A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Penticton, Canada and meet the winemakers behind one of the world's up and coming wine regions. Ever hear of the Naramata Bench wine growers association? Neither had I. But don't sleep on Canada because although this wine growing region is young (20 years), they're coming on fast and are going to be making waves on the world stage soon.
Geographically, the Naramata Bench is situated in Canada's Okanagan Valley, which is one of two places in the world to be located between two lakes. You wouldn't think Canada would have desert climate, but you'd be wrong. The desert of Eastern Washington creeps up over the border into Canada providing enough hot, dry climate to get sugar levels up in grapes. Summer temps in the Okanagan Valley can reach close to 82°F in August and can drop to as much as 55°F at night. The Rocky Mountains block much of the maritime weather protecting the valley from too much precipitation or cloud cover.
What I found interesting was the response I got from winemakers when I asked, "are you old world or new world?" You'd think a wine growing region located so far north would be "old world". After all, the Naramata Bench is at a higher latitude than France's Alsace and is on the same latitude as Germany's Mosel, which sits at 50° latitude. Logic would suggest being that far north would provide higher acid in wines due to colder diurnal temperatures. But some of the winemakers think the Naramata Bench should produce "new world" style wines that are more fruit forward and more heavily oaked. Therein lies the identity crisis for this young up and coming wine region.
For me personally, I was looking for grapes that represented typicity and were correct for the terroir. The grape varietals that came across as true expression during the #eatdrinktweet tasting were Alsatian varietals like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer for whites. For the reds, Pinot Noir and Syrah were shining stars. But here's the other challenge for this region: price. As if the old world/new world question wasn't enough, higher price points also factor into the success of this region. Higher land prices and higher labor costs have a direct impact on what the consumer pays, which doesn't bode well for the Alsatian grape varietals that flourish here. Not many consumers want to drop $30 for a Pinot Blanc, even if it's the best example of the region. So winemakers produce new world style wines that warrant higher prices. A third challenge faces Naramata Bench wineries, and that's the legislation preventing ease of access. Naramata Bench wineries don't have it easy when it comes to getting their wines out to wine lovers. Even if you're in the next province over, your price per bottle will be different than in British Columbia.
The real opportunity for British Colulmbia wines is anticipated growth of the Canadian wine consumption. According to VinExpo's report in February, Canada's wine consumption is predicted to grow 19% over the next three years compared with only 3% for the rest of the world. By 2014, Canada is expected to become the #3 wine consuming country in the world, up from #5. Shipping wines from BC to other provinces will still have its challenges, but their biggest growth opportunity is right in their back yard.
During the #eatdrinktweet event in Penticton, I had the chance to sample a few wines:
2008 Black Cloud Pinot Noir - Deep, brooding black cherry cola and raspberry (almost blackberry) notes. If you taste a wine and try to decide, "red fruit or black fruit," this one goes so deep into the red fruit area but toes the line of black fruits. Pinot Noir is probably one of two grapes that'll do really well in this region.
Van Westen Vineyards Vivacious- Pinot Blanc is a grape that'll do really well here, but people don't want to pay much for a decent Pinot Blanc from anywhere other than Alsace (generally speaking). So the Van Westen family decided to market their way around that problem and come up with a propriety blend called Vivacious. It's a blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris full of rich tropical fruits with pear and lemon zest. For me personally, this was a wine that was trying to be new world when it should've been old world. In other words, the alcohol level was way too high at over 14%. For a white, that's a bit much. This wine could be under 12% and have more finesse. Either way, it'll be fun to drink as the fruit was quality.
2006 Burrowing Owl Syrah - The sommelier at Four Seasons in Vancouver said this winery had a "cultish" following. Apparently it's hard to get, and of higher caliber. I liked it, but not on a cultish-got-to-have-it level. Aside from Pinot Noir, Syrah seems to be the only other red varietal I think can do well here even though a few wineries are trying to make Bordeaux style blends. The Burrowing Owl was somewhere between Rhone and Australia for me. Medium-plus alcohol, with some X-Factor that gave the varietal it's "thingness". Some time in the cellar might help mellow it out to reveal a very pleasant wine.
The Naramata Bench wineries and the Okanagan Valley is one of the regions to watch over the next few years to see not only how they handle self-exploration of what they want to be when they grow up, but how they work together and tell their brand story to the world. Very exciting things ahead for a wine region on the up tick.