Promis­ing fu­ture awaits much ma­ligned grape

Vancouver Sun - - YOU - AN­THONY GIS­MONDI

Is Mer­lot the next big thing in Bri­tish Columbia? A few folks are bet­ting it might be but there is plenty of se­ri­ous work to be done in the vine­yard, the win­ery and, per­haps more im­por­tantly, in the mar­ket­place where re­tail­ers, som­me­liers and we me­dia types have bad­mouthed the grape for more than a decade.

Over­pro­duced and un­der-flavoured Mer­lot was in­fa­mously damned in the movie Side­ways dur­ing a scene where would-be nov­el­ist and Pinot Noir snob, Miles, in­forms his pal Jack: “if any­one or­ders Mer­lot, I’m leav­ing. I am not drink­ing any ... Mer­lot," a line that set back Mer­lot sales for a decade. When it is not busy be­ing soft and in­sipid, a lot of New World Mer­lot comes over-ex­tracted and coated in heav­ily toasted oak, ob­scur­ing any sense of place. The big­gest and rich­est of­ten fea­ture dead fruit flavours, lit­tle com­plex­ity and alcohol off the charts.

The pen­du­lum is swing­ing back. There is lit­tle doubt the finest Mer­lot still comes from Bordeaux’s Right Bank in St. Emil­ion and Pomerol, and from iso­lated vine­yards in California and Tus­cany’s Bol­gheri sub-re­gion, but one of the spots with a promis­ing fu­ture is the nearby Okana­gan Val­ley.

There is some­thing about Okana­gan Mer­lot, the red fruit and acid per­haps, that sug­gests it could be headed for prime time. The fruit is easy to ripen, the tan­nins are mostly soft or at least fine-grained at the top end, and the flavours come su­per­charged with a savoury thread and enough acid­ity to in­trigue on the palate. It de­serves more respect by wine­mak­ers, con­sumers and me­dia.

Last month I or­ga­nized a tast­ing of se­lect B.C. Mer­lots with Lake Breeze Win­ery owner Drew McIn­tyre, who threw in some of the big­gest names in the Mer­lot world from his per­sonal cel­lar. McIn­tyre is on a mis­sion to pump up the im­age and the qual­ity of B.C. Mer­lot, and has re­cently re­leased the McIn­tyre Fam­ily Ar­dua Mer­lot to chase that dream.

We also in­vited Check­mate wine­maker and Aus­tralian Phil McGa­han, who has re­cently re­leased four dif­fer­ent Mer­lot la­bels un­der the Check­mate name from se­lect benches on both sides of the south Okana­gan Val­ley. Also asked was French-born wine­maker Sev­er­ine Pinte, to pour her Le Vieux Pin Equinoxe Mer­lot and LaStella Maestoso Solo Mer­lot sourced from both sides of the south Okana­gan Val­ley. Both McGa­han and Pinte try to keep the wine­mak­ing min­i­mal and con­stant, thus let­ting the in­di­vid­ual sites ex­press their story in the bot­tle.

The tast­ing re­sults were bit of jum­ble due to sev­eral of the for­eign wines sport­ing dif­fer­ent lev­els of Brett or Bret­tanomyces (ac­cu­rately de­scribed by sci­en­tist and wine writer Dr. Jamie Goode as “a yeast — that is a uni­cel­lu­lar type of fun­gus, not a bac­terium — that is a com­mon spoilage or­gan­ism in wine­mak­ing.”)

Since we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of tol­er­ance to brett, some wine­mak­ers and tasters would sug­gest low lev­els of Brett con­trib­ute to a wine’s com­plex­ity, while oth­ers think Brett at any level is a neg­a­tive eras­ing any sense of place, no mat­ter where in the world you en­counter it.

The top six wines ac­cord­ing to the group were Chateau Trotanoy 1998, Vérité La Muse 1999, Check­mate 2013 Black Rook Mer­lot, Chateau Petrus 1999, Mac­in­tyre Ar­dua 2013 Mer­lot and Tenuta Dell’Or­nel­laia Mas­seto.

My mostly Brett-free top picks, were Mac­in­tyre Ar­dua 2012 Mer­lot, Chateau Petrus 1999, Lake Breeze Mer­lot 2012, Le Vieux Pin 2013, Equinoxe Mer­lot, Check­mate 2013 Black Rook Mer­lot and Vérité La Muse 1999.

What we learned, and it’s hardly a sur­prise, is that we are much closer to the top than out­siders know. But it’s hard to know when you have never heard of B.C., or our wines. It’s the big­gest chal­lenge ahead for B.C. wine­mak­ers, who have long pre­ferred the safety of Vancouver to the un­cer­tainty of for­eign mar­kets. Maybe it is time to fish, or cut bait.

Cook up some mus­sels with Pow­ell Street Craft Brew­ery Czech Style Pil­sner. Serve the meal with gar­licky grilled bread.

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