- Story by Jennifer Schell Photography by Don Denton
Pinot noir, dubbed the heartbreak grape by winemakers and grape growers, has found the spotlight in British Columbia. This notoriously finicky grape needs specific conditions to nurture its thin skin and temperamental nature. In wine-geek speak, it also mutates easily and is susceptible to disease and pests. However, regardless of the drama and risk, it seems that for BC winemakers the rewards are well worth the extra love and attention.
Pinot noir goes by a couple of different handles. It hails from France’s Bourgogne or Burgundy region where pinot noir and Chardonnay reign collectively as king and queen (pinot noir for Bourgogne Rouge and Chardonnay for Bourgogne Blanc).
Pinot noir culture has travelled globally, achieving major celebrity in New Zealand and the USA, primarily in Oregon and California. And then there is our very own beautiful wine country. British Columbia’s pinot success is palpable. A growing selection that graces wine-store shelves is evidence of our local winemakers’ love affair with it. With styles ranging from masculine to feminine and each reflective of its own vineyard, BC’s pinot noir gets rave reviews from wine critics everywhere.
“I love that pinot expresses its place and time with clarity,” says Shane Munn, GM and winemaker at Martin’s Lane Winery in Kelowna. “In terms of what particular characteristics I love about pinot, I can only offer a bunch of adjectives: charm, beauty, complexity, intrigue, and all in a delicate combination of elegance and power.”
Pinot noir is most commonly described as elegant. It is light- to medium-bodied and usually the only red that a white-wine drinker will consider. It is fruit forward, revealing a lovely bouquet with notes ranging from earth to spices, herbs and florals. The palate can offer up a range of flavours, including berries, maybe with notes of mushroom, tobacco and/or vanilla (depending on barrel aging). Usually drunk best young, the finish is not tannic and should be long and smooth. These characteristics make it a very versatile food wine and an all-weather sipper.
The passion for pinot has wineries like Martin’s Lane in Kelowna focussing almost entirely on its production (the winery produces pinot noir and riesling exclusively). Shane is a master craftsman, who has brought from his native New Zealand a style that finesses the certified organic vineyards into the super-premium range of four pinot labels. These are created from four different vineyards—one in West Kelowna, two in East Kelowna and one in Naramata.
In describing his winemaking process and vision, Shane says, “I’d like to think there is no defined Martin’s Lane style per se—sure, there are elements of things we use that others do (and don’t)—but really my aim is that our wines equally reflect the site and the season. That site can be an entire vineyard or just a small block. It’s important that the grapes and resultant wines are handled sensitively, that every movement is gentle, considered and justified.“
On our BC pinot noir celebrity list, Vancouver Island wine has some serious stars and pinot noir is fast becoming a signature grape. Blue Grouse Estate Winery in the Cowichan Valley has been racking up the awards and big news accolades for its two pinot noir labels. So too have neighbours like Unsworth Vineyards, Venturi-Schultze Vineyards, Averill Creek Vineyard and Emandare Vineyard.
Surprised at Vancouver Island’s success? Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Williamson, who has been crafting these winning wines from the vineyard’s estate-grown pinot, says, “Pinot noir is perhaps the only noble red-wine grape that is not suited to hot climates, which makes it a natural fit for most regions in BC. The diurnal shift from hot days to cool nights is what it truly enjoys. It allows it to maintain its acidity and develop its bright cherry aromas and flavours. At Blue Grouse, with our south-facing slope and being only one-and-a-half kilometres from the ocean, we have this diurnal fluctuation in spades: daytime temperatures can be 32 degrees in the vineyard, and at nighttime it can be 12 degrees.”
And what many may not know is that the island has old vines from some pioneering vineyards.
As Bailey notes, “Our oldest planting of 30 years is the Ritter clone, which is Germanic in origin, and produces a more tannic, deeper representation of pinot noir. We have planted the Dijon clones as well and are hopeful they will yield more blending options for the future.”
If you are into pinot, and when travelling is safe again, plan a dynamite road trip around the vast BC wine country, exploring from sea to sky this unique pinot noirian culture, and taste these gorgeous expressions of this grape.
In the meantime, you can order the wines from the wineries and do a taste tour at home. Here are some suggestions:
Vancouver Island: Blue Grouse Estate Winery
2018 Quill Pinot Noir
This wine starts on the nose with red plum, vanilla and cranberries followed by flavours of cherry pie and warm spices in the mouth.
Food pairing: A perfect accompaniment to wild sockeye salmon or hearty pasta dishes.
Kamloops: Privato Vineyard & Winery
2018 Pinot Noir
This wine is an expression of sun-warmed black and ruby plums, blackberry jam and hints of wild thyme. A lingering soft palate together with approachable tannins add to the elegance of this wine.
Food pairing: Dishes with a touch of spice, seared salmon or tuna, barbecues, roast beef, beetroot dishes and especially dishes that feature cherries or figs are all fabulous choices.
Kelowna: Martin’s Lane Winery
2015 Naramata Ranch Pinot Noir
Deep ruby red. Dense, dark cherry aromas with fine, floral notes. The palate is sleek with a compact texture and complex silky tannins.
Food pairing: Says the winery’s Shane Munn: “I’m liking any of our pinots with mushroom dishes in this cold weather. Been making lots of pasta—so something like a mushroom tagliatelle or even mushroom risotto would be appropriate this time of year.”
Lake Country: O’Rourke Peak Cellars
2018 O’Rourke Pinot Noir
Aromatics that pack a full punch of big red fruits with Bing cherry, dark cherry, chocolate-covered cherry, cassis and black currant, accented with herbs, and earthy forest floor with just a hint of a floral note. The palate is soft and elegant, yet full-bodied and delightfully complex, with well-developed flavours of black currant, berries, leather, tobacco, cigar box and cedar spice with characters of coffee and cocoa leading through to a long finish of silky warm tannins.
Food pairing: Very versatile and perfect on its own. Would be amazing with roasted chicken, squash soup or mushroom pizza.
Lillooet: Fort Berens Estate Winery
2017 Pinot Noir Reserve
The rich Pinot Noir Reserve has an intense aroma of dark cherries, tobacco leaf and wild roses. On the palate, a mouth-watering acidity balances perfectly with the rich flavours of spices, ripe cherries and forest floor. The wine has a very long finish.
Food pairing: This wine pairs beautifully with stew, quiche and mushroom dishes.
Oliver: Anthony Buchanan Wines
2018 Ashlyn Pinot Noir
Unfined, unfiltered, gentle winemaking featuring black cherries, sage, plums, violets, baking spice and sweet cherry cola with a savoury, saline component.
Food pairing: The winery’s Anthony Buchanan suggests, “Pork tenderloin (perhaps with truffle oil) with roasted veggies or pork belly with garlic mash. The acidity in the wine will cut through some of the fat and should be delicious.”
Similkameen: Corcelettes Estate Winery
2017 Reserve Pinot Noir Micro Lot Series
This pinot noir features 22-year-old vines. The nature of the old vines drives greater complexity in fruit and is further enhanced by these rugged and hot soils. Mineral, mushroom and earth flavours.
Food pairing: Make this elegant Pinot a perfect pairing with dishes like seared duck breast, pork tenderloin and mushroom risotto.