One of the best parts of attending the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, OR, was getting to meet so many fellow bloggers. So I wanted to note that a highlight of my visit to Phelps Creek (besides the scenery, food, and wine) was the company of many interesting people along for hay rides (!) and dinner. Like Luke Whittall of Wine Country BC. With the official announcement that the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference will be held in Penticton, British Columbia, I contacted Luke after I returned from Portland and threw a few questions his way to help me better understand British Columbia wine country.
Luke’s been studying the British Columbia (BC) wine industry for over a decade and has been working in it for the last 7 years as a cellar hand, vineyard worker, and (since 2009) selling wine in a retail shop. His goal is to get colleagues of a similarly young demographic (plus this 40-year-old guy) to help people learn about BC wine. Wine Country BC also presents commentary and opinions from the next generation of wine lovers, who Luke feels are underrepresented in the mainstream wine media. (You can check out his podcast on iTunes.) So without further ado, here’s my Q&A with Luke:
Why should the wines of British Columbia be on the radar of anyone interested in wine?
It’s a very different place to grow wine and might be more uniquely situated than any other wine growing region in the world. It is as far north as Germany’s wine regions and Champagne in France but has much hotter summertime temperatures. Just like many of the premium French growing regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy, it is growing grapes on the extreme margins of what premium wine grapes can tolerate in terms of season length, degree days, and winter temperatures. The largest grape growing region in BC is the Okanagan Valley, which accounts for the vast majority of all wine grapes grown in the province.
Aside from the actual grape growing and wine making situation, BC is also uniquely situated with respect to the marketplace where the wines are purchased. BC has a huge demand domestically for its own wines which means that most of the wines must travel only a very short distance to reach their destination. The primary market for Okanagan wines is Vancouver, only 250 miles away. Other urban major Canadian urban centers like Calgary and Edmonton are also important markets and are within a day’s drive.
The Okanagan Valley is the largest, and most well-known, wine region in British Columbia. What wines is it best known for? What wines show promise? What wines/grapes are currently exciting you?
In the past decade and half, white wines from the Okanagan have proved extremely popular. Varieties like Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc have all shown greatness in the Okanagan. The Riesling from Tantalus Vineyards near Kelowna (formerly known as Pinot Reach) has garnered acclaim world-wide and was featured in the World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in several editions.
More recently, red wines have started to become more recognized for their potential and are now able to fetch relatively high prices as well. Varieties like Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are standing well on their own in this climate. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot also grown here in smaller quantities and are generally used more as components in a blend. Blended wines are becoming more in fashion here and represent an interesting turning point in creativity and confidence among wine makers in BC.
Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are a short trip from where I live in Seattle. What is notable about the wines and wineries from this region?
The wine industry there is extremely young. Only a few intrepid wineries have been around longer than a decade and it takes far longer then that to figure out exactly what varieties will succeed or fail. On the surface, the region seems much to wet to produce wines of any substance but the maritime influence, which moderates the temperature year-round, is not something to ignore.
Many of the wineries have chosen to work with grapes imported from other regions in BC, usually the Okanagan Valley. If you are visiting a winery on Vancouver Island and trying their Syrah, it is almost certain that it was not grown in the vineyards outside the door. Pinot Gris, Ortega, Gewürztraminer and Muscat varieties have proven successful while reds like Marechal Foch and Pinot Noir have done interesting things in this climate.
The most exciting thing I see coming from the Island wineries is the use of a new set of varieties known locally as Blattner varieties, created by Swiss plant breeder Valentin Blattner. These varieties have only recently started to be released commercially and are in use by several Island wineries including Avril Creek, Alderlea Vineyards and Enrico. I recently purchased a bottle each of Cabernet Foch and a Cabernet Libre, both single-variety Blattner crosses from Enrico last spring on a trip to Vancouver Island. These wines are my new favorites to match with tomato-sauces and Italian-style cuisine. They have lots of bright flavors matched with that food-friendly, palate-cleansing acidity that I love.
What are the challenges of grape growing and wine production in the Okanagan?
