For a while there, spring in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley seemed like a case of Waiting for Godot. Cool, damp conditions prevailed for much of April and May, stalling the growth cycle by as much as two to three weeks. But Matt Mavety, winemaker at Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars, is among the few who managed to find a silver lining in the season's dreary start. "I would say we're very fortunate to have had a late spring so far," he said last week after the sun finally made its proper debut.
That downtime allowed Mavety's veteran vineyard team of 12 Mexican guest workers to put off usual spring pruning chores in favour of planting about four hectares' worth of new vines. Like many wineries in British Columbia, Blue Mountain has been grappling with fungal disease on some of its older plots. So, it's adding more acreage in the event that it will be forced to uproot infected plants.
Mavety's modern, high-density planting scheme, designed to push roots to compete for resources and, in the process, turn out more flavourful fruit, calls for 10,000 vines per hectare. Given Blue Mountain's rough topography, the current work had to be accomplished manually rather than by machine, with small milk carton-like tubes meticulously installed, one by one, around each vine for protection. "It's a bit of a wake-up call," Mavety says of the fungal problem, adding that vine diseases go hand in hand with older plantings and a wine industry that's evolving into maturity.
For the time being at least, some of that deep-rooted, older plant material is yielding especially good fruit – judging by a few of the fine recent vintages that are thankfully already in bottle. Blue Mountain's superb 2014 reserve pinot gris, featured below along with a selection of other newly released B.C. whites, is based mainly on vines planted in 1987. Twenty seven years is pretty mature for New World pinot gris, and the Mavety family, which has owned one of the prettiest pieces of land in the valley since 1971, knows how to vinify with minimalist techniques that tease out the fruit's best qualities. (The wine also comes from a splendidly warm growing season, which no doubt helped.)
I also found much to love in Tinhorn Creek's lavish Oldfield Reserve Chardonnay from the downright hot and opulent 2015 season, as well as Liquidity's smartly balanced chardonnay from the same vintage. And I was happy to find that many examples from cooler 2016 possess something more classically associated with, say, Ontario or Nova Scotia than the generally sunnier Okanagan: fresh, juicy acidity, or what winemaker Heidi Noble at JoieFarm whimsically calls "juicidity." That quality is especially evident in Joie's delectable 2016 muscat, a sublimely aromatic, super-fresh white that can make the clouds part no matter how dreary the day or season.
The selections below are available for shipping direct from the estates, though some are also available in stores, mainly at independent retailers in British Columbia and Alberta.
Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Gris 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $27.90
Medium-full bodied and fleshy. Great depth of flavour yet it retains Blue Mountain's signature crisp and very dry style. Apples galore along with musky spice. Smartly, subtly oaked. Beats the pants off most Oregon pinot gris at this price. Available through www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.99
Fermented with natural yeast. Full, ripe, luscious style exhibiting the generous heat of the vintage. Buttery, toasty pineapple, mango and peach, as well as vanilla and caramel. And should you need more words of enticement, here's an imaginative description from the winery's technical sheet: "… some reductive aromas of new tennis balls and flint." A grand slam of a chardonnay. Available through www.tinhorn.com.
Liquidity Chardonnay Estate 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26
Medium-full, with creamy tropical fruit, apple butter and vanilla and toasty nuances, culminating with snappy acidity. Almost-edible liquidity. The oak from 11 months in barrel is well-integrated. Available through www.liquiditywines.com.
Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Gris 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Silky, with a succulent middle suggesting stone fruit and pear along with subtle vanilla and spice. Deftly oaked and balanced. Available in Ontario at the above price.
JoieFarm Muscat 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23
If one could bottle the sun, it might taste something like this. Light-bodied (at just 10.8 per cent alcohol) yet bursting with floral-spice aromatics and crisp, slightly off-dry flavours of peach, lemonade and white table grapes. Hello, summer. Available through www.joiefarm.com.
Therapy Riesling 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.99
Light, dry, silky and racy. Tastes more like a green apple than a green apple does, with additional notes of lime, honey and tropical fruit. Excellent sweet-tart balance. Terrific apéritif wine. Available through www.therapyvineyards.com.
Quails' Gate Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.99
Dry, aromatic and balanced with Swiss-watch-like precision. Speaking of Switzerland, the uncommon grape in this popular blend, chasselas, is a signature of that country. Just the right level of fresh 2016 acidity to underscore the apple-lemon fruit. Available at British Columbia liquor stores and through www.quailsgate.com.
SpierHead Pinot Gris 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19
Mid-weight and zesty, with fresh fruit-punch flavours of green apple, peach and pear, along with gingery spice. Almost effervescent. Totally summery. Available through www.spierheadwinery.com.
Township 7 7 Blanc 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.97
The winery is Township 7 and the wine's name 7 Blanc. But the secret number here is four, as in the inspired grape mix: gewürztraminer, pinot gris, viognier and riesling. Off-dry and luscious, it's crafted in the oily Alsatian style, with viscous fruit and lovely overtones of spice and flowers. Ideal for Indian curries or a cheese plate. Available through www.township7.com.
Stag's Hollow Albarino 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.99
Compelling interpretation of one of Spain's signature white grapes. Bright and tangy, displaying the bracing, electric character of the 2016 vintage. Oyster wine! Available through www.stagshollowwinery.com.
Harper's Trail Pinot Gris 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.99
From Kamloops's first winery. Pretty coppery-peach stain from contact with skins of the aptly named gris. Seductively off-dry and substantial (at 14.5 per cent alcohol), with ripe orchard-fruit flavours matched by cleansing acidity and delicate spice. Perfect for lightly spiced fare. Available through www.harperstrail.com.