When the Wine Bloggers Conference comes to Penticton in June, wine bloggers from around the world will get an education about how the 100 mile-long Okanagan Valley produces wines of Alsatian, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone origin.
While Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc are what winos will expect, I think they’ll also be intrigued by aromatic wines made from BC’s historic hybrid grapes, specifically bred in the laboratory to flourish in our cool climate. These hybrids are the last relics of the early age of BC winemaking.
BC hybrids were crossed from grapes of the Alsace region of France and Germany, as well as grapes from Switzerland and Eastern Europe, that share the 49th Parallel with Southern British Columbia. They were bred to be winter hardy, late blooming and fast ripenig to take advantage of our shorter growing season.
In the 1980’s the federal and provincial governments incentivized a transition to Vitis vinifera vines known as “The Great Grape Pull Out.” Hybrids planted in the mid-20th Century became victims of the pull out, and the vineyards that were spared are the closest thing Canadians have to “Old Vines.” Tasting BC hybrids is like tasting a bit of Canadian history.
Top BC hybrid wines not to miss
Sporting a name that literally sounds refreshing, Ehrenfelser is a cross between Riesling and Silvaner. It’s kind of a poor person’s Reisling at the Kabinett level, but I consider it a go-to white wine for lively mouthfeel and tropical fruit flavors.
Cedar Creek, Lake Breeze, Gray Monk, Gehringer Brothers, Mount Boucherie and Summerhill all produce excellent examples of Ehrenfelser.
With a name that sounds like a knight’s sword, Auxerrios can cut deep into the palate. Pronounced [O.ser.wa blɑ̃], this Alsatian grape is a full sibling of Chardonnay, but I think it wishes it were a Pinot Blanc. Auxerrois is typically less complex than Chardonnay, shows lots of citrus flavors and can be made either dry or off-dry.
Some of the best BC producers of Pinot Auxerrois (or Classic Auxerrois) are Grey Monk, Gehringer Brothers, and Little Straw in the Okanagan Valley.
It may sound like a brand of popcorn, but Kerner was actually named in honor of physician Justinus Kerner, who also wrote songs and poetry about wine. A cross of Trollinger and Riesling, Kerner’s flavor profile is comparable to riesling’s – citrus, tropical fruits, racy acidity – and can be made into everything from dry table wine to late harvest and ice wine.
This cross between Pinot Noir and (Chasselas x Muscat Hamburg) was only released in 1979, making it a relative newbie. Schönburger (pronounced Sh-ron-burger) is also grown in England, which shows what a early ripener it is. A delicate wine, it has floral aromas with muscat flavours and hints of sweetness.
Single varietal Schönburgers are produced by Black Widow in the Okanagan, and by Venturi Shultz of Vancouver Isle. As a blender, it’s popular with numerous wineries.
With a name that translates to “Victory Vine” in German you’d think this white wine would be more popular with nationalists. Pronounced See-geh-RAY-buh, it’s a cross of Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer that typically has the intense aromatics of Muscat and the flavours of Gewürztraminer. Siegerrebe is such an early-ripener it tends to achieve high must weights although the wine can be low in acid.
Look for single-varietal Siegerrebe by Gray Monk, Dom de Chaberton and Recline Ridge in the Okanagan Valley, and Blue Grouse on Vancouver Isle. Siegerrebe is found in many blends.
Easily mispronounced with a obscene twist, it’s pronounced mar-esh-shall-fosh and named for French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) who helped negotiate the armistice of the First World War. Marechal Foch’s genetics are controversial: some believe it’s a cross of Goldriesling (itself an intra-specific cross of Riesling and Courtiller Musqué) with a Vitis riparia – Vitis rupestris cross. Others contend that it contains the grape variety, Oberlin 595. As it is, Marechal Foch is an early ripener that produces small berries. The wines can have strong acidity, and show flavors of black fruit, mocha, coffee, and dark chocolate. Styles swing from fruity reds like Beaujolais, to Zinfandel-like wines, and to Port-style dessert wines.
Lang, Quails Gate, and Sperling own the last old vine Foch vineyards in the Okanagan Valley. Quails Gate makes an excellent Old Vines Foch. Okanagan producers include House of Rose, Recline Ridge, and Niche, as well as Muse Winery on Vancouver Isle.
No, it’s not a packaged toast product for children; nor does it mean ‘too much money’ in German. Zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt) translates as “two indispensible,” and is currently the Austrian national red grape. Developed by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922, it’s a cross of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch. Zweigelt wines tends to be light to medium in weight and tannin level, with purplish color, and have dark red to black fruit flavors, with earth, leather, and some minerality. In other words, quaffable.
In the Okanagan Valley, you’ll find a variety of Zweigelts by Arrowleaf Cellars, Hainle Vineyards, Mistral Estate, Summerhill Pyramid, as well as an Zweigelt icewine by Kalala.
The easily pronounced Blaufrankish is known as Kékfrankos in Hungary, Frankovka in Croatia, and Lemberger in Washington State. Not the most romantic names to give a grape, but this one has been called “the Pinot Noir of the East” maybe because it was once thought to be related to Gamay.
Blaufränkisch is a cross between Gouais blanc and a Frankish variety that might be Blauer Silvaner. It’s dark-skinned, late-ripener that produces a reasonably tannic red wine.
Mount Boucherie makes a Reserve Blaufrankisch from vineyards in the Okanagan and Similkimeen Valleys of BC. Rustico Cellars makes it into a blend called Last Chance.
A cult, and personal favorite, Baco Noir has the most perfect name as it really does smell and taste like tobacco. Smoke, ash and herbal notes carry along with black fruit and caramel on a medium body with assertive acidity. Kinda where a Cabernet Franc meets a Gamay.
Produced by French hybridizer Maurice Baco and pronounced BA-koh NWAHR, it’s a cross between the French cognac grape Folle Blanche and an unknown variety of Vitis riparia from North America. The Vitis riparia probably accounts for the vine’s vigor and resistance, making it a perfect grape for the winters of Southern Ontario.
Thanks to the previously mentioned great vine pull, not much Baco Noir remains in BC. Summerhill Pyramid has the last exisiting vineyard and produces a very good single-varietal bottling. Niagara-on-the Lake’s Henry of Pelham is perhaps the best known producer and make the Baco I like the best.
Gore Vidal may have been a white guy but this wine is not named for him. Vidal is an inter-specific hybrid variety, a cross of Ugni Blanc and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986) that manages to produce high sugar levels in cold climates while maintaining good acid levels. Best of all, it’s thick skinned and resistant to powdery mildew. Vidal Blanc is fruity, with honeyed notes of grapefruit and pineapple, and makes a beautiful, nectar-like ice wine. In fact, Vidal is the best deal in Canadian ice wine, often costing 10-20% less than a chardonnay or riesling ice wine.
Vidal icewine is made by Prospect Winery, Paradise Ranch, Peller Estates, Mission Hill, Inniskillan and Naked Grape, among others.
Buying Wine in BC
BC wines are cheapest bought at the winery, especially if you can negotiate a media discount. In the VQA stores, bottles are the same prices as in the winery. If they are in the provincial stores, and I stress the IF part, they will be the same price if they are not on special. Our private liquor stores often carry bottles not sold in the BC Liquor, but they come at a premium of $2-3 per bottle.
That said, I hope every American wine blogger will pack their suitcases with BC wine and take it home to pour for friends. American Customs agents won’t care how much wine you take over the border since BC wineries hardly pose a trade threat. They’ll just be surprised that Canada makes anything but ice wine.
What grapes and wineries did I leave out? And what hybrids do you enjoy? I’d love to know.