The wine world has always made a point to differentiate its various different terroirs, as the differing conditions of site, soil, temperature, aspect, sunshine, rainfall and a myriad of other factors have a big influence on the wines that different terroirs produce. Across the world it is well known that different sub-regions produce different styles of wine, and, perhaps even more importantly, different quality levels of wine. These sub-regions are generically referred to as Geographical Indications or GIs. Across the world, these GIs have more local names. In France they have the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) system, Italy has Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) and two others, and the US has the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation.
We were surprised to recently learn that British Columbia also has its own Geographical Indications system. They aren’t talked about much, but as we discovered, they are important, and deserve to be talked about more. In BC the current authorized geographical indications covering provincial VQA wine are simple: British Columbia: any location in British Columbia; Fraser Valley: the land within the watershed of the Fraser River basin, south and west of the town of Hope and north of the 49th parallel; Okanagan Valley: the land within the watershed of the Okanagan water basin; Similkameen Valley: the land within the watershed of the Similkameen River; Vancouver Island: the land within the geographical limits of Vancouver Island; and the Gulf Islands: the neighbouring islands of Vancouver Island in the area bounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean west of British Columbia’s mainland. These are pretty broad parameters and cover a lot of territory and hence there can be an awful lot of diversification within those GIs, which detracts from any consistent regional signature.
But that situation was corrected this year with the creation of BC’s first sub-GI: the Golden Mile Bench. The Golden Mile Bench covers 791 acres just south of Oliver in the Okanagan Valley. AdVINEtures went up to visit and taste and see what was going on in this newly demarcated region. The Golden Mile Bench