BC Report – June 2016
As I write this month’s BC Report, a number of interesting things are happening in British Columbia. We are in the midst of, yet again, the hottest season on record with temperatures in early June already having reached 38°C or more on a few occasions in BC wine country. Wineries are also mulling over an important industry plebiscite with a deadline of June 30th titled “Recommended Changes to the British Columbia Wines of Marked Quality Regulation as Proposed by the BC Wine Appellation Task Group”. I wrote about the Task Group in November 2015. If you are a winery and are reading this and haven’t voted, make sure to do it before the deadline!
Another issue that continues to provide interest, intrigue and controversy is the changing of liquor laws and how wine is sold in BC, particularly with the transfer of many VQA store licenses to grocery stores and buying groups forming amongst the private retailers. This is a topic for later when a few of these issues have clarified and settled a little.
This month’s column though is about an exciting time for BC wine in the world. I am calling this the end of the big wine era.
The End of the Big Wine Era
Every now and then trends in the wine world align themselves perfectly for a region or a country. Wine is fluid, not just in the way it flows from glass to palate, but also in the way that it changes and evolves. Consumer tastes change, styles of wine evolve and, heck, even climate seems to be changing. The wine world has to evolve along with these changes but not every region can produce every style of wine. A hot climate will never produce fresh delicate wines just as surely as a cool climate will never fulfill lovers of big, jammy reds. Occasionally we see the happy coincidence when the style of wine that a region naturally produces matches the trends of what consumers are looking for. And I think British Columbian wine is at the beginning of that happy period.
If you aren’t sure that wine evolves as much as I’m claiming, think about the trends of the last 40-50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, fortified wines were the rage. Sherry, Port, Madeira and copies of these from the New World were as much as three-quarters of all wine sales at the time. Witness the poor fate of Sherry that saw an initial unquenchable demand result in acreage soaring to 56,000 acres (22,600 hectares) in the late 1970s before a sudden plummet and the region having to evolve and retreat back to around 16,000 acres (6,500 hectares) today.
As people moved away from fortified wines to table wines we have seen many trends, most of which would benefit the rise of the New World wines that offered something richer, softer and fruitier than what most of Europe produced. After Sherry it was wines like the soft and fruity Liebfraumilch of Germany and Mateus Rosé of Portugal before trends such as ripe, rich Aussie shiraz, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Argentinian malbec and, currently, sweet red Californian blends and bland pinot grigio. Who could have ever predicted the order and diversity of these trends?
The kind of massive global success of these examples won’t ever happen for BC wine, simply because there will never be enough wine to do it. But there is another opportunity in a growing part of the global market. People are trading up for better and more interesting wine and willing to pay more for it. There is more and more demand for interesting indigenous grape varieties and sommeliers in top restaurants in places like London, New York, San Francisco, Melbourne and Tokyo are also looking to pepper their lists with good quality, small production oddities. Quality Canadian wine produced on a small scale fits perfectly with this growing trend.
Where BC wine is really hitting its stride though is in the style of wine it naturally produces. In short, BC wine falls somewhere in style between the savoury, earthy old world and the ripe, plush new world. This is a very good place to be. Consumers want fruity wines but they want freshness with it. Too ripe and too big is, finally, too much and the search for elegance over size is finally creeping back into winemaking. The days of a constant search for ways to make wines bigger to be better are over.
The climate in British Columbia is perfect to provide this style that sits nicely amidst the better known wines of the world. Long sunlight hours and warm summers give lots of fruit yet cool nights preserve natural acidity. Grapes like syrah can hold on to their peppery characteristics and juiciness while still offering richness. Chardonnay can be both fruit driven yet elegant and fresh at the same time. There are many other examples. When international experts get a taste of BC wine they are often surprised and impressed with this balance.
The risk is that the industry doesn’t embrace this chance. Some producers are still trying to push a wine either towards the old world style or the riper new world style and not letting the wines be what they naturally want to be. BC winemakers need to stop trying to force the square peg into the round hole.
The other risk is to go down the path of manufacturing wines that speak to the masses but say nothing about the place in which they are grown. Following the trends of sweetening up red wine and practically everything else, I believe, will be a short-lived fad that will result in a few easy bottle sales through the tasting room door now, but a long hangover and a hit to the quality reputation that will be difficult to rebound from for a long time.
The facts with BC wine are simple: we can’t make “cheap” wine. Yields of 10-20 tons per acre are not possible and never will be in our climate, nor are the low labour cost and cheap material inputs needed to make wine to compete in the $10 to $15 price range. Where we can compete though is on value. If you have $20 or $30 burning a hole in your pocket, go to the wine store and in any given category I would argue that the BC wines will be equally as good or better than many of the international wines at the same price. Try comparing a $25 or $30 BC chardonnay or pinot noir to what you can get from Burgundy or California for the same price. Or a Bordeaux blend that you could put down in the cellar and be confident that it will still be delicious in 10 years time. In BC that will cost you $35-45 and probably double that for something from France or California. There will be some obvious exceptions, but very, very often BC wine will provide great value at its main price points in that $18-50 range.
BC wine has to look at this time as an opportunity. Sales are growing, supply isn’t. Consumers are trading up in quality and BC wine can offer delicious wines in a style that falls naturally between those of the old world and the new. Any future BC wine will have to be built on quality so it is time to figure out what that direction is and go for it. The end of the big wine era has come and BC is well positioned to make the most of it.
Rhys Pender MW
WineAlign in BC
In addition to Rhys Pender’s BC Report, we publish the popular 20 Under $20 shopping guide and the Critics’ Picks report which highlights a dozen of our favourites from the last month (at any price point). Treve Ring pens a wandering wine column in Treve’s Travels, capturing her thoughts and tastes from the road and, lastly, Anthony Gismondi closes out the month with his Final Blend column – an expert insight into wine culture and trends, honed by more than 25 years experience as an influential critic.