In an industry awash with such lofty-sounding designations as "château," "domaine" and "estate," it takes confidence to call your winery a farm. Heidi Noble, the owner of JoieFarm in British Columbia, embraces that title with pride. She's not above reminding her loyal customers that great wine is made in rubber boots, a product of dirt and sweat.
Since its inception 13 years ago, Joie has matured into one of the Okanagan Valley's standard bearers, notably with such aromatic white varieties as riesling, gewürztraminer and muscat as well as chardonnay, and with delicate, light-bodied reds made from pinot noir and gamay. They are graceful aromatic wines inspired by Noble's fondness for the food-versatile styles of Alsace and Burgundy. The fragrant whites in particular make me think of spring as well as of all manner of Asian food, with which they pair admirably.
For Noble, who is also Joie's executive winemaker, there's been much to sweat about during the past three growing seasons. The Okanagan has experienced a string of warm summers, particularly in 2015, which was a scorcher. Grapes enjoy sunshine, but the varieties Joie specializes in demand cool nights to preserve acidity. While many winemakers in sunny New World regions intervene by adding extra grape-derived tartaric acid to the wine to achieve that balance artificially, Noble refuses. Partly, it's out of principle, because she likes the natural route. Partly it's because she's acutely sensitive to added tartaric acid. "I think it tastes like Jolly Ranchers," she told me on a recent swing through Toronto. "It can be quite bitter."
Over the years, Noble has learned how to preserve acidity naturally. Instead of pruning off bunches of fruit mid-season to hasten ripeness in the remaining clusters (a widespread practice among producers looking for rich concentration), she often leaves most of the fruit hanging on the vine. When plants carry a heavier grape load, it retards sugar development, giving the berries a chance to develop more complex flavours as well as retaining higher acidity.
A trained chef and sommelier who has worked in top Canadian restaurants, Noble found her first big support among some of Vancouver's most sophisticated palates, the restaurant wine pros and private-store buyers who scooped up most of her initial inventory and recommended her wines to impressionable clients. One of them was that city's acclaimed chef Vikram Vij of Vij's Indian restaurant, a fellow sommelier-certificate classmate of Noble's. Vij pre-ordered half her first vintage of A Noble Blend without tasting a drop, confident in her ambition and plan to produce an aromatic white blend that would flatter his vibrant cuisine. "He was my first client," said Noble, who, with husband and former business partner Michael Dinn, had nervously maxed-out seven credit cards to pay the startup costs.
Recently, Noble has been courting a wider audience, selling nationally via Joie's website (joiefarm.com), and to select liquor boards. This month two wines, the 2013 pinot noir and the 2014 vintage of A Noble Blend, are being released in Ontario Vintages stores.
"I want to be part of the dialogue east to west," she told me. "I think it's important that in the New World section [of the store] there's British Columbia and Nova Scotia and all of us working toward the same goal."
A few Joie selections lead the B.C. selections below, most available for shipping direct from the wineries. They'll be followed by more excellent B.C. selections in weeks to come.
JoieFarm En Famille Chardonnay 2013, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $30
Fermented mainly with wild yeasts and subtly oaked, this white is medium-full-bodied and elegant, with a silky texture carrying flavours of tropical and orchard fruits, subtle vanilla, butter and toasted hazelnut, well-framed by bright acidity. A comparably good chardonnay from Burgundy would likely be priced at least $10 higher. Available direct, joiefarm.com.
JoieFarm A Noble Blend 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
Joie modelled its flagship white after a blended style in Alsace known as Edelzwicker, which in German means "noble blend." The English translation also conveniently nods at owner-winemaker Heidi Noble's surname. The 2014 features gewürztraminer, riesling, pinot auxerrois, pinot blanc, muscat and schoenberger, and it's a seductively fruity mélange. Slightly off-dry, it's opulent and round, with bold lychee, table grape and citrus fruit in the foreground, finding marvellous balance in delicate acidity and lively spice. Perfect for curries and for a cheese course. Available at the above price in Ontario. The equally superb 2015 vintage is listed in British Columbia for $20.99 and available for shipping direct from the winery, joiefarm.com.
JoieFarm Pinot Noir 2013, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-weight and very dry, with fine-grained tannins for admirable structure, Joie's 2013 pinot exhibits the sort of classic pinot characters that should please fans of red Burgundy, with sunny, cherry-like fruit at its core and a savoury, earthy side suggesting beetroot, mushrooms and spice. Versatile at the table, it would match particularly well with grilled salmon. Available at the above price in Ontario; $24 in British Columbia and Alberta.
Stag's Hollow Albarino 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 $21.99
It's worth applauding this intrepid winery merely for venturing off the beaten Canadian path of cabernet, chardonnay, riesling and the like. Stag's Hollow produces several varieties uncommon in these here parts, including tempranillo, teroldego and dolcetto. This white, made from the marvellously crisp yet rounded albarino grape of the Iberian peninsula, deserves a standing ovation. Medium-bodied and more substantial than many classic Spanish examples, it oozes fleshy stone fruit, mandarin and almond, with great acid verve and a subtle mineral edge. Perfect for lighter seafood fare. Available by the 12-bottle case from the winery, stagshollowwinery.com.
Hillside Muscat Ottonel 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.73
A pale-coloured member of the newly fashionable muscat family of aromatic whites, muscat ottonel ripens early and is well-suited to regions with short growing seasons. It's a specialty at Hillside, and this 2015 offering is lovely. Gently off-dry yet with zippy acid balance, it's exuberantly floral and reminiscent of white table grape, mandarin orange and lemon. Perfect as a springtime aperitif, it also matches admirably with spicy Asian fare. Produced in small quantities, it's available direct, hillsidewinery.ca, and available at the above price in British Columbia.
See Ya Later Ranch Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.99
Bargain alert. This is ample, rounded, smartly oaked chardonnay with the structure of something pricier. Ripe tropical fruit comes laced with toasty oak and notes of caramel and hazelnut. A good choice for buttery fish or chicken dishes, mac and cheese or grilled chicken. Available at the above price in British Columbia (on sale for $13.49 at B.C. Liquor Stores till June 4), various prices in Alberta, $18.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Cellar Hand Punch Down Red 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.65
This is made by the winemaking assistants (hence the name Cellar Hand) at esteemed Black Hills winery, best known for the pricey trophy red Nota Bene. A smart blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, it's medium-full-bodied and relatively complex for a red designed for easy drinking. Dark-plum and blackberry nuances are joined by suggestions of vanilla, licorice, caramel and spice. A great choice for lamb roast, grilled sausages or skirt-steak fajitas (blackhillswinery.com).