Author: Javen Loewen
The Okanagan Valley is a winemaker’s playground thanks to the wide range of microclimates and soil compositions. More than 80 different red and white varietals are planted between the northern tip of the Sonora Desert in Osoyoos where bold reds thrive, all the way up north to the cooler conditions of Lake Country where many Germanic and Alsatian grapes are grown. As the temperatures increase over the years and vines are getting older, thicker skinned red grapes are flourishing in the South Okanagan.
Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions regarding the top three planted red varietals in BC.
Merlot is BC’s most planted grape with 1,678 acres (654 hectares – Wine BC). When the movie “Sideways” was released in 2005, the main character went on a negative outburst about Merlot, and it had a drastic effect on how wine drinkers viewed this varietal. Merlot sales plummeted and Pinot Noir skyrocketed (the main character loved Pinot and despised Merlot). Despite this defamation, Merlot has made a strong comeback and BC produces a style that is worth exploring. Winemakers delight in this grape as it ripens very well in the Okanagan.
Okanagan Merlot has the potential to be soft and juicy with minimal tannins. However, depending on the winemaking style they can be bold and tannic requiring additional time in the bottle to reach the optimal drinking window. Generally, Merlot grown in the Okanagan will have higher tannins than other global examples.
I enjoy BC grown Merlot on its own or paired with a wide range of meats such as beef, lamb and venison. Generally, I find Merlot to be medium to full body with medium tannins, offering flavours of plum, black cherry, sage, vanilla, and dark chocolate. The sage mimics the eucalyptus character commonly found in Australia.
My Okanagan Merlot recommendations:
Painted Rock Merlot 2016 – A concentrated and layered Merlot with an attractive nose of black fruits, pencil shavings, black liquorish and eucalyptus. The palate offers grippy tannins and fresh acidity. Beautifully layered flavours of sweet black cherries, raspberry jam, currants, earth, and a hint of spice.
Little Engine Silver Merlot 2018 – This is an expressive Merlot that opens with notes of black currant, baking spice, black cherries, and underbrush. The palate is structured and well integrated with velvety tannins, cassis, dark chocolate, vanilla and cigar box.
Pinot Noir has been nicknamed by winemakers as the “heartbreak grape” due to its thin skins that can easily be damaged by the elements. Despite the potential for heartbreak, this grape has grown faster in acreage than any other red varietal (79% between 2006 and 2014 - Wine BC). 1,331 acres (538 hectares - Wine BC) are planted, and the numbers are growing. Pinot Noir is well-suited to BC terroir, especially near a body of water where the temperatures are moderated, and frost is combated. Most of the plantings can be found in the central to northern part of the Okanagan Valley, as the south is too hot for this early ripening varietal.
Pinot noir is one of my favourite varietals grown in the Okanagan. This grape can represent its sense of place very well and you can taste the terroir where it is grown. Some wineries have made the decision to specialize in Pinot Noir and showcase single vineyard selections. This is a great approach because a Pinot Noir from one winery can taste very different from a neighboring vineyard due to the soil type, sun exposure and clone used. Some winemakers use oak to ferment, while others will use stainless steel which can lead to both masculine and feminine characteristics.
When I put my nose in a wide bowl glass filled with Pinot Noir, it truly brings a smile to my face. I can smell the excitement and struggles of growing this finicky grape. Common flavours I taste in this varietal are vibrant red cherry, baking spice, orange, strawberry, floral and mushroom undertones. Light to medium body with soft tannins. Due to the high acidity found in BC Pinot Noir, it has the potential to age very well. Pair with duck breast, grilled root vegetables, salmon, pork tenderloin, or a sausage pizza.
My Okanagan Pinot Noir recommendations:
Blue Mountain Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir 2019- Very bright, fruity notes of cherry and red plum, almost floral with minimal oak influence, just a touch of spice and herbs. It shows very fine balance and integration.
SpearHead Saddle Block Pinot Noir 2019 - The nose is earthy, floral and spicy. Bright acidity with supple tannins. Juicy and meaty palate offering inviting flavours of sour cherry, violet, forest floor and pepper.
Cabernet Sauvignon has 853 acres (345 hectares - Wine BC) mostly planted near Osoyoos on the eastern side of the Okanagan Valley (Wine BC). Cabernet Sauvignon is strategically grown in this region to capture extra heat as the sun is setting to allow this think skinned grape to fully ripen. Another area that is suited for this varietal is on the sun-drenched slopes of the Similkameen Valley.
As temperatures are rising in the Southern Okanagan, so is the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a varietal that most wine drinkers are familiar with. If the grapes don’t fully ripen by the time they’re picked, the wine will have a green taste similar to underripe fruit.
After years of monitoring select vineyards, wineries have found the perfect sites to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. The complex soil-types found in the Okanagan, including glacial deposit, add a distinct mineral characteristic. Thousands of years ago there was glacier movement in the Okanagan which created beautiful soil complexities. These wines, especially from the hottest growing seasons, have great purity of fruit, bright flavours, and the potential to age for over a decade thanks to the high acidity and tannic structure.
When I taste Cabernet Sauvignon grown in BC, I find it often has flavours of black currant, black plum, sage and dried herbs.
A local winery that I believe is producing exceptionally good Cabernet is Cassini Cellars in Oliver. This varietal is an excellent match with grilled steak, beef tenderloin, bison, cured meat, and aged cheeses.
My Okanagan Cabernet Sauvignon recommendations:
Cassini The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 - The nose is spicy and aromatic with notes of plum, cassis, mocha, dates, vanilla, and a hint of green bell pepper. On the palate, silky layers of coffee, plum, chocolate, blackberry, cassis, cedar and dates. Full bodied with great structure, beautiful oak integration, and a finish that keeps on going for miles.
Orofino Passion Pit Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 - Lip-smacking notes of cherry, raspberry, pecan, blackberry and cigar. The palate is packed full of juicy dark fruit, spice, pepper, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco, and sweet oak. There is a lingering caramel note on the finish which is delicious!
“Red Wine Varietals of British Columbia | Wine BC.” Wines of British Columbia, winebc.com/our-wines/wine-varietals/red-wines/.
Read more about Javen Loewen at Poured by Jay