It’s been only recently that I learned something about the wines of Canada. Of course I had heard of those famous Ontario ice wines, but ordinary table wines had never come my way till the mid 1990s when a server in a Montreal hotel brought me a glass of “house wine.” It was a very pleasant Pinot Noir, and I was stunned to hear him say it was Canadian.
Even so, the wines of Canada did not figure much in my explorations. For one thing, I never saw them in local retail shops. Some retailers even expressed disbelief when I asked about them. Around the turn of the century, I traveled around British Columbia and was star struck by the beauty of — the lakes and mountains to be sure — the orchards and of the vineyards. Yes, of the vineyards. Ever since, I have been smitten by the Okanagan Valley.
This spring, at all my stops across Ontario and Quebec, I made a point to seek out wines of Canada, experiencing disappointment not once. News from and about Canadian wine producers always gets my attention.
A few days ago, I saw a CTV report out of Vancouver about how 2015 promises to be “The Wine of the Century” in the Okanagan Valley. The harvest is so big, there are not enough tanks to hold it and not enough to cooling technicians to keep the grapes from overheating in the unseasonably warm cellars. Quality, it is said, is outstanding, and wine-makers are rushing their harvests to beat the heat.
Throughout the region, the harvest is about a month ahead of schedule. Climate change? Maybe, but as I wrote the other day, earlier harvests have become the norm in the Northern Hemisphere. I plan to include a visit to British Columbia as soon as I know the verdict on the vintage.
When I talk these days with wine producers who grow their own grapes, they willingly talk about how the grapes are ripening earlier than ever. They decline to admit that global warming is happening, but they seem to agree that something is causing grapes to mature more rapidly than ever before.
Dr. Alda Vacha was the first to mention this to me several years ago from his vantage point in Barbaresco. He said they had been harvesting in late August and early September rather than in late September and early October. Perhaps, he confessed, it could be global warming.
Since then, I have heard and read more and more about climactic change in vineyards from Burgundy to California. Articles are telling how the best Champagne grapes are appearing in the British Isles and that wine growers almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere are looking at grape varietals never before deemed practical in their soils and climates.
This month we learned the grape harvest in Washington State is the earliest in history, A year ago, when harvesting began in some vineyards on August 15 was exceptionally early. First this year is recorded on August 7. Hot weather, of course, is a major factor — a factor that can also “cook” the grapes, spoil them on the way to ripening, but so far those reporting say that all is going well.
Many growers expect to complete their harvest by the end of August. At this point, all I can say is that the trend is unmistakable — weather in wine country is warmer longer than usual.
It doesn’t take many wine conversations before the question of single vineyard bottlings comes up, usually in praiseworthy terms. Labels suggest that single vineyard is synonymous with quality. I had never given that contention much thought until at a tasting in Paris not long ago a producer explained that an appellation guarantees nothing but mediocrity. Sounded like heresy to me.
In France, of course, an appellation defines the region, the varietal, the production standards, and almost everything else governing a specific wine. It has nothing to do with quality, he stated; it’s possible to comply with every single requirement and still come up with just plain, ordinary wine. So much, I thought, for those producers who “listen to the grapes,” who claim that wine is “made in the vineyard,” that “our job is not to destroy what nature has given us.” But also, I thought, this means that the skill of the wine maker really does count for something.
So, back to the single vineyard concept. I suspect the cachet of this as a marketing tool can trace its origins to Burgundy and to Alsace where wines are produced from a single grape, without blending with other grapes. (Or varietals, as grapes seem to prefer being called after becoming wine.) Burgundies are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Alsace are Riesling or Gewurztraminer or Pinot Blanc, unless blended into an Edelzwicker. Pinot Noirs just don’t marry well outside their own kind (Champagne being an exception), and Chardonnays are only slightly more tolerant of others.
The single vineyard designation, as far as I know, started in this country to highlight marketing strategies focusing on varietal production from grapes not normally bottled on their own — Cabernets, Zinfandels, Merlots, and Syrahs. In my opinion, all these varietals do much better when teamed with other varietals.
I admit to an Old World palate that adores the wines of Bordeaux, the Rhone, Languedoc, and Champagne, where all wines are blends of several varietals, each one bringing its own share of complexity and value-added flavor. I have enjoyed a number of wines labeled “single vineyard,” but in general I find them just a bit single dimensional. Variety, they have always said, is the spice of life.
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