When I started in this business back in the late 1970s and early '80s, I visited a lot of wineries, met a lot of winemakers and tasted a lot of wine. Today, I visit a lot of vineyards and meet a lot of viticulturalists before tasting a lot of wine. I like to think of it as the Next World way.
As it should be, the vineyard visit is now the be-all and end-all of winery visits because, frankly, almost every other element in the business can be, and is copied from winery to winery and from country to country. I meet many people who tell me one wine is the same as another and I reply, do you mean in the same way that humans are all the same?
Like many "lookalike" products, it all comes down to nuances and whether or not you care to recognize them. In the case of wine, it's the nuances that make all the difference.
If you really want to understand unique sites and their stories you have to be curious and it has nothing to do with being a connoisseur of wine. Think about your own home garden or even a balcony planter. If your property or plants are facing south and or southwest in the northern hemisphere it means they'll likely get warmer earlier in the growing season. Which is not the case if your site faces north. That speaks to place and orientation.
Once you know where the sun falls and where temperatures vary on your site, you can plant lettuce in the shade and tomatoes in the sun. If you're really observant, you could track where the frost is last to appear and the snow is the first to melt and you will have identified the warmest location in your garden — all useful information when you're planting a vegetable garden, and it's no different for vineyards.
If you were to visit the Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay vineyard along the U.S. border in the south Okanagan Valley, you might think it's far too warm a site for chardonnay. But the vineyard is oriented north, away from the blistering heat of the day. The layout allows for full ripening of the fruit without baking it. The result? A fresh, nuanced chardonnay that belies its southern Osoyoos location.
Some 100 kilometres to the north in East Kelowna's Mission District, the very finicky pinot-noir grape is establishing a home on much cooler sites that are oriented in such a way to collect a less intense late-day sun, adding a touch of ripeness and fullness to an otherwise earthy, red-fruit-scented and flavoured palate. Tantalus, Spierhead, CedarCreek and Martin's Lane lead a host of wineries betting on cooler daytime temperatures so favourable to pinot's final development.
Attention to detail, science and good old-fashioned observation — not to mention tasting — is creating a quality and a taste that is slowly linking our wines to specific sites. Is East Kelowna different than Osoyoos? Yes. Does it show in the wine? Yes. Should it be recognized on the label? Yes. I know sub-appellations are coming in the Okanagan but it can't be soon enough for those of us paying premium dollars for wines with an almost unknown pedigree.
Not long ago, I spent three intensive days in one of the most heralded vineyards in California. Napa Valley's To Kalon Vineyard, first planted in 1868, sits over a mix of gravelly loams at the sloping base of the Mayacamas Mountains and alluvial/clay loams that spread east onto the valley floor.
To Kalon is bathed in the warm morning sun as it climbs above the Vacca Mountains to the east of Napa Valley, but remains cool and protected from the heat of the late-day sun by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. The orientation of the rows, the trellising, the density, the mix of dry-farmed and drip-irrigated vines and, most important, the grape varieties — predominately cabernet sauvignon with merlot and cabernet franc and sauvignon block — all contribute to the final quality of the fruit.
To Kalon is home to the most important Mondavi labels: Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Oakville District Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remarkable Fumé Blanc Reserve, and the vineyard is as close as it comes to what the French term a Grand Cru site — the ultimate home of grapes that effortlessly tell the story of their site.
The Mondavi folks talk endlessly about the To Kalon balance, its finesse with power, the tension of acidity and the softness of the tannins. What they are really saying is place matters.
It's that kind of thinking that will take the New World to the Next World, and it can't happen fast enough for this writer.
In the meantime, here's your homework:
Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay Osoyoos Vineyard 2014, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $42.99
CedarCreek Pinot Noir 2013, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $22.99
Tantalus Pinot Noir 2014, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $26.00
Spierhead Pinot Noir 2015, East Kelowna, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $25.00
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville District 2012, Napa Valley, California, U.S.A. $57.99
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver. For more of his thoughts on wine, log onto www.gismondionwine.com.