We are publishing the penultimate entry in our wine writing competition thanks to Geoffrey Moss.
In 2011, I had nearly completed a degree in Political Science at McGill University. I was beginning to think of my next steps. You cannot get meaningful employment with an undergraduate degree in Political Science, at least with my networking ability. I looked at graduate studies and law school. I also began to seriously consider a winemaking and viticulture programme.
I had grown up with wine on the dinner table. Thinking back, there were a number of bottles of Wolf Blass Yellow Label. But that began to change towards the end of my high school years. Increasingly, food became a focal point of my family's vacations, and wine naturally followed suit. My dream job for a number of years was to be the restaurant critic for the New York Times. (In Grade 10, I was diagnosed with coeliac disease and realised this aspiration was perhaps unrealistic.) When I moved to Montreal to attend McGill, this interest in food and wine quickly became an obsession. I ultimately decided to enroll into the Winemaking and Viticulture programme at Niagara College.
Five years later, I'm still a student of wine. I began the Master of Wine study program in the fall of 2014. I had just completed the WSET Level 4 Diploma, and was hungry for the next challenge. I wrote the MW exam for the first in June 2016, and came within one practical paper of passing both sections. Regardless, I am thrilled to have completed theory, and have my eyes set on passing practical the second time around.
I now live in Penticton, British Columbia, having moved to the Okanagan Valley to become the Sales and Marketing Coordinator at Culmina Family Estate Winery, and subsequently Marketing Manager at Phantom Creek Estates, my current role. I do a lot of writing: press releases, e-mail newsletters, tasting notes, blog posts, and social media content. I have also previously written articles for a personal blog and for Palate Press.
CANADIAN WINE: WHERE ARE YOU NOW?
Canada's winegrowing regions are new and emerging. However, the youthfulness of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia or the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is no different than the Willamette Valley or Marlborough. The first Riesling plantings in both Niagara and the Okanagan date to the late 1970s. Similarly, Sauvignon Blanc was only introduced to Marlborough in 1973. David Lett planted his first Pinot Noir vines on the Dundee Hills in 1966.
Today, Marlborough is synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc and the Willamette Valley with Pinot Noir. Icewine helped to establish international recognition for Canadian wine. However, in Ontario, Icewine accounts for roughly 4% of total VQA wine production. And neither Niagara nor the Okanagan has been able to make a compelling claim to a signature variety or varieties. A look at recent vintages in both regions provides an illustrative potential explanation.
The last ten years in Canada's winegrowing regions have been defined by a move to climatic extremes. In Ontario, this move is to extreme cold temperatures in the winter. The winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15 were particularly harsh. After a record harvest in 2013, yields throughout the province decreased by 35% in 2014 due to cold injury. Winter-sensitive varieties were the most affected: Merlot and Syrah production dropped 75% and 69%, respectively. Yields rebounded somewhat in 2015, but were still below average. Both winters underscored the importance of site selection and planting suitable varieties.
As a result, producers are doubling-down on cold-tolerant vinifera varieties that can make it through the winter. Cave Spring Cellars in Niagara have renewed their focus on Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc. These five varieties are widely accepted to be the most suitable to Niagara. Yet when no variety accounts for more than 15% of overall production – the highest is Riesling at 14% – a serious shift is required for there to be a tenable signature variety.
In part, the wide number of varieties grown is an insurance policy against significant vintage variation. Niagara oscillates between cool, short growing seasons and warm, lengthy ones. 2009, a cooler vintage, produced exceptional Pinot Noir. However, warm vintages such as 2010 and 2012 proved better suited to late-ripening varieties.
The 2012 vintage had nearly 1600 growing degree days versus 1250 in 2009, a 25% difference. To put this in perspective, the 2009 vintage had similar heat accumulation to an average growing season in Beaune, while temperatures in 2012 surpassed those of the Russian River Valley. Instead, Niagara's 2012 vintage is more comparable to Margaret River or cooler Napa vintages such as 2010 or 2011. In short, there simply may not be the uniformity across vintages for only one or two signature varieties in Niagara.
