BC’s Big Reds

Punching Above their Weight

It used to be if you wanted to talk about the iconic wines of BC the conversation would drift towards Icewine. Sure, we enjoyed some success in the mid-1990s with the 1993 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay capturing the world stage, but our table wines, generally speaking, although good, still had a long way to go to compete internationally.

Then the 2004 Jackson-Triggs Sunrock Shiraz shone another spotlight on BC’s real potential when it was recognized as one of the world’s best red wines at the London International Wine Festival. We could make big red wines! And at that time, we would have also said, “just like the Aussies.”

This powerhouse was high in alcohol, jammy, big and brooding, and satisfying. Can it age like a Hermitage or Grange? Not a chance. It made it about 10 years, but I always suggest drinking BC reds between 4-7 years. It’s a pretty safe range. Some producers make wines in both the red and white genre that can improve over a decade, but you could be disappointed if you wait too long.

It’s important to know the origin of the grapes as it helps ensure you are getting wines made from ripe fruit.

That Shiraz was produced in the very southern portion of the Okanagan Valley at the Sun Rock Vineyard, in Canada’s only semi-arid desert where it’s dry and hot. That is the perfect place to fully ripen red grapes. However, buyers are not aware of where grapes are sourced from since the appellation is just called “Okanagan”. It’s important to know the origin of the grapes as it helps ensure you are getting wines made from ripe fruit. The next step for understanding the terroir of BC is for the government to create official sub-regions, known as sub-geographical indications (sub-GI) within the large area of the Okanagan Valley and other geographical indications. Sub-GIs are linked to unique climates, soil types, and the resulting wine styles. The Golden Mile Bench became the first officially recognized sub-GI in 2015. We need more precise Napa Valley-like sub-GI’s used for labelling as our industry matures and grapes are getting settled in sites where they perform best. It will make it easier to predict what the wine style may manifest itself like.

So, at the end of the day, if you are looking to recommend a big red wine from BC, it’s probably going to come from the more southern end of the valley.

The other development that has really improved the quality of BC red wine is the fact that the consumer is being forced to pay for it. When Anthony von Mandl launched the boutique Martins Lane label via Mission Hill, it was a modest production of Riesling and Pinot Noir sourced from the few hectares planted on the side of his father’s namesake road that meanders to his home from the winery. These wines sold for around $20.00. Then the Pinot won best Pinot Noir in the World (under 25 British Pounds) in London, production increased and the wine is now over $80.00, if you can get it.

Wineries have invested time and effort to make sure the right varietal and clones are in the right location.

A mature industry is now attracting people who already have resources and they are investing heavily in the wine industry as well as the Okanagan lifestyle. The result is producers dedicated to making the very best BC has to offer. Wineries have invested time and effort to make sure the right varietal and clones are in the right location. They have the very best equipment in the world and are attracting winemaking talent from the most prestigious growing regions on the planet. The increase in investment must be recovered or the business will fail. These people understand this and have built wines that don’t need to be sold within a few months of bottling for either quality or cash flow reasons, so they charge what the wine is worth, sit back, and let it sell as it may. So, we get better wine, but just have to get our wallets out.

If you want a balanced wine with some degree of elegance as well as power it might retail for $30.00-$50.00. Higher-end wine can reach over $100.00. Few and far between will be the producers able to consistently deliver wines less than $20. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and you should be pleased to have the opportunity to support the local economy.

Who are these producers making big red wines? Below is a short list of some of my favourites (in no particular order).

Laughing Stock                        Portfolio

Black Hills                               Note Bene (and even better – the Carmenere)

Culmina                                   Hypothesis

Hester Creek                           Syrah – Viognier

Poplar Grove                           Legacy

Checkmate                              Merlot

Painted Rock                           Syrah

But there are lots more. Attend festivals or travel the southern Okanagan in the summer (beautiful!), and you will discover plenty more big reds to offer to your guests with pride.

Tim Ellison is a Certified Chef de Cuisine and Sommelier with approaching half a century of experience in the hospitality industry. He is the Director of Food and Beverage Service at the prestigious Vancouver Club.

Photos courtesy of BC Wine Institute