BC Pinot Noir Celebration – “purity and weightlessness” in a bottle
Do you know the Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Princess and the Pea? That’s the story of Pinot Noir. An aristocratic grape, requiring royal treatment in the vineyard and the winery. Nothing short of an aristocrat could be as sensitive as Pinot Noir. However, when provided with the right growing environment and handled with care, it can produce some of the best wines in the world. Pinot Noir is an ancient grape whose home is the Burgundy region in France. In Burgundy, especially in the Cote de Nuit, Pinot Noir is said to find it’s best expression. The grape made its way to the new world and pinot from Oregon, New Zealand, California and now our own BC have been producing some notable Pinot Noirs, yet still, for many, the benchmark remains Burgundy.
Pinot Noir’s claim to fame in popular culture came with the film Sideways in which the protagonist refused to drink anything but Pinot Noir. Sales of the wine soared after the film’s release and the rest is history. Pinot Noir is known as the “heartbreak grape”, having broken the hearts of many who attempted to grow and vinify it. The wine’s characteristics are difficult to qualify. It has a complex presentation and an aloof, aristocratic beauty that leaves a lasting impression, lingering on the palate and in the memory.
Last year the Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls hosted the first of what was to be an annual BC Pinot Noir Celebration, an event that is intended to raise the profile of BC Pinot Noir. I didn’t make it to the first event but wouldn’t miss the second. Last weekend Tantalus Vineyards here in Kelowna hosted the second annual BC Pinot Noir Celebration , showcasing the grape they say is extremely suited to BC climate and terroir. The Okanagan, approximately 200 km long less than 30 km wide, is not a uniform environment for wine growers and winemakers. It has many micro climates, different temperatures, varied geography and topography and various soil compositions. These variations make a difference when it comes to growing and making pinot noir and terroir becomes an integral part of any conversation about this wine. The Stewart family of Quail’s Gate were pioneers in pinot noir planting in the mid 1970’s. Blue Mountain in Okanagan Falls followed with their pinot noir production a decade later. They have been joined over the years by other wineries, some of which are represented at this event.
Fifteen BC Pinot Noir producers (listed below) came to Tantalus to showcase their creations in a memorable afternoon that included wine tastings, great food and even an opportunity to experiment with making your own pinot noir blend. I was a little worried about the event being too long as they asked us to arrive around 1:00 and dinner was not until 6:00 or so. Was it going to be a long drawn out event with a lot of time in between sessions? Time will tell.
With only 120 tickets offered, the event was stacked with wine lovers, wine expert, wine professionals and foodies to boost. I have a “nose” for good events and was not about to miss this one, especially with the educational opportunities it offered. We drove our convertible down the road right into the vineyard and parked next to rows of grapevines weighed with clusters of ripening grapes. I love that scene. We were greeted by Tantalus staff and assigned to group A for the two breakout sessions: BC Pinot Noir At Home and Behind the Bottle, more on these in a minute.
The beautiful expanse of slopping grass field among the vineyards overlooking the Okanagan Lake and beyond was set with white tents under which the fifteen participating wineries were setting up their bottle offerings. Rows of wine glasses lined up along a table in the center. It was a perfect Okanagan afternoon and an ideal location for celebrating with passionate pinot noir producers and consumers-aficionados.
We were first directed to the Summerhill Pyramid Winery tent where we were offered a glass of a gorgeous Cipes Blanc de Noir 2008. Summerhill Cipes is made in the traditional method champenoise from organic grapes. Blanc de noir means the sparkling wine is made from red grapes and guess which red grape it is? Pinot Noir of course, and yes, you can make white wine from red grapes. This is a 100% organic Pinot Noir pressed with no skin contact hence the white wine from red grapes. The Cipes was lightly golden with medium bubbles and lingering aroma of stone fruits and pleasant acidity. Ezra Cipes, Summerhill’s CEO and son of the founder was there himself pouring the wine and ready to engage in conversation with the guests. Our paths crossed a few times throughout the afternoon and evening and we had very pleasant conversations with him and his lovely artist (jewelry maker) wife Rio. The sparkly Cipes was a perfect cool and sophisticated opening for a celebration of BC pinot noir.
Welcome from the event President Dave Patterson
Soon after we gathered on the grass for a welcoming address from Dave Patterson, Tantalus winemaker and President of the event this year. “Pinot Noir is incredibly complex grape that captivates the vigneron and captivates the consumer” says Patterson. “It has a lovely allure of grandeur and is flighty by nature, hard to make and expresses in a lot of different ways. All the participating wineries have created this celebration to bring forth the quality of Pinot Noir that is developing and has developed for a long time here in BC. We are lucky here because we have got such distinct terroir up and down this valley, in the Similkameen and on Vancouver Island as well” says Patterson. “Pinot Noir has a unique ability to express the ground its grown in and everything you do to it. More than any other grape variety it can express where its grown and the season it has grown in. I hope you find some uniqueness in the wines you taste but also commonality in the wines because we are in a similar part of the world and there is a common thread that runs through all these pinot noirs”. “It’s my challenge” says Patterson, “that you taste and smell with an open mind, go out and taste everything and think about what you love about pinot noir and hopefully you will find something new or a new producer that you haven’t tried and maybe has your style”.