In comparison, further north, Prince Edward County has firmly established Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as its signature varieties, thanks in large part to the work of Norman Hardie. The County, though, is a decidedly marginal climate. Winters easily fall below -25 ºC (-13 ºF), requiring vines to be buried. Yields barely exceed two tons per acre as a result. Niagara fruit is often used to bolster production and provide stability. The industry here is still nascent and only a handful of producers are making a serious go of it.
Across the country, there's a reason a number of Canadian snowbirds head to Osoyoos in the South Okanagan. The winters are mild and short. If there is snow, it is not on the ground for long. The recent challenge in the Okanagan, rather, has been extreme summer temperatures.
Since the 2012 vintage, each growing season has been hotter than the last. This culminated in the scorching 2015 vintage. Temperatures routinely exceeded 35 ºC (95 ºF) the point at which vines shut down, requiring careful vineyard management and irrigation. Unfortunately, far too many producers continue to practise full leaf removal, resulting in raisined fruit.
The dominant varieties are also problematic. In Osoyoos, heat accumulation reached 1764 growing degree days, on par with the southern Rhône. However, the most planted varieties in the South Okanagan are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. These are varieties, with the exception of Cabernet, that are not as adapted to heat spikes or such significant degree-day accumulation. As a result, alcohol levels will undoubtedly be high throughout the valley, except in cooler microclimates or among the very few producers who pick early.
It is not surprising then that the South Okanagan is beginning to establish a reputation for Rhône varieties, especially Syrah. Not all producers would have it this way. The sustainability of Syrah is a continuing question mark. The variety is slow to become cold-acclimated, leaving it vulnerable to increasingly common November cold snaps. Some producers, such as Quail's Gate in West Kelowna, benefit from the moderating influence of Lake Okanagan. However, other wineries are replacing upwards of one quarter of their vines every year. Syrah as an emerging signature variety just may not make sense.
The other challenge in the Okanagan is the considerable diversity in climate and soil types, as it stretches over 160 kilometres in length. Temperatures vary significantly: Summerland, 60 km (37 m) north of Osoyoos, accumulated only 1520 growing degree days in 2015. As such, the suitable grape varieties vary markedly throughout the Okanagan. The British Columbia Wine Institute lists 11 different varieties as significant.
To date, identifying a signature variety for Canada's winegrowing regions has been more of an intellectual exercise. It has not mattered, for the simple reason that supply could not keep up with domestic demand, especially for Okanagan wine. However, increasingly producers are looking to the export market. In the Okanagan, recent high-yielding vintages have resulted in a moderate surplus, though this may be corrected by the short 2015 vintage. The weak Canadian dollar has also made importing VQA wine more attractive in markets such as the United States than in the past. The export success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Argentine Malbec suggests there is a competitive advantage to establishing a signature variety.
Norman Hardie's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, whether from Prince Edward County or the Niagara Peninsula, suggest that Ontario would be well served continuing with a Burgundian approach. Hidden Bench and Thirty Bench make a strong case for Riesling, producing mineral driven, racy examples. Cabernet Franc is well represented by Pearl Morrisette and Ravine, especially the latter's short-lived Picone Vineyard label. Gamay plantings may be few and far between, but Leaning Post and Malivoire's Courtney bottling suggest plantings should be increased.
In British Columbia, Le Vieux Pin and Orofino make an emphatic argument for Syrah in the Okanagan and Similkameen, producing perfumed, elegant examples. Lariana provides supporting evidence for Rhône varieties, with its bright, textural Viogner aged in concrete. Syncromesh and Tantalus counter with Riesling, when grown on the right sites. Bordeaux blends may be ubiquitous in the Okanagan, but Laughing Stock's ripe, generous Portfolio is a reminder that they should not be overlooked. And then there are outliers such as Blue Mountain producing world-class sparkling wine.
These are arguments that may never be settled. Reasonable people will disagree. And it's difficult to predict the impact of factors such as climate change or changing market trends. I'm not sure the direction Canadian wine is heading, but the future is unquestionably bright. Stay tuned.
A MODERN CONSUMER ADVOCATE
Robert Parker started the Wine Advocate back in 1978 as a consumer advocate. He popularised the 100-point scale not only to aggrandise high-scoring wines, but also to warn consumers about poor-quality bottles. And back in the 1970s and 1980s, the 100-point scale arguably had more worth. Wine quality was more variable, even vintage-to-vintage for quality producers, and Parker helped consumers make more informed purchases.
Today, wine quality has never been higher in large part due to modern winemaking techniques. This helps to explain why the 100-point scale has become the equivalent of a 20-point scale, with scores universally between 80-100 points. Critics are not even using the whole breadth of this 20-point scale: the majority of premium wine scores fall between 85-90 points.
Consequently, the wine industry needs a new type of consumer advocate. It is not helpful to the consumer to differentiate a wine as 85 or 86 points. Let's face it: it's a drinkable bottle of wine. And if the price is abhorrent, one has to think that market forces will correct the imbalance. No, what the wine industry needs is a 21st-century consumer advocate.
Take the Consumer Report's approach to reviewing cars, for example. The review is not just based on looking at a car and taking it for a two-minute test drive. Rather, the review also considers safety and predicted reliability.
In comparison, wine critics' reviews are superficial. It's one thing to quantify their enjoyment of a bottle of wine with a numerical score. It's another to make a proclamation on its ageability. Yes, experience plays an important role in understanding how a wine will age. However, there are chemical and biological factors, not easily perceptible, that will jeopardise even the most ageworthy bottle of wine.
Is there a risk of a Brettanomyces bloom? Is there the presence of spoilage yeasts? Or is there sufficient molecular sulphur dioxide to mitigate these concerns? A consumer advocate makes these concerns known. The difficulty is tasting potential faults before they develop. One answer could be to put the wine under a microscope, to look underneath the hood.
Wine critics, also, rarely address consistency bottle-to-bottle: a wine's review relates to the bottle of wine that was sampled. This is problematic, especially for wines with high production or that are bottled across multiple lots or dates. Wine critics are increasingly including disgorgement dates in their reviews for sparkling wines. Mentioning lot numbers in reviews of still wines may be just as useful.
Consumers would be well served for wine critics to review at least two bottles of each wine. This will help to provide an idea of the consistency from one bottle to the next. If there is variability, this should be noted. Lastly, the quality of the closure should also be considered. Consumers have the right to know if their bottle of wine has an increased risk of cork taint due to a poor quality cork. Or if it's bottled under a synthetic cork.
Why does it matter? For a $12 bottle of wine, maybe it does not. But when spending hard-earned money on a bottle of wine, there needs to be more confidence in your purchase. Critics need to be more accountable for their reviews.
It's also an important check on the wine industry. Producers are notorious for loose marketing. Recently, this has been driven by the rise of the natural wine movement. Producers want to be perceived as non-interventionist. I recall a conversation with one producer:
'Are your wines filtered?' I asked.
'They are only coarsely filtered', the vigneron replied.
'To what micron level?'
The wines were sterile filtered! It's disingenuous, at best; at worst, it's outright lying. It's not difficult to recall other common mistruths. 'We use as little SO2 as possible.' 'This is a dry wine.' 'We're basically biodynamic, we just don't have the certification.'
These are statements that can and should be scrutinised for their accuracy. In some cases, this is painfully easy. A winery cannot easily hide the strips of herbicide it may use for under-vine weed control. Unfortunately, the required lab tests to quash some claims, or affirm a wine's ageability or consistency, can be quite costly. The question is whether a publication with the necessary financial resources wants to be a modern consumer advocate.