A small group of Okanagan wineries is joining forces to organize the province’s first Pinot Noir festival where they intend to pit their best Pinots against others from around the world.
The 12 wineries hosting the B.C. Pinot Noir Festival say the province is producing Pinots that reflect its unique micro-climates and soil types. It’s time for them put aside rivalries and focus instead of what makes this province’s Pinot Noir distinct, said JAK Meyer, of Meyer Family Vineyards. Meyer’s Okanagan Falls winery is hosting the day-long event.
It is the first time wineries have tried to identify B.C. wines with a particular variety. Everything from Cabernet to Syrah and Viognier is being grown in Okanagan vineyards, but few believe B.C. will become renowned internationally for those wines. Too many other regions make them as well or better.
“We are not known for any one wine or for even a few varietals. Most regions of the world are. They grown what is well-suited for that particular region,” Meyer said.
Pinot could be the game-changer. Pinot-focused wineries like Blue Mountain Vineyards, with more than 20 vintages behind them, say they are discovering how well the varietal is suited to this province.
“We in B.C. don’t have an identity. Pinot Noir may be the one that gives us that identity,” said Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety.
The Sept. 1 event is to include three flights of tastings and a panel discussion where B.C. Pinots will be compared to Pinots from other regions, a catered salmon barbecue and music and dancing into the evening.
Wines from Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand will be compared to wines from the 12 wineries. It’s anybody’s guess what the outcome will be, but the winery owners are betting that the Okanagan’s hot days and cool nights will add up to intense flavours coupled with crisp acidity; something few regions of the world can duplicate.
Meyer said the organizers are borrowing on successful festivals in other places, such as the Niagara Peninsula’s cool-climate Chardonnay festival, that combine food, wine and education to build an international reputation around specific varietals.
“In our panel discussion we will encompass discussions on B.C. Pinots, not necessarily in competition, but just to show the differences and similarities with other regions of the world,” Meyer said. “We will do flights of Pinots; say B.C. Pinots with an Oregon Pinot, B.C. Pinots with a New Zealand Pinot, and B.C. Pinots with a Burgundy. Then, have discussions on what you think.”
The Okanagan wine industry has lagged other regions of the world in terms of cooperation among wineries, according to a 2011 study by Simon Fraser University. The study, The Wine Industry in British Columbia, by Andy Hira and Alexis Bwenge, also found weaknesses in interactions and training.
The Pinot festival is a step toward changing that.
“The point is to say, here is a group of wineries that believe the same thing: that Pinots will do well and thrive here and compete on a worldwide level,” said Meyer. “We want people to know who they are, to come and learn about B.C. Pinot Noir and producers. There may be 100 wineries that make Pinot but what we have tried to do is bring wineries together that have the same philosophy.”
For Luke Smith, owner of Naramata’s Howling Bluff winery, discovering what makes B.C. wine distinctive is essential if the province is every to be taken seriously as an international destination for fine wine.
“Our wines are going to taste differently for sure; our soils are different, we are in a different area. Quite frankly, I would be devastated if a French Pinot, a Central Otago Pinot, an Oregon Pinot and an Okanagan Pinot were ever on the same table and the judges said ‘Wow, there are three or four identical wines.’ Because then we would be making Kool-Aid. They should be different.”
Tony Stewart, chief executive officer at Pinot Noir pioneer Quail’s Gate winery in West Kelowna, said that unlike varietals such as Merlot, Pinot Noir takes some explaining to be understood. Pinot was first planted at Quail’s Gate in 1975. It is believed to be the first vineyard in the province to plant the varietal.
“What we have tried to do at Quail’s Gate is to focus our efforts on Pinot Noir as our main red variety. A number of producers in the valley feel the same way and we decided what better way is there too promote a variety that has to be explained a bit than to have a tasting and conference.”
Pinot needs explaining, he said, because of flavour and aroma profiles that reflect where it was grown. Stewart believes the Okanagan has areas where the terroir is ideal for making a distinctive Pinot that, as wine drinkers become more aware of it, could take its place among the top Pinots of the world.
“Right now in the marketplace you will hear a lot of people asking about Merlot or Shiraz, or if wineries are doing a Bordeaux blend. The Okanagan really hasn’t focused in yet on the one variety that it is going to be known for, whether white or red. There is still great diversity out there. That is interesting and exciting for wines from British Columbia but I believe at some point we have to say ‘Hey, this is the variety that works in this climate, in this terroir.’
“What we want to do is to explain this to people when they are out making their purchasing decisions about wine: That Okanagan Pinot Noir is a unique type of variety and we believe it to be the variety that is best suited to this climate.”
Stewart expects that wineries will gradually weed out some of the fringe varieties and focus in on a few key reds and a few key whites.
“At Quail’s Gate we believe that’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It doesn’t mean we don’t make Merlot, we still do, but our real focus and desire is to build an international awareness around our Pinot and Chardonnay.”
Meyer said the differences among Pinots is their big attraction.
“You get true Pinot Noir lovers who seek out Pinot from all over the world and then go looking for it.”
When: Sunday, Sept. 1
Where: Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls
For B.C.’s first Pinot Noir festival, 12 Okanagan wineries from six different regions are pouring their wines.
Okanagan Falls: Blue Mountain Vineyards, Liquidity Wines, Meyer Family Vineyards, Carson Family
Naramata Bench: Howling Bluff Estate Wines, Black Cloud Winery, Lake Breeze
Kelowna: CedarCreek Estate Winery, Tantalus Vineyards
West Kelowna: Quail’s Gate
Similkameen: Eau Vivre Winery
Cowichan Valley: Avril Creek Vineyard
A 13th winery, Seven Directions, will also pouring a Pinot rosé at the reception.
Panelists: wine author John Schreiner, wine commentator and Master of Wine Rhys Pender, wine consultant Kurtis Kolt, sommelier DJ Kearney.
Tickets are available at eventbee.com/v/bcpinotnoircelebrationandsalmonbake or the at the participating wineries. Discounts on accommodations are available by quoting Meyer Family Vineyards at Holiday Beach Resort at Okanagan Falls and Ramada Inn at Penticton.