At this time each year, winemakers begin to obsess about the growing season. Will the yield be meagre because of winter bud damage? Will persistent rain induce rot? Will pestilence damage vines? Speaking of pests, will newspaper wine critics finally stop calling to ask dumb questions about how the vintage is faring?
I love to gab with winemakers and growers about the season's progress. It gives me greater appreciation for the labour and passion that goes into my (sometimes pricey) handcrafted beverage. But I also appreciate that most wine consumers are less interested in the future than they are in the past. The wine on store shelves today was made months or – in the case of most barrel-aged cuvées – years ago, and it's the quality of past vintages that counts on tonight's dinner table.
I have been tucking deeply into British Columbia's past recently, savouring an array of new products from the terrific 2012 and 2013 growing seasons. They generally represent a strong improvement over 2010 and 2011, two cloudy vintages that produced fewer gems and separated good growers and winemakers from the not so good.
"I think in general everybody would say 2012 and 2013 were two two excellent vintages," says Nikki Callaway, senior winemaker at Quails' Gate on the shore of Okanagan Lake in West Kelowna. "They allowed ripeness. There's a good balance of acidity. The aromatics were quite lifted."
The quality of 2012's harvest is conspicuous in Quails' Gate's sublime 2012 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay, a voluptuous yet vibrant white that delivers a burst of grilled pineapple and vanilla. And 2013's sunshine (though interrupted in September by heavy rain) is evident across the board in the early-bottled aromatic white varieties that tend to see no oak-barrel aging, such as riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris.
"We call '12 a good year and '13 a great year," says Bob Johnson, co-owner, with wife Petra Flaa, of Baillie-Grohman, a five-year-old estate outside Creston, several valleys to the east of the Okanagan. Baillie-Grohman's 2013 gewurztraminer (blended with a splash of soft, aromatic schoenberger) and a white blend called Récolte Blanc helped me shed the blues of a ruthless winter.
This week, I focus on a few highlights of my sampling of B.C. whites. In a couple of weeks, I'll turn to reds. As with most fine B.C. wines, production quantities are small. The products below are most easily sourced directly from the wineries, assuming they'll agree to ship to your province. Check winery websites for contact information or store availability.
For readers further east looking for imported and domestic liquor-store offerings, I'll post a bunch of micro-reviews on Twitter starting May 17 at @Beppi_Crosariol. A sneak peek of the top choices: Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2013 from New Zealand ($23.95), Jean-Max Roger Cuvée G.C. Sancerre 2012 from France ($28.95), Santa Barbara Winery Chardonnay 2012 from California ($21.95), Fowles Wine The Exception Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 from Australia ($24.95) and La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2011 from Italy ($15.95).
Quails' Gate Chardonnay Stewart Family Reserve 2012 (B.C.)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35
A marvellous, medium-full-bodied chardonnay with big flavours, this nonetheless comes on a nimble frame. The nose is smoke and minerals, foreshadowing the palate, rich in mango, grilled pineapple and vanilla. Fans of white Burgundy (chardonnay's highest achievement) will love the flint-bomb, matchstick overtones. I do. Keep a case on hand for me, dear Quails' Gate; I may be showing up at your gate very soon. www.quailsgate.com
Meyer Family Vineyards McLean Creek Road Chardonnay 2012 (B.C.)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $30
Meyer is an Okanagan star, born – unlike literal stars – just six years ago. The small estate, owned by Jak Meyer and wife Janice Stevens-Meyer, is focused on chardonnay and pinot noir, chief white and red grapes, respectively, of Burgundy, the undisputed wine-nerd capital of the world. What a gem this is, thousands of kilometres from fancy-wine France. It's soft and seductive, with come-hither tropical fruit followed by buttered popcorn and toasty, doughy bread. www.mfvwines.com
Joie Farm Un-Oaked Chardonnay 2013 (B.C.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.90
Medium-bodied and silky, with soft fruit hinting at melon and banana, this white is woven tightly with a thread of fine acidity. Layered, subtle and tense, it could stand proudly next to a premier-cru Chablis. Important: Let the wine warm for 10 minutes after pulling it from the fridge. Warmth will soften the acidity and release more of that gorgeous fruit, bringing it into joieful balance. www.joiefarm.com
Fort Berens 23 Camels 2013 (B.C.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17
A blend of riesling, chardonnay and pinot gris, this falls into a modern "aromatic white blend" category that is all the rage in North America. Among the most northerly wineries on the planet, Fort Berens is based in Lillooet, far northwest from the Okanagan and northeast of Whistler. The wine's name is an homage to John Callbreath, a 19th-century pioneer who imported 23 camels as pack animals for the Cariboo gold rush. Medium-bodied and silky, this instantly reminded me of the sorts of flavours found in finer northeastern Italian whites – with pronounced ripe pear, apricot, flowers, musky spice and a satisfyingly weighty mid-palate and long finish. www.fortberens.ca
Stag's Hollow Riesling Amalia Vineyard 2013 (B.C.)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20
Many New World riesling producers genuflect before the opulent Germanic-Alsatian styles. Understandable. But the sugar that gives those wines their luscious midpalate suffocates most other wannabe rieslings. I can't explain the chemistry; it's just true. Err on the side of less sugar and more acidity, I say. Here's a role model, light and refreshingly dry, with an uncanny flavour of fresh peach and a succulent mid-palate enlivened by zippy lime-like verve. Bonus: It weighs in at just 11.5-per-cent alcohol. www.stagshollowwinery.com
SpierHead Pinot Gris 2013 (B.C.)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20
Here's a stylish, serious pinot gris in a different league from most lesserpriced pinot grigios. Medium-bodied and dry, with juicy pear in a starring role, it's lifted by fresh acidity and a welcome suggestion of flint. It's clean, complex and perfectly balanced. Just 490 cases were produced. www.spierheadwinery.com
Hester Creek Trebbiano 2013 (B.C.)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $22.95
Trebbiano is Italy's workhorse white grape, long undistinguished as anonymous jug-wine fare. Recently, though, a few producers in that country have been taking it to new heights with the right growing techniques and respect in the cellar. This fine example is, according to Hester Creek, the Okanagan's only trebbiano, made from grapes planted in the ancient year of 1968. The 2013 is light-medium-bodied and silky, with satisfying roundness and subtle honeyed sweetness in the mid-palate, akin to the relative richness of some of Italy's new-wave trebbianos. The winery recommends pairing it with Thai stir-fry. Sounds good to me.