One of the most impressive Canadian reds I've had the pleasure of uncorking – or, rather, unscrewing – so far this year ranks nowhere near the most expensive. At $26.95 in B.C., it's downright easy on the Visa next to too many pinot noirs from, say, Prince Edward County or Niagara as well as a tractor-full of Bordeaux-style, merlot-cabernet Okanagan blends.
It's also unlikely to garner the sort of attention that pinot noirs and Bordeaux blends receive because, for Canada at least, the grape designation on the label is an oddity. The wine is Hester Creek Syrah-Viognier 2015, a red-white blend made in the Okanagan Valley. It's a meaty, sweaty, spicy wine, as savoury as they come. If you love bacon (which would include most Canadians, I'm certain), you'll probably like this wine.
Aficionados of the great, pricy Côte-Rôties from France's northern Rhône Valley won't find the varietal combination itself weird. Viognier, a floral-spicy white grape, has long been added in small quantities in that tiny appellation to fermenting tanks to give syrah an aromatic boost. Typically, a Côte-Rôtie will contain somewhere around 5-per-cent viognier, often less, though legally the proportion can be up to 20-per-cent. Regardless of the concentration, you're unlikely to find any grape listed on the label.
There are other Okanagan reds that follow the Côte-Rôtie model, to be sure, such as ones made by excellent producers Le Vieux Pin, C.C. Jentsch and Laughing Stock. Their wines are labelled as single-varietal "syrah," however, with viognier a mere silent partner. In fact, those wines could not legally be called "syrah-viognier" in British Columbia even if the producers cared to list both grapes. That's because the proportion of viognier is too small, south of 10 per cent in all cases.
Can we get legally nerdy for a moment? According to section 26-b of British Columbia's Wines of Marked Quality Regulation, the minority grape in a bottle labelled as a dual varietal must comprise at least 15 per cent by volume (measured at 20 degrees Celsius). When Robert Summers, Hester Creek's senior winemaker, first launched his syrah-viognier with the 2013 vintage, it contained just 6-per cent-viognier – and I loved it then. By the time he released the 2014, however, a starched-collar official from the British Columbia Wine Authority, which enforces wine standards in the province, informed him that his cuvée was as illicit as transporting a case of Canadian rye across provincial borders. The upshot: He was forced to put up or shut up with regard to his viognier content.
Rather than remove the word from his labels and call his wine a "syrah," he chose to bump up the viognier volume to the 15-per-cent minimum. He told me his sales team was convinced "that there's definitely a marketing component" to listing both on the label. That would appear also to be the conclusion of many Australian wineries, which have created something of a fashion in that country for dual-varietal labelling of shiraz (a.k.a. syrah) and viognier. Lucky them: they're not bound by the 15-per-cent rule and can call their reds shirah-viognier even with 5-per-cent of the white grape in the mix.
"We tried different (blending) trials and it works" at 15 per cent, Summers said. He added, however, that "I'd probably be happier at around eight to 10."
Having tasted, and loved, the 2015 "syrah-viognier," I'm tempted to raise a glass not just to Summers and his winemaking teammate, Mark Hopley, but also to the nagging fine print of British Columbia's wine regulations. Together, they've made an impressionable red.
The Hester Creek wine leads the glowing B.C. reviews below. Big scores for big wines. They include a few 100-per-cent syrahs (with no viognier in the mix). All are available direct from their respective B.C. estates and in some cases at private B.C. and Alberta liquor stores. Don't live in the West? Try ordering wine online; it's the thirst-quenching wave of the future.
Hester Creek Syrah-Viognier 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $26.95
Glossy-smooth yet vibrant and tangy. This is meaty syrah in a textural and flavour sense, with suggestions of bacon and beef jus wafting over the spiced-plum and blackberry-jam fruit, along with cedar and the caramel influence of a combination of American and French oak. Not a fan of bacon? Think of it as "dried salami," as the sharply crafted tasting notes in the winery's tech sheet declare. Superb Okanagan red with a nod and wink to Côte-Rôtie. Just 1,111 cases made. Available direct, www.hestercreek.com.
Quails' Gate The Boswell Syrah 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $54.99
Luscious, smooth and succulent. Lavish plum and blackberry-jam with chunky, melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate, smoky oak and the jus of caramelized roast-beef ends (not literally, which is either good or bad depending on your taste). This big, dense red is great now but should cellar well for up to a decade. Available direct, www.quailsgate.com.
Vanessa Vineyard Right Bank 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.99
Somebody call Interpol. Clearly this red was stolen from barrels resting in the finest cellars of Pomerol. Actually, that can't be, because there's sunnier, richer fruit here than in most wines from that district of Bordeaux. The "right bank" reference here is appropriate, though. It denotes the wines of Bordeaux's eastern flank, where smooth merlot dominates the blends that tend to comprise smaller proportions of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, as does this beauty from British Columbia's Similkameen Valley. Polished in texture, poised in stature and firmly structured, it shows perfectly ripened fruit suggesting cherry and raspberry, with notes of chocolate, tangy spice and, I dare say, Bordeaux-style graphite. The tannins are fine-grained and elegant. Worth cellaring for up to a decade. Maybe much more (who knows?). Available direct, www.vanessavineyard.com.
Stag's Hollow Syrah 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $25.99
Succulent and chewy, with a thick, almost sticky texture carrying ripe berry fruit, dark chocolate, licorice, pepper, suede and underbrush. So much going on for the money, and very harmonious. Invigorating, spicy life on the finish. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. Available direct, www.stagshollowwinery.com.
Black Hills Syrah 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.90
Muscular and smooth, like Drake (in the recent photos I've seen of the rapper), this is punchy, concentrated New World syrah. The gang's all here: plum, blackberry, black pepper and licorice along with dark-roast coffee and dark chocolate. Polished tannins and fresh acidity round out the picture. Available direct, www.blackhillswinery.com.
Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.97
A cabernet with energy (are you listening, Napa Valley?). Full and ripe yet with tangy-juicy verve. Black currant, black-olive tapenade, cedar and cigar box with a whisper of mint. Textbook cabernet that tastes natural rather than engineered. Available direct, www.township7.com.
Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.99
Medium-full and velvety-ripe, showing supple dark-skinned fruit followed by spice, chocolate, vanilla and a smoky-herbal essence. A luscious and layered cab franc that should still manage to please fans of the leaner Loire Valley style. Smartly crafted. www.tinhorn.com.