Appellation Envy in Okanagan Wine Country
By: Ross Freake
The province of British Columbia has five designated viticultural areas (DVA) otherwise known as appellations: Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands.
Walter Gehringer from Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery in Oliver is helping plant an evolutionary idea into the consciousness of Okanagan vintners and grape growers.
But that consciousness is as varied as the Okanagan terroir, which, according to the book, Okanagan Geology South, was laid down 10,000 years ago when the last glacier retreated. “Terroir is a French word that has been used to describe the special characteristics that geography imparts on a wine. It embodies all the factors of the land — the soil, climate, site aspect — that provide unique qualities to the wines produced in a particular region.”
That evolutionary step is simple: split the Okanagan appellation into smaller areas to highlight the flavours and textures that distinguish one region from another. The appellation covers the 250-kilometre-long valley with its varied soils and micro-climates.
THE GEHRINGER BROTHERS
“It is all about taking the Okanagan to the next level,” says Gehringer, who is helping the Golden Mile — with its nine wineries and vineyards dotting the bench south of Oliver — apply for sub-appellation status.
“It gives the consumer a tool to better understand similarities and differences. The contentious issue will always be the bordering parcels not included in a particular sub-appellation. Parcels that miss the cut with one sub-appellation can then create a new sub-appellation. In the end, every vineyard would be in a sub-appellation.”
But landowners won’t decide the boundaries. “This is done by science and independent parties,” says Gehringer.
RHYS PENDER, MASTER OF WINE
Wine regions all over the world split into smaller areas, argues Rhys Pender, one of four Canadian wine masters.“What grows in Okanagan Centre is not anywhere near what grows in Osoyoos. Pretending it’s the same is misleading, but you want to be careful because most consumers don’t have a clue what VQA (Vintners Quality Assurance) is let alone worrying about sub-appellations; it’s more for higher end, elite consumers. If we want to make higher-end wine, we have to be able to back that up and talk about where it’s from.”
While sub-appellation regulations are legally binding, they allow wineries to use grapes from outside their area if it’s noted on the label. “Just because it’s an appellation, it’s not the be all and end all,” says Fairview Cellars owner Bill Eggert. “Blends of different regions are not a bad thing.” He thinks there could be 12 sub-appellations, but concedes at least 50 per cent of the wines will be blends.
ANDREW MOON, VITICULTURIST – TINHORN CREEK
Tinhorn Creek viticulturalist Andrew Moon’s only concern is the logistics of labelling and bottling since the winery has vineyards on the Golden Mile and Black Sage. “It’s a good thing because it distinguishes areas by geography and is usually based on ecology, which affects the terroir of the grape.”
No matter how the demarcation lines are drawn, there will undoubtedly be unhappy people, especially if good growers are in what is perceived as a poor appellation. “It becomes a lawyer-fuelled fight to the death because people’s livelihood are at stake,” says Moon, who saw the process unfold in his native Australia.
Naramata Bench wineries want to avoid lawyers and animosity. The area north of Penticton, with its eye-catching scenery and palate-pleasing wines, is often cited as an example of what a sub-appellation should be. The 19 wineries have created a sense of place with unique architecture amid sun-drenched vines, and superbly crafted wines.
MIRANDA HALLIDAY, President,
NARAMATA BENCH ASSOCIATION
In June, the Naramata Bench Winery Association formed a committee to investigate the pros and cons of sub-appellations. “There’s a group interesting in exploring it and there are a few wineries definitely opposed to ceding the power over the use of the term Naramata Bench to the provincial government and the B.C. Wine Authority,” says association president Miranda Halliday, owner of Elephant Island Orchard Wines. “One of their main arguments is that this should be dealt with in truth in labelling and that’s what needs to be enforced and not another level of bureaucracy.”
INGO GRADY, Director of Wine Association – MISSION HILL FAMILY ESTATE WINERY
While the Naramata Association is on the fence, Ingo Grady is convinced sub-appellations are an evolutionary dead end. The director of wine education at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, which shocked the wine world when it won the Avery Trophy for best chardonnay, thinks sub-appellations will weaken the industry.
“We’re already a comparatively tiny growing region, why carve it up when the brand we should rally behind is Okanagan? The 140 wineries in this valley should talk about Okanagan first. Brands succeed because of the people who promote and focus on the brand,” argues Grady.
“My recommendation to the industry is this, if you like the name of your district, use it. But do you want to legislate it? Or do you want to take advantage of the good will that surrounds the name but
doesn’t lead to the legal entity? If you go down that road you’re going to be dealing with another level of bureaucracy, and all kinds of politics and in-fighting.”
“If the Golden Mile Bench were to be the first sub-appellation, this does not rank the quality of that region against other sub-appellations,” Gehringer states. “It just defines its uniqueness and groups vineyards of similar terroir. Once one area becomes a sub-appellation, this will increase the interest for other regions to develop their own.”