Perhaps, before I answer this question, I should define what is a cutting edge wine? In the past, it could have been the use of stainless steel tanks, when none were used before, or the use of cultured yeasts specifically bred to impart particular flavours and aromas in a wine. But now, these things are mainstream. What is new and cutting edge is looking to the past, at the “ancient” methods of wine production and growing grapes organically. Many people have said that wine is made in the vineyard, and wine makers need to be careful not to apply too heavy a hand and ruin what the grapes have to offer.
There are several “ancient” methods that are now being experimented with around the world. I think Europe would have been the start of producing what is now known as “natural” wines. According to DJ Kearney, at its simplest, a Natural wine is one that “has nothing added to it“. That would mean things like adding sulfites to clean the wine bottles or adding cultured yeast would not qualify for a natural wine. In BC several wineries, including Okanagan Crush Pad, Tantalus Vineyards, Little Farm Winery, and Laughing Stock Vineyards have all been experimenting with natural wines.
Some key points that may help you identify a natural wine:
- it may say natural, ancient method, pet nat, organic, or biodynamic on the bottle
- if the wine was produced in a clay amphora
- if it mentions extended skin contact for white wines
- if it mentions that the wines are produced from a wild fermentation from indigenous yeasts
These points do not guarantee a 100% naturally produced wine, but they are good indicators.
In BC we produce white and red still wines, sparkling wines, ice wine and other dessert/fortified wines. All these have potential to be made using new and/or natural techniques. I was able to taste 4 BC VQA sparkling wines, 4 BC VQA Chardonnay, 4 BC VQA Cabernet Franc, and 4 BC VQA Syrah wines, which could be viewed as being on the cutting edge. With the already limited production of our BC wines, due to the limited geographic area where we can grow grapes, it is commendable to see wine makers willing to take risks and produce non-traditional wines. How did these wines show?
BC VQA Sparkling
The 4 wines I tried, along with my 5 Star rating were:
- JoieFarm Plein de Vie Brut 2015
- Bella Wines Reserve Brut Nature 2012 –
- Tantalus Vineyards Old Vines Riesling Natural Brut 2013
- Okanagan Crush Pad Narrative Ancient Method 2013
In general all the sparkling and still wines were quite enjoyable. It shows that you can step outside of the standard methods of wine production and still make a wine that is of good quality, shows the character of the grape, and overall people can enjoy without having to be a wine geek. All the wines are made using wild fermentation.
For the sparkling wines, the Bella Reserve Brut Nature 2012 is made with the Chardonnay grape. After its initial fermentation, the 2nd fermentation in the bottle involved 40 months of lees contact. That is an exceptionally long time for a BC sparkling wine. You can pick up on the lees on the nose and palate. On the palate it gives you a very creamy texture.
The Tantalus Vineyards Old Vines Riesling Natural Brut, 2013 also has extended lees contact, of 24 months, but what is also different and exciting for this wine in BC is that it is made with the Riesling grape. Making a sparkling Riesling is not that common overall, around the world. This sparkler showed the lees, and also bruised apple on the nose, crab apple on the palate, and a streak of salty minerality. Only 150 cases of this wine is made.
The Okanagan Crush Pad Narrative Ancient Method, 2013 I think was the most interesting in its method used and the resulting aromas and flavours. Made from the Chardonnay grape, it is fermented in stainless steel tanks, but before fermentation completes and there is still some residual sugar, the wine is put into bottle where it completes it’s fermentation. The wine is kept on its lees for 18 months, and has forgone filtering, fining and stabilization. The result is a wine that has some creaminess on the palate from the lees contact, and has an interesting earthy/nutty nose which continues on to the palate as well as lemon aroma and flavour.
BC VQA Chardonnay
The 4 BC VQA Chardonnay I tried along with my 5 Star rating were:
- Bartier Bros. Vineyard and Winery Chardonnay 2014
- Meyer Family Vineyards McLean Creek Road Chardonnay 2014
- Poplar Grove Winery Chardonnay 2015
- Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014
All four wines in this category were quite aromatic. Some like Quails’ Gate and Meyer Family Vineyards had more of the warmer climate, tropical fruit aromas and flavours, while Bartier Bros and Poplar Grove, showed more cooler climate aromas of flavours of apple and citrus. Poplar Grove Winery did a cool fermentation that also provided green fruits, herbal, pine needles and banana on the nose. It was an interesting wine. Overall I would say that they all have nice fruit and medium acidity to make the wines a pleasure to drink. None was heavily oaked, but they did have some oak aging to add a bit of complexity to the wines.
BC VQA Cabernet Franc
The 4 BC VQA Cabernet Franc I tried along with my 5 Star rating were:
- Little Farm Winery Blind Creek Vineyard Pied de Cuve Cabernet Franc 2015
- Fort Berens Estate Winery Cabernet Franc 2013
- Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2013
- Burrowing Owl Estate Winery Cabernet Franc 2013
Some say that Cabernet Franc could be a signature red grape for BC. This grape is not as widely grown and produced as a single varietal wine, except for in the Loire Valley. It is typically part of a Bordeaux blend which you get from around the world. Cabernet Franc seems to like our climate and wine makers here are recognizing its quality. You can produce both a regular Cab Franc wine, but also a rose version. Cabernet Franc can show aromas and flavours of violets, cedar and red fruits, which I was getting on the four wines from this flight. I particularly enjoyed the Tinhorn Creek and Burrowing Owl wines a bit more. Even for Cabernet Franc, wineries do research things and try to figure out the clones that work best in their area. Fort Berens for example, uses clones 327 and 214. Filtering for the Fort Berens wine was also interesting as they used a “coarse” sheet only to retain the flavours in the wine. There is a long discussion about filtered and unfiltered wines, with people saying that the filtering process does strip some of the flavours out of the wine.
The Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2013 had violets, dill, red fruit and a hint of nutmeg on the nose. Dry, light-bodied with soft mouth feel and fine tannins. Red fruit, light nutmeg and a hint of flowers. Light and elegant.
The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery Cabernet Franc 2013 was bigger with ripe blueberries and sweet spice on the nose. Full-bodied with ripe blueberries and red fruit on the palate. Nutmeg on the mid-palate and fine tannins to the finish.
The Tinhorn Creek and Burrowing Owl wines wine making notes do not indicate any “ancient” methods used, while Fort Berens indicated the coarse filtering, and Little Farm did indicate that they did use a minimalist approach to producing their wine, which is still in tank at the time of the tasting. Cutting edge in this category I think pertains more to the grape variety than the method.
BC VQA Syrah
Finally, the 4 BC VQA Syrah I tried along with my 5 Star rating were:
- Orofino Winery Wild Ferment Syrah 2015
- Bartier Bros. Vineyard and Winery Syrah 2013 –
- Laughing Stock Vineyards Syrah 2013
- BC Wine Studio Siren’s Call Syrah 2013
Some say that Syrah could also be a signature grape for BC and there is merit to that as well, but it may be harder to stand out with all the other regions in the world producing quality Syrah. These 4 wines in general were fuller bodied with bright fruit flavour, medium to medium plus acidity, and showed the characteristic pepperiness of the Syrah grape. They were all quite good, but I gave s slight edge to Laughing Stock and BC Wine Studio’s wines. Orofino does produce an interesting wine, with the fermentation happening from a custom, locally made concrete tank in BC; possibly the first locally made concrete tank for wine production in BC. The Bartier Bros. Syrah used a wild ferment, and bottled the wines unfined and unfiltered. In case you buy an unfined and unfiltered wine, be aware that they will be some sediment at the bottom of the bottle, so be careful when you get to the last glass of wine.
The Laughing Stock Vineyards Syrah 2013 had lots of aromatics. Ripe, sweet purple fruit, and sweet spice, in particular nutmeg, on the nose. Dry, full body, with a heavier mouth feel and firmer tannins. Very fruit with red and purple berries, together with nutmeg, pepper, and a floral component (the floral coming from co-fermenting 4% Viognier with the Syrah). A very easy to enjoy wine.
The BC Wine Studio Siren’s Call Syrah 2013 was deep garnet in colour with some bricking. Iodine, smoked bacon, dark fruit and a touch of vanilla on the nose. Full body, dry with medium mouth feel and fine tannins. Ripe dark fruit and nutmeg flavours, along with a mineral streak and signature Syrah pepper.
Can BC Be Cutting Edge?
So the answer to “Can BC make cutting edge wines?”, I would say Yes. Cutting edge to me, refers to techniques and/or varieties of grapes out of the ordinary for an area. These wines all showed the character of the grapes they represented and a view possibly to enhanced quality or style. The sparkling wines with their extended lees contact and the use of Riesling is an example. In cutting edge, some may point to wines produced in Europe, where the wines can have acetic components or very challenging aromas, like beef jerky for a white wine. These types of cutting edge wines do have a place in the wine world. We do have to try new things, and challenge the norm, to maybe find new, exciting methods or representations from grapes.
If you would like to read about other BC and European natural wine producers, read my article from Cornucopia last year.