüner veltliner. I probably don’t need to mention chardonnay, which is a staple of too many other wine regions. Have I missed any big ones? Ah, yes, thank you: pinot noir.
I love grape-epiphany stories, such as that of Luke Smith, the proprietor and winemaker at Howling Bluff Estate Winery. In 2004, the former Vancouver investment banker traded in his leather loafers for rubber boots, heading eastward into the B.C. Interior with his family with the intention of growing Bordeaux-style reds based on merlot and cabernet, the sorts of wines often gulped by stockbrokers at spare-no-expense deal-closing dinners. Smith soon had a not-entirely-rude awakening. His land in Naramata near Penticton was far better at consistently ripening cool-climate-loving pinot noir than late-harvested merlot, a fact that began to sink in after the wine he made from a small pinot parcel won a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Excellence in British Columbia Wines (the first of three such distinctions he would go on to capture). Smith has since become a pinot missionary and living argument for keeping an open mind and “listening to the land,” as grower’s like to say.
With the exceptions of pinot noir, syrah, cabernet franc and perhaps sauvignon blanc, the Okanagan’s other compelling varieties are not yet nipping at the heels of merlot and pinot gris in terms of signature stature, of course. But I’d say that diversity has been – unlike those vineyard dogs, I hope – certifiably unleashed.
Howling Bluff Three Mile Creek Pinot Noir 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35
This is the signature wine from Howling Bluff, owned by Luke Smith. The former Vancouver investment banker read the writing on the wall, or the soil, and uprooted other varieties on his Naramata estate to accommodate pinot noir. Smart move. This pretty offering shows delectably jammy, raspberry-like fruit and is big on baking spices, pepper and caramel. Made in minuscule quantities. Available direct through howlingbluff.ca.
Laughing Stock Pinot Gris 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.99
Generously textured, fleshy and eager to please with ripe pear and grilled tropical fruit plus whispers of vanilla and ginger. This was fermented partly in older, neutral wood as well as in stainless steel and concrete for a combination of creamy weight and vibrant backbone. Very attractively priced for the quality. Available direct through laughingstock.ca and at select private stores.
River Stone Corner Stone 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $34.90
A Bordeaux-style blend consisting of cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot. This comes from a small operation run by the husband-and-wife team of Ted Kane, a former Edmonton respiratory therapist, and Lorraine Kane, a rural family doctor in Osoyoos, near the winery’s home vineyard in Oliver. Judiciously ripened, it offers up notes of cassis, coffee, cedar and bracing spice, with grippy, grainy tannins for solid backbone. The finish is warm and spicy and vaguely suggestive of plum jam. Well-structured, it should mature gracefully for up to eight years. Available direct through riverstoneestatewinery.ca.
Noble Ridge Chardonnay Reserve 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.90
Full, creamy and bright, this is deftly balanced. Tropical fruit meets butter, roasted nuts and vanilla in a package that sings with crisp acidity. More Burgundian than most West Coast chardonnays. Available direct through nobleridge.com.
Winemaker’s Cut Syrah 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $32
This is smooth, polished syrah, less extracted than most of its West Coast kin. Call it European, analogous to, say, Crozes-Hermitage, with – as we like to say in the wine-writing game – elegance versus power. Think of cherry jam with licorice, dark chocolate and a dusting of cracked pepper. If owners Michal and Martina Mosny were tailors, I’d say, “nicely cut.” Available at the winery and select private B.C. stores; winemakerscut.ca.
Road 13 GSM 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $36.52
Voluptuous and velvety, bordering on sticky yet – hooray – it pulls back from the cliff of cloying overripeness. This is a fine, if rare, B.C. example of a New World style more closely associated with Australia and inspired by the southern Rhône, a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Delectably jammy currant and strawberry, with baking-spice lift as well as intriguing notes of espresso, vanilla, smoky cigar and cedar. Available direct through road13vineyards.com and at private wine stores in the West.
Hester Creek Old Vines Block 16 Trebbiano 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.95
From what the winery describes as the only block of trebbiano in the Okanagan, this comes from 50-year old vines planted in the year the Band released Music from Big Pink and McDonald’s rolled out the Big Mac. Not your Italian grandfather’s (or in my case, father’s) trebbiano, this is utterly rich and almost off-dry, with notes of peach, pear and green melon. Vibrant, too, with no oak in sight. Available direct through hestercreek.com.
Clos du Soleil Winemaker’s Series Pinot Blanc 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $22.90
From the Similkameen Valley, just west of the Okanagan. Medium-bodied, this tastes not entirely unlike a South African chenin blanc, with good tension between fruit richness and tang. Lemon, grapefruit, flowers and subtle stoniness – a blanc with character. Available direct through closdusoleil.ca. The price is $20.61 if you sign up for the estate’s wine club.
Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.90
Light and sharply chiselled, this was fermented with natural yeasts and weighs in at just 12-per-cent alcohol. It’s a rocket burst of lemon followed by a trail of mineral dust and herbs. Definitely not for the acid-squeamish who prefer a smooth ride. Fasten your seat belts. Available direct through bluemountainwinery.com and at select private stores in the West.
Bartier Bros. Sémillon 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.99
Admirably low in alcohol, at just 11.8 per cent, this wild-fermented white might at first blush draw comparisons with the low-octane and classic sémillons of Australia’s Hunter Valley. Not a very good parallel, though. Whereas the trademark Aussie style is bone-dry, this one’s subtly off-dry. And it’s generously fruited, with sweet peach and lemon candy in the foreground and a hint of stone in the background. A smart choice for sushi or spicy curries or stir fries. Available direct through bartierbros.com. The wine club price is $16.19.