The Okanagan and Simimilkameen Valleys have very short shoulder seasons to work with. Spring can be late and wet at times and we can get killer frosts in early October, which happened a few years ago. Most vineyards that aren’t immediately beside the Okanagan or Skaha lakes, which can moderate big temperature swings, are susceptible to a sudden frost or freeze which will essentially declare the growing season closed. When it goes below freezing, the vines loose their leaves and all sugar creation is halted. If the season had a late spring, there is a chance that some varieties might not ripen at all in those situations. A vineyard in a decent location will likely not be as affected by this if it had been properly managed throughout the year with shoot-thinning, green-harvesting and canopy management.
Why is it that I live in Seattle but see little-to-no BC wines available for sale? Do you see this changing with growth in the industry, higher production?
We drink it all! BC’s domestic market consumes most of the wines that we can produce so we’re kind of like Switzerland in that respect. Also, the vast majority of wineries in BC are quite small operations, producing under 10,000 cases of wine annually, so exporting wines outside of the country is a distant prospect for most producers. I don’t really see this changing in the foreseeable future as the space available for vineyards is extremely limited. The whole province is made up of narrow valleys between mountain ranges and there just isn’t enough appropriate land available. There are two stats that I like to use when describing the scale of the wine industry here. E&J Gallo in California apparently has single tanks that hold more wine than BC can produce in an entire year. Algeria, Slovenia, and the Republic of Georgia each produce more wine than the whole country of Canada does. That said, our industry has been growing consistently for over 2 decades and has grown 12% since 2007.
What are some of your favorite local BC foods to pair with these wines?
Pacific Northwest cuisine is awesome with BC wine. Cedar-planked salmon with a BC Chardonnay is impossible to resist. The aromatic varieties like Gewürztraminer and Riesling go extremely well with spicy Asian food. Game meats like venison and wild boar are great with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. I think BC wines work better with food than they do on their own. I find that wines (especially reds) from California, Washington, and Oregon are wonderful to drink without food but BC wines, because of the relatively higher acidity, love being paired with food. And food loves BC wine!
What are a few BC food and wine events that are not to be missed and why?
For a wine-focused event, the Vancouver International Wine Festival was where I first really got to learn about wine and is still my favorite wine festival to attend when I can. But in wine country, there are 2 events that really stand out for me.
The Similkameen Valley, which is a short hop over a mountain to the west of the south Okanagan valley, hosts the BBQ King Championship every July and it is my favorite food and wine event in BC. The Similkameen Valley is the Canadian home of organic fruit growing and there is a really strong sense of ‘buying local’. The BBQ King event features top chefs from the Okanagan and Simlikameen Valleys and must create an entrée from a ‘black box’ of ingredients (which are all grown locally) using a BBQ grill or smoker. Each chef is matched with a winery from the Similkameen Valley. The attendees vote on the best dish and the best food & wine combination and that chef is declared the Similkameen BBQ King. I love this event because I get to see chefs being super-creative. These dishes are very likely one-offs that I’ll never get to try again and likely won’t be appearing on any dinner menu. Plus the competitive aspect of the event, which is more just fun than anything, adds a whole other dimension to what would otherwise be a simple food and wine tasting
In the Okanagan Valley, the Festival of the Grape in Oliver, BC, is truly hard to beat. It’s like a fair with wine instead of animals and is a great family-friendly wine event, which is a really difficult combination to pull off. I’ve been every year since 2008 and it gets better every year. There is a tasting tent, live music, a grape stomping competition, food trucks, exhibitors of all kinds and a huge supervised play area for the kids. It’s great way to get a taste of what the wine industry in BC is really like.
The 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference will be held in Penticton, BC. What would you like those who are attending to take away from tasting wines and visiting wineries of this region?
I’d say enjoy it and take it all in while you’re here. I think the Oregon Wine Board did a great job of that for the recent Wine Blogger Conference in Portland. I really got a sense of what makes Oregon wines unique and I know I’ll be going back there as soon as I can. There seemed to be a strong sense of community among wineries there, an obvious rallying around Pinot Noir, and a big push towards organics and biodynamics through Oregon-based websites like Consciouswine.com. Because Penticton is a little farther afield than Portland from the commonly known wine world, it will be a great adventure for those wine bloggers who like exploring new and exotic wines. Honestly, I think that describes most of the wine bloggers I’ve met so I’m looking forward to a good conference next year. I’ll be creating a series of podcasts on my blog about all things related to BC-wine to be released over the 6 months in advance of the conference to help bloggers get familiar with BC wine.
Photos courtesy Wine Country BC.