Keynote speaker Karen MacNeil
Patterson then introduced the kenote speaker, the internationally-acclaimed wine author and educator Karen MacNeil from the Napa Valley. Having won every major wine award in the English language MacNeil is recognized as one of the foremost wine experts in the US. She is young and whimsical and can captivate an audience with her lingering “aromatic” prose. Listening to her speak about wine was a little bit like listening to poetry. Karen has been in the valley for a couple of days travelling throughout and tasting wines with different producers. She humbly described herself as “novice” when it comes to BC pinot noir but non of us was fooled. She has the proven expertise to evaluate the wines and the ability to compare them to the best wines in the world, something many of us cannot do.
It was very interesting to hear MacNeil speak about BC pinot noirs: “David asked me to say a few words on what I expect from a Pinot Noir” Said MacNeil. “What do I expect from pinot noirs? actually, I expect a lot. I don’t expect so much form pinot gris, even less from pinot blanc, though I have been surprised by the grapes here. But with pinot noirs I expect above all distinctiveness. There is no middle ground. It’s not a grape that can be anything, it has to be something. There is no middle ground, it has to be utterly distinctive”. “close on the heel of that” says Karen, “I expect precisions. A great pinot noir has the taste equivalent of church bells in the mountains. I also think that with pinot noirs you have to feel like Grace Kelly just walked into the room, there has to be a sense of elegance. Above all people recognize that something and emotionally respond to it even if it is hard to articulate”.
From there MacNeil went on to compare BC pinot noirs to other pinot noirs she has tasted around the world. “For me the pinot noirs here seem richer than Oregon pinot noirs but not as dense and heavy as the California pinot noirs” says Karen.”They are slightly silkier than the New Zealand pinot noirs”. She then addressed what we were all waiting to hear. What does she think of our pinot noirs? “What I love most about BC pinot noirs is they mimic the place, they mimic the purity. You look out and feel the air, taste the water and look at the lake and you can’t help but be struck by a sense of purity and it carries over to the wine. They have purity and a sense of weightlessness which is very ethereal and captivating”. “I must say” says MacNeil, “that I have been” transported” to Burgundy a few times in the last 48 hours. If I didn’t know better I’d be thinking this is a Chambolle- Musigny” (Cote de Nuit AOC, Burgundy). “Oregon kind of owns the mantle in the US as being of being the Burgundy of the new world” says MacNeil, “but after these 48 hours I think that BC is giving them a run for their money on that idea”. Quite an endorsement, and I loved the poetry in her prose.
Breakout Session: BC Pinot Noir At home
Next our Group A gathered under a large tent where we sat at round tables with two tasting glasses for each for the upcoming tasting from three local pinot noirs wineries (2 vintages from each). This breakout session was hosted by Ingo Grady, Mission Hills Estate Winery Director of Wine Education. Grady, evidently a riesling fan (no wonder, he was raised in Germany in the Moselle region), was joking about his love of riesling (“nobody asked me if I actually like pinot noir. I am a bonafide riesling acid head. I actually feel any kind of intimate relationship with pinot noir is a serious affliction, sometimes laughable…but don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a glass of pinot, especially when it comes in sparkling wine…”). He got a good laugh on that one and was funny and witty throughout the presentation but his expertise was also obvious. The rest of the panel represented pioneer families of pinot noir in the valley: Christie Mavety of Blue Mountain Vineyards, Darryl Brooker, wine maker at Cedar Creek and Mike Lee, Sommelier at Quail’s Gate. Each speaker had 10 minutes to talk about their wines and Christie Mavety took the floor first.
Christie Mavety brought two wines, a 2006 and 2011 vintages. The Maveti family started farming in the early 70’s and has been making wine since the early 90’s. All of their wines are made with estate grown grapes with 80 acres cultivated in total. With control over the site and the wine production for so many years, there is a consistency in style in both the fruit and the winemaking. The two vintages she brought were 2006 and 2011. Growing conditions were vastly different in these two years, the 2011 being colder with late spring, late bloom and later harvest. There were some differences in the wine making techniques as well: 100% native wild yeast in 2011 and 5% inoculation in 2006 as well as less pre-fermentation maceration in 2006. Blue Mountain is known for their elegant pinot noirs and these did not disappoint. Rich, ruby coloured and multie-layered they presented elegantly with silky texture and a lightness on the palate.
Next came Darryl Brooker form Cedar Creek Estate Winery, recently purchased by the flamboyant Anthony Von Mandl of Mission Hill Estate winery. Darryl brought a 2005 , the first PN vintage they made and a 2012. These were made by two different wine makers but the grapes are from the same vineyard, same block and the same small section within the vineyard with 4 clones within that block. “It’s all about the terroir, a sense of place” says Brooker. “Block 4 has heaps and heaps of stone with clay at 11 feet so when the vine roots are really deep you can get more character out of the soil, more minerality. Block 4 wine has a lot of tannins so the structure had to be tamed”. Wine from older vines need less oak but needed more time in the barrel to soften (about 16 months compared to about 12 months for average pinot noir). The 2005 was enjoyable and drinkable, still evoking plums and spices but getting towards the end of its life, being 10 years old. The 2012 is not yet released but showed great promise, I enjoyed both and it was interesting to compare them.
While wine was being poured for the next tasting Ingo Grady spoke about his personal approach to wine. “I like to taste wine in its completeness” says Grady, “not to deconstruct it and even find faults”. He says that the moment you engage your brain in the tasting, your sensory senses diminish by half. “internalize the wine and experience it as a whole” he says, “Let the wine come to you. Don’t rush to write the wine notes, let the wine makers do that”. Grady says he is more about the pleasure that wine can give and that’s when you can internalize the different layers that a pinot noir can give to a pleasurable wine tasting experience.
Wine was poured and Mike Lee, Sommelier at Quail’s Gate took the stage. He brought 2006 and 2012 pinot noirs. “What makes our wines so unique” says Mike, “is that particular site. South facing, cool climate, ancient soil rich in volcanic minerals.The Stewart family were the first to grow pinot noir in the valley in 1975 with some help from UC Davies clones and were the first to bring in the Burgundian clones that we know and are familiar with today”. Wine for him is captivating, alluring, it’s about the sensual experience. “I talk to restaurant guests about wine as being seductive and sexy” he says, “they look at me as if i am mad sometimes but when they taste it, it transport them to a different place”. The 2006 and 2012 have completely different sense of colour, the older is “oranging” on the edges, the newer is lighter, brighter and vivacious”. “Put your nose into the glass” says Lee, “the older wine’s fruit is still there but it has many layers of complexity. It is earthy, mossy, deeper, more dense in colour. The new wine is lighter, brighter”. “Pinot noir for me is about sensory, it’s about captivating the senses”, he says “when I taste pinot noir I lapse into poetry. I close my eyes and it takes me away to a different place”. He went on to pair food with their pinot noir: The 2006 he would pair with game, charcuterie, salamis. The 2012 with the grilled salmon. Grilled salmon and pinot noir from Quail’s Gate is a marriage made in heaven” he says, “and if you like something else I will help you pair it with the right food”. The wines were lovely as I have come to expect from Quail’s Gate and in spite of the light colour neither vintage lacked in any depth, these are relatively “big” wines considering their light colour.
The tasting breakout session was coming to an end and Grady summed it up beautifully: “What connects (pinot noir lovers) is the absolute charm that this grape variety has. There is a suppleness, delicacy and transparency to the wine and the fact that the tannins are not those of merlot or cab franc. We really have come up with something in the Okanagan that works here. There are amazingly gifted wine makers and wine families here who doing great work.”
This tasting session offered an interesting learning opportunity and I always enjoy hearing the winemakers speak about their wines. Mavety and Brookers presentations were perhaps heavy on technical notes and could have benefited from a little injection of art and inspiration. Winemaking is s synergy between art and science. That gap was filled (for me) by Grady and the poetic Mike Lee who brought the romance back into the conversation. Winemaking and the wine in your glass have a romantic element that shouldn’t be overlooked or drowned in technicalities. Regardless of the technology, climate and the composition of the soil, wine quality is still an elusive and subjective phenomena.
Breakout session: Behind the Bottle – Pinot Noir Blending
Once this session concluded we were directed to the Tantalus winery tank hall for a sit-down session of blending wines. The session was hosted by Michaela Morris and Michelle Bouffard, both wine experts and co-owners of House Wine, a wine consulting and education partnership based in Vancouver. We sat with a pinot winemaker at each table guiding us through a blending process of three pinots, each with its own character, flavour and aroma profile. The wines were from three different Okanagan regions: North Okanagan, Central Okanangan and the Similkameen valley. The North Okanagan wine was earthy and structured with no significant aroma. The central Okanagan pinot was highly aromatic, softer and feminine, the Similkameen Valley pinot was oaky, earthy and “dusty”. The table that won the blending competition blended 70% of the earthy North Okanagan wine with 30% of the aromatic central Okanagan. I understand that the previous group that won blended 25%-50%-25% respectively. Ezra Cipes, who sat at the table that won the blending “competition” said that sometimes just a little of the aromatic variety goes a long way. I found that experience very interesting and it left me wanting to learn more. “Our” winemaker was John Weber of Orofino in Similkameen. John and his wife Virginia fell in love with the Similkameen Valley back in 2001. They completed their education in viticulture, winemaking and wine marketing, purchased a vineyard and never looked back. They make only one pinot noir and it is beautiful, smooth and has that je ne sait qoi quality about it that a pinot noir should have. I have marked my calendar to make a trip to the Similkameen valley before the end of the season.
After this session we were free to roam around among the tents set outside on the grass and taste the various pinot noirs of the participating wineries (see list at the end of the post). With all the talking and visiting with people we couldn’t make it to every tent unfortunately but I have the list now and I can have a project for the next while, to taste all the pinot noirs at home. I have to say I loved the Meyer Family Vineyard pinot with its velvety texture and vigorous palate as well as the Vancouver Island’s Averill Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve for its old world feel, dark fruit and great structure. The 50th Parallel pinot noir was new to me and surprised me with its vanilla and spice (and everything nice) notes suspended in a silky texture and supported by solid tannins. Liquidity Winery pinot which we enjoyed many times beguiled us with its complexity, must make another Okanagan Falls run soon.
Dinner by Chef Mark Filatow of Waterfront Wines
Soon we were invited to dinner under the large tent overlooking the lake and mountains. We settled at a table with new acquaintances and were happy to also be joined by Michaela Morris of House Wine who was interesting and knowledgeable, sharing her vast knowledge of wines and wineries around the world throughout dinner (we barely let her eat with all the questions directed at her). For the moment, I lived vicariously through Michaela telling us about travelling the wine world from Burgundy and Bordeaux to Piedmonte and Cinque Terre.
Dinner was prepared by Chef Mark Filatow of Waterfront Wines, one of the best chef and restaurant in the valley. There was plenty for my vegetarian persuasions and everything was fresh and full of flavour. I especially appreciated the Sieglinde potatoes with rosemary and garlic aioli and the heirloom tomato salad with buttermilk dressing. Just my kind of food and I must figure out the recipes. Here is the menu:
Spit roasted porchetta
Charcoal roasted wild salmon
With house-made apricot BBQ sauce, spiced rum and ginger sauce, sauce remoulade and chimichurri
On the side (main for me):
Sweetlife Farms Sieglinde potato salad with fresh rosemary and roasted garlic aioli
Organic arugula, cucumber and heirloom tomatoes with tarragon and buttermilk dressing
Corn on the cob with basil and chili butter
Chick pea salad with fresh tomatoes and Arlo’s Honey and lime vinaigrette
House baked baguettes
Organic peach croustada with hazelnut cream
Chocolate pudding and raspberry parfait with lemon verbena sabayon and cocoa oat crumb
We lingered with several wine bottles on the table available for tasting and great company to visit with. My early hesitation about the length of the event (beginning at 1:00 in the afternoon and dinner at 6:00) was quickly laid to rest. The event was well organized, all sessions took place in a timely manner and we really didn’t stand idle, moving from one session to the next seamlessly and enjoying every minute. I do have a couple of suggestions to consider. One is to add to the educational element by having an expert that can speak to the overall pinot noir production in the valley. We did pick up a lot of information but had to piece it together to get the big picture. Another minor suggestion is to have some chairs available on the lawn so you can perhaps sneak a “view break” while sampling one of the fabulous wines showcased at the event. Either that or I will sit on the grass next year, but I have to “psych” myself for that. Regardless of these two suggestions it was a very interesting, well organized and executed event and I was inspired to learn more about the elusive pinot noir. I look forward to attending next year.
50th Parallel (Lake country)
Averill Creek vineyard (Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island)
Black Cloud (Okanagan Valley)
Blue Mountain Vineyards (Okanagan Falls)
Carson Pinot Noir (Okanagan Valley)
Cedar Creek Estate Winery (Southeast Kelowna)
Howling Bluff (Naramatha Bench)
Lake Breeze (Naramatha Bench)
Liquidity (Okanagan Falls)
Meyer Family vineyards (Okanagan Falls)
Mission Hills Estate Winery (West Kelowna)
Orofino Winery (Similkameen)
Quails’ Gate (West Kelowna)
Spierhead Winery (East Kelowna)
Summerhill Pyramid Winery (South Kelowna)
Tantalus Vineyards (Southeast Kelowna)