Our first 2016 report from the Okanagan Valley is nothing but good news. All across the South Okanagan and Similkameen Valley bud burst is underway. The unfurling of the leaves signals the start of the growing season, one that now looks as if it will be a full two weeks earlier than last year — one of the earliest starts on record.
Last weekend's full moon (which tends to clear the skies of clouds) was likely the biggest threat to affect a killing frost on the tender shoots as they unfold into the vines, but temperatures never got close to freezing. Having passed that key moment of vulnerability successfully, there is optimism, albeit guarded, that this could be another terrific year for B.C. wine growers.
I can't remember a run of quality harvests that can come close to what's occurred in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. With 2016 already off to a good start, it's been a half decade of bliss for most growers. It's never perfect, with pesky summer heat spikes and winter kill to deal with, but warmer, longer growing seasons are welcomed for all the big red varieties.
Today I wanted to share some quick thoughts on a bunch of exceptional new releases coming into the market this month. Remember, the new normal for buying B.C.'s best wines is to start at the winery website — some ship your wine for free and many have special labels only available online.
The remaining VQA stores are a good bet as are the new grocery stores, although they are few and far between so far. Next up are the original private wine shops and the wine-oriented liquor stores. Finally, BC Liquor Stores have a few gems worth seeking out amid a sea of ordinary commercial VQA and "Cellared in Canada" labels.
Get ready to see a bunch of "Golden Mile Bench" labels this year in recognition of the Okanagan Valley's first approved sub-appellation.
At Tinhorn Creek, winemaker Andrew Windsor has just released an impressive Tinhorn Creek 2013 Oldfield Golden Mile Bench Chardonnay ($35) from fruit sourced just up above the Oliver winery. Aged 12 months in both French oak and stainless steel barrels, the result is a fresh, nutty, flinty, apple-flavoured white with bits of spice and fine structure and texture. It's a new story for Tinhorn.
Windsor also released a delicious, ready-to-drink Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2015 Cabernet Franc Rosé ($19.99). The colour is lighter and the sugar has been dialed back from nine grams to six grams. It makes all the difference, brightening the fruit and upping this rosé's food-friendly quotient. Drink all spring and summer.
Nearby at Culmina Family Estate, owned by the Triggs family, they've released their latest grüner veltliner, the only example made in B.C., if not the country. The Culmina 2015 Unicus ($27) takes its name from Latin, meaning "only" or "unprecedented." From its yellow fruit and citrus aromas to a long, persistent plum starfruit and guava nose, this is an amazing wine.
Merlot is on the upswing in B.C. and the reasons are simple. Better viticulture, better winemaking and that run of fine weather have made all the difference. The Culmina Family Estate 2013 Merlot ($31) is a tour of plums, violets and stony minerality that was made for rack of lamb.
Not far down the road, the Hester Creek 2015 Golden Mile Bench Character White ($13.99) offers a very affordable, estate blend made with gewürztraminer, chardonnay, trebbiano, pinot gris and pinot blanc. A fun wine to serve with tapas, such as a warm olive plate or a selection of cheese and meats.
At Road 13, winemaker J.M Bouchard is heading down the Rhone road planting more syrah and a bit of mourvèdre to expand the journey. We tasted two really exciting wines you should be looking for. Road 13 2014 Roussanne ($24) features Nashi pears, wild honey and beeswax — this monster white has it all including some stony notes in the finish. Impressive and inexpensive for the quality. The Road 13 2014 GSM ($35) is equally rich and powerful thanks to its grenache, syrah and mourvèdre blend. It will change your mind about B.C. reds.
If you were to hike over the mountains that line the west side of Oliver, you'd eventually come out in the Similkameen Valley, where Clos du Soleil is putting on a show that includes a brand-new tasting room. We found two knockout wines you can proudly pour at home. The Clos du Soleil 2014 Capella ($28), an 88/12 blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon, starts with a pink grapefruit/lemon lime nose that finishes bone-dry and mouth-watering, with peachy/mineral/citrus flavours. A companion red is the Clos du Soleil 2013 Signature Red ($45). It's the best red they have made, mixing 51-per-cent merlot with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. It will have a long future.
Back to Oliver (north) on the east side of town, where winemaker Severine Pinte believes the potential of syrah is unlimited, we have Le Vieux Pin 2014 Syrah Cuvée Violette ($26.90), a lovely little peppery red that overdelivers for its price. This cuvée is all about the floral-style syrah — perfectly suited to duck or pork.
Finally, two wines that reflect how different the terroir of the Okanagan can be only a few kilometres apart. The Stone'd 2013 Red ($19), a Stoneboat vineyard production, is grown on the Oliver Black Sage Gravelbar, a stony site just below the sandy Black Sage Bench. This silky smooth, clean, juicy pinotage/pinot noir is ready to drink. Think salmon.
Further south of Oliver on the West Osoyoos Lake Bench, I caught up with Jean Marc Enixon, the new winemaker at Osoyoos Larose. Enixon opened two impressive bottles: The 2012 Osoyoos Larose ($45), is easily the best we have tasted. It is perfectly ripe, obviously benefitting from the vintage. To top it off Enixon previewed the 2013 Osoyoos Larose ($45) — to be released later this year — maybe the best Bordeaux-blend I have tasted in the Okanagan. More merlot in the blend has really upped the elegance of what is now a graceful red. Can't wait for this one.
In short, the future of B.C. wine is sunny and bright, so if you've been waiting for a turning point think points 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and, coming soon maybe, 2016.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.