Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Signature Grape for BC?

Does BC need to produce and promote a signature grape to become a world renown wine region for the international market? Some BC wine writers have suggested as much, but is it truly a practical venture for such a young and relatively small wine industry?

Which Grape?
Today, there is yet no true consensus on what BC's signature grape (or grapes) should actually be. The suggestions made most often over the past 12 months as the subject has gained attention, are Cabernet Franc or Syrah as BC's signature red varietal. On the surface, both seem to fit the bill: they are familiar to the worldwide market thanks to Syrah's prominence in the Rhone Valley and Cabernet Franc's use as a blending component by Bordeaux's famous Chateaux. Plus, both varieties produce a distinct and (most important) a pleasant flavour profile in BC's unique terroir. "Sounds great, where do I sign the signature grape petition?" you may be asking.

However, the problem with Syrah is that it doesn't survive well through particularly cold and frosty winters and the problem with Cabernet Franc is, there simply isn't that much of it.

Syrah seems like the clear choice to anyone who has enjoyed a sip of the excellent examples being produced in the past 5 years from the likes of Painted Rock, Cassini, Church and State, La Frenz, Stag's Hollow, Le Vieux Pin and Tinhorn Creek. All have produced world-class Syrah from hot years like 2009 and again from milder years like 2010 which emphasizes the natural spiciness of the grape in BC's cool climate. However, talking to these producers about growing Syrah is like discussing the ailment history of a self-diagnosing hypochondriac: you'll get a laundry list of complaints about keeping the vines healthy - even in good-weather years. Mention the particularly cold winter of 2008 and you'll be amazed that the vines survive at all. In short, it is not easy to grow Syrah in BC and we shouldn't expect to see a large increase in acreage unless climate change removes the threat of severe cold during the winter - which isn't likely.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc ranks only 5th on the BC Wine Institute's Red Varietals by Acreage list as of 2012. This early budding and late-ripening variety has some vocal local supporters who champion the variety's unique flavours and delicate structure achieved in the Okanagan Valley. But how does one market a grape as the signature wine of a region when few producers even grow the vine and fewer still are able to consistently ripen the grapes to the degree that the finished product can stand on its own? That's a tough sell.

"Come to the Okanagan, try the fabulous Cabernet Franc... (assuming you can find some)."

Naming a relatively rare vine like Cabernet Franc your region's signature grape is also a bit of a slap in the face to the many other vines that excel and produce world-class wines when planted in the appropriate micro-climate within BC's diverse wine growing regions, including Syrah.

"But can't we plant more or graft vines to produce more?"

Yes, but there's an economic angle to the debate as well...

The Market Will Decide
More regulation doesn't seem to be the answer. Growers should be allowed to grow whatever variety of vitis vinifera they want without the interference of a French AOC-like governing body telling them what to grow and where to grow it. The market will decide if the grower has made the proper site selection for variety X when the grapes go to market and they either get him/her a good price or they don't. The wines produced from said grapes will also go-to-market to be judged as a success or as a failure. From a financial standpoint, if the wines sell, they are successful.

Does this mean then that BC's signature wine should be whatever sells the best? I suppose one's own answer to this question depends on your world view.... Though, "no" is the correct answer. Why? Because the question is ultimately irrelevant and unimportant. There's no need to put money behind, or effort into, growing an international market for "BC's signature grape" because there will never be an international market for "BC's signature grape" because there will never be a signature grape of BC (beyond anecdotally). It seems unlikely that growers and vintners, on a whole, could ever afford to divert resources towards a long-term plan supporting the establishment of said signature grape.

Some may argue that this is a narrow, short-term view to have... and they would be right. Most economic issues that effect you directly are both narrow-minded and short-sighted. But the choice to grow one variety over another does come down to an economic issue. Now ideally, one looks at things both in the short-term and with an eye to the future. But for wine writers to suggest that growers should rip-out acres of productive Pinot Gris vines and switch over to Cabernet Franc or Syrah because it's the grape-du-jour, fails to appreciate the economic risks involved in doing so - because it isn't their economic issue.

The financial risks are high for growers who won't see a commercial crop from newly planted vines for 4 years and who'll get no guarantee of success should they choose to graft (the process by which another variety of vinifera is inserted into the vascular tissue of the host vine) their vines to a more "popular" variety.

This is a free-market economy (pause here to debate that statement) and growers and vintners alike should be free to produce whatever product they wish for a public unobliged to purchase any of it.

Beyond a couple small, high-end wineries focusing some of their attention on building a luxury-brand association to their product (namely Painted Rock and Le Vieux Pin) few BC wineries bother to promote their wines internationally beyond entrance into the occasional competition (for the sake of professional recognition and to promote the results back home). And why should they? The cost of production in BC is too high to make a viable export product on a large scale, signature grape or not.

I absolutely believe there is world-class wine being produced in BC and when international wine writers come to Penticton for the 2013 Wine Blogger's Conference I will be there to defend this position, but I won't be relying on "BC's Signature Grape" to make my point.
 - Liam Carrier ©copyright 2013


  1. it is more than just a market that will decide. It is also what will grow in the terrior provided.

    Bill Eggert

    1. More than just "the Market" absolutely, but what wins if the terroir says "Siegerrebe" and the market says "no thanks"? Do you grow Gewurztraminer instead?

  2. Some excellent points, however don't make the mistake of confusing what we grow with what we promote: the signature grape debate should be only about what we promote. Pulling out productive Pinot Gris in favour of Cabernet Franc or Syrah is not being argued by anyone (at least it shouldn't be). If a signature grape was selected for promotion, naturally some wineries would not be able to join in - not everyone can or should grow everything. However a signature would at least serve to increase awareness of BC wine internationally, which would in time benefit all producers through simple exposure and increased familiarity with the high quality of our wines.

    I think ultimately our high cost of production is what may really end the signature grape debate: as you point out a viable large-scale export industry is unlikely in the short to medium term, even if we settle on a signature grape! Over the very long term local production costs will decrease relative to other regions (and who knows what global climate change will yield in terms of benefit or harm). Still, that is decades away; in the present industry efforts may be most productive when it comes to boosting local/national appreciation and consumption. Could a signature grape help Canadian consumers come to value BC wine more, regardless of the international market? Anything that can help to convince local markets that finely crafted BC wine is worth the price premium over "Cellared in Canada" would be a real benefit!

  3. I didn't want to get too much into the potential cost / value of BC exports as I had already commented on that subject here:

    I do take your point about helping to raise awareness overall, but I do wonder if there isn't another way to go about it than focusing on a signature grape (of which few could agree anyway).

    Maybe the diverse micro-climates? Wine tourism?

  4. I vote for riesling.
    It's quite widely planted and the quality is consistently high from one producer to the next.
    It seems to do well up and down the OK Valley as well as in the Similkameen.

    Mitch Ma

  5. I think BC Riesling is under rated and is getting better year after year.

    What are your favourites?

  6. can of worms. i really didnt one to open it :)

    one thing for certain is that one NEEDS to not talk Okanagan in general, but instead talk south okanagan (similkameen too maybe although lack of lake effect and harsher winters changes things) and rest of Okanagan. North of mcintire bluff, things change. Drastically. While pinot blanc, riesling, pinot noir show tremendous promise in the north, they are all for most part out of place in the south.

    last thing i leave with you is that a signature grape for a region should not be based on its best expression in the hands of few select producers, BUT a variety that from top to bottom and anywhere in between with producers who charge $15 to $100 all make a good to great example of. grenahce and southern rhone for e.g. be it a generic CDR or CDR villages, gigondas or more prestigious CDP, they all turn out something more than just quaffable. Based on this latter agenda i cant think of anything but Merlot to be able to succeed. But if one was radical and was going to go off of the ultimate expression, ability to carry nuances from sub AOC to next, Syrah is in different league. look at northern rhone and syrah or pinto noir and burgundy. its no longer the question of what is one drinking syrah or pinot, but instead what AOC or even better yet which lieu dit or cliamt is one drinking...

    Rasoul (le vieux pin)

  7. We agree with Rasoul. The Okanagan Valley has such a wide range of micro-climates that it is difficult to define a single varietal for the entire valley. We may have a slight lean toward Pinot Noir ;)