PART I: The changing FACE of winemaking in BC
one of the constants in the wine business is change. There is a continuous evolution in terms of customer expectation, wine styles, understanding of a region’s terroir and the toolbox of tricks and technology available to the winemaker. Until recently, B.C. winemakers have been at the forefront of using everything they could to make clean, approachable wines. However, two decades of experience is starting to put the puzzle pieces in place as to which grape grows best where. A new winemaking mind-set of “less is more” to let the terroir show through is taking hold. The global wine industry seems on the edge of a mini-revolution. The rise of controversial topics such as natural winemaking and consumer’s seemingly endless demand for details about a wines provenance are increasing the exposure of the non-romantic side of winemaking — manipulation. No winemaker wants to stand up and say that their wine is really a concoction of additives, artificial products and manipulation, but for many of the world’s wines this is the reality. Consumers are shocked when they find out what really goes on. Because of this winemakers are making changes, calling on the techniques of the past and making wines that are a more honest reflection of the vineyard and the vintage. Technology, though, isn’t a bad thing. While burying grapes in ancient amphorae for a few months to see what happens may sound romantic, the result will often be an impressive collection of wine faults. Much technology is actually essential in helping showcase the true flavour of the grapes. But there is a point when it is overdone and the technology is what you taste rather than the grapes or the vineyard. Too much new oak, enzymes, sugar and some of the tannin additives can turn a wine into something that more closely resembles coca cola. Technology can, and has, made the world of wine taste pretty homogenous. It is at the higher end of the wine market where the “less is more” change is taking place. Consumers increasingly expect their wines to show some of sense of place and, generally, the less the wine is messed with the more this result can be achieved. For British Columbia wine, terroir driven wines will become
increasingly important as the scale of the industry ensures we will never compete at the low end of the market. The best wines will showcase the diverse and interesting terroir of the B.C. regions. If the grapes need to be routinely messed with to make drinkable wines then, at some point, the reality that many of the wrong grapes are planted in the wrong place will have to be accepted and embraced. Only then can B.C. start to forge ahead and really make a name for itself. Many of the prominent winemakers of B.C. are following the “less is more” mantra. Wisely, none are overly dogmatic and reject all the advancements that have been made in winemaking, but there are different takes on what ingredients should and shouldn’t be used. Bill Eggert of Fairview Cellars calls himself a minimalist; he rejects adding enzymes, nutrients and tannin products. Enzymes seem to be a bit of a no-no for those aiming for minimal manipulation. Sandra Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek and Chris Carson of Meyer Family Vineyards both avoid using these aroma enhancers while others keep the option open — the practice is usually reserved for lesser grapes that need a helping hand for the wine to have any character at all. Barrel salesmen may be feeling the impact of this revolution the most as B.C.’s love affair with excess oak appears to be dwindling. Outside commentators have expressed dismay for years at the lavish over-oaking of many B.C. wines which smothers the bright natural fruit. Virtually all winemakers seem to be retreating back to lower and lower percentages
of new barrels. Michael Bartier of Okanagan Crush Pad sums it up well, “the new oak flavour that comes with new barrels absolutely stifles the fresh, vibrant Okanagan fruit.” The use of wild versus cultivated yeasts is also a topic of debate and is made even more interesting by recent studies that have shown that it is commercially cultivated yeasts that finish most fermentations regardless of whether or not they have been intentionally added. This is due to the reality that all yeasts essentially become wild as soon as they are used in a fermentation and then become a living entity within the winery. Grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay seem to be the favourites for wild ferments. J-M Bouchard of Road 13 Vineyards and David Paterson of Tantalus Vineyards both rely on wild ferments to add complexity to their pinot noir.
Karen Gillis of Andrew Peller Limited likes to keep her options open to all forms of technology, something she sees as a reality when producing larger quantities of wine. “I don’t have a bank roll big enough to let me experiment completely with wild, no interruption, no enhancement, unlimited aging time,” she says highlighting the fact that it is much easier to be idealistic with small batches. “Even though we have many tools available to aid us in our craft, the best wines are still made when we don’t have to pull out the bag of tricks.” While winemakers can’t agree on exactly what should and shouldn’t be done, there is definitely a trend to “less is more” winemaking and evident passion to try to express terroir. It feels like B.C. wine may be at the start of its own mini-revolution. Part 2 continued in the next issue.