What grape variety makes wines that captures the spirit and unique conditions (terroir) of the South Okanagan?

By Rasoul Salehi, Director of Sales and Marketing and Managing partner at Le Vieux Pin :

 

I am being asked this question a lot lately: New Zealand is defined by Sauvignon Blanc; Napa Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon; Oregon for Pinot Noir; Australia for Shiraz; so what should the Okanagan be known for?

My colleagues are also being asked the same question, in fact, the BC Wine Institute recently held a seminar led by industry experts and BC wine lovers to learn more about this subject (http://www.alumni.ubc.ca/podcasts/the-grape-debate/).

Please note, when the question is asked: “what grape variety should the South Okanagan focus on?” We mean what grape variety yields the most complex, unique wines that capture “a sense of time and place”. We are talking about premium wines rather than casual quaffers. We are not looking at this question from a purely economic standpoint, or what is easiest and the least expensive grape to grow. But rather, which grape variety manages to capture the nuances of each sub appellation as well as the unique growing conditions of each vintage.  So this question could be changed to: “what grape variety makes wines that capture the spirit and unique conditions (terroir) of the South Okanagan?”

So let’s discuss this more. First, we CANNOT and SHOULD NOT look at the Okanagan Valley as one entity. The South Okanagan (Oliver and Osoyoos) perhaps along with neighbouring Similkameen Valley should be looked at as a separate growing area. While, All of Okanagan valley is north of the 49th parallel (classic cool climate), the South Okanagan enjoys a very unique and precious micro climate: extreme continental desert climate. It is located on the northern most tip of the Sonoran desert, and has more sunshine hours than Napa Valley, during the growing season. And of course, a noticeable temperature drop at night-time thanks to the desert climate . This big shift in diurnal temperature brings with it unique characteristics in the wines which we will get to shortly.

Furthermore, like Burgundy, the Northern Rhone valley and a handful of other regions, the South Okanagan enjoys a drastic variation between growing seasons, where the word “vintage” really comes into play. Unlike Barossa Valley, California’s Central Valley, etc. where each year the growing conditions and weather are fairly consistent; in the south Okanagan we get very different growing seasons year to year. In 2009, harvest started late August and ended October 9th with a cold snap of -10 degrees Celsius. In 2008 and 2010, harvest didn’t start until mid September and we were harvesting in shorts and t-shirts until the last week of October. Average day time and night time temperatures too tend to be quite different from one year to the next.

Because of the long days and all the heat units in the South Okanagan, red varieties do best (aside from late ripening white varieties like Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne or those that can be picked at various ripening stages like Riesling or Chenin Blanc). Perhaps we should leave the question of which white variety would do best for a different time, since most of the South Okanagan is planted to red varieties and the whites for the most part have been used to make entry level or mid tier wines, as opposed to flagships. So, what red variety is the king? If you ask any grower to single out a variety, the answer will be Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Syrah. The number of acres planted to these varieties certainly supports this claim, as well as many articles, awards, Sommelier and critic’s support and rave reviews that urge growers and consumers alike to focus on these three red varieties.

And while this is true, we still find that Syrah is the only grape of the three, that fully captures the nuances of the growing season; the specific features of the vineyard site: top soil, sub soil, elevation, exposure, etc. and translates it into the finished wine.

Let’s look at Merlot which grows well on the valley floor and on either bench (with various exposures and elevations) in the South Okanagan. It is hard to taste this variety blind and zoom in on the sub region or vintage it stems. Cabernet Franc, not fully, but to some extent follows the same pattern. Why is that? While I don’t have an exact answer, it is common belief that best wines that capture the interest and intellect of wine connoisseurs stem from regions that are on the vey edge of being able to ripen that given variety. In other words, Merlot and cab franc ripen rather easily in South Okanagan but that cannot be said about Syrah. 2011 is a perfect example of the lowest growing degree days and where Syrah regardless of how low the yielsd were and manicured the vines were, resulted in alcohol range of 12.6-13.2% alc./vol. Merlot on the other hand had no problem as it always does to reach 14.5+% alc./vo. The resulting Syrah from 2011 yell cool climate, cool year where as that cannot be said about the merlot. At best we can say the Merlot were a touch more finessed.

Syrah turns into a different beast depending on the vineyard site and growing season. We are fortunate to have worked with a total of 9 different vineyards of Syrah since 2008 and have tasted the variations. No other variety shows as much variation in aromatics, texture, acid, tannins and flavours as Syrah in South Okanagan. Syrah can show itself as a low alcohol; red fruit scented; floral; mildly herbal wine to a wine that has sauvage; rich; round; dark fruit; black pepper and black olive characters. It is much like Syrah in the Northern Rhone, where in Hermitage vs. Cote Rotie vs. Cornas or Saint Joseph, the results are so varied and unique that it confirms a great wine is not just about the grape variety, but the connection to the vineyard site and all the variable and fixed conditions that site enjoys (terroir and climate).

So why aren’t more people working with Syrah? Short answer: Economics, practicality and the know how.

Merlot makes a stand up wine and something nice and pleasurable, more or less regardless of yields, vineyard site and practices. And as I mentioned, some sites are naturally better than others but even the bottom of the valley floor with high yielding vineyards make more than just quaffable Merlot.

This cannot be said about Syrah, it is very picky and will make boring wines without much character, body or interest, when yields are high and sites are inferior. It is prone to winter damage (in cold winters like we saw in 2008 and 2009). It is a variety that is vegetatively active, and not economically feasible for wineries that are focused on making simple, entry level wines from vineyards that grow large crops. It requires a good budget to employ ample labour to manicure and tend to the vines (suckering, shoot thinning, hedging, green harvest, leaf thinning, etc). Overall, Syrah is much more sensitive to how it is handled in our region.

So, we have learned from mother nature over the years that Syrah makes the most intellectual, complex and “true” wines in South Okanagan, even though many growers will still not touch it with a ten-foot pole. But don’t be surprised down the road, if you see other varieties pulled out of the ground and replanted with Syrah.

Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed in this article are those of Rasoul’s and not necessarily that of the winery.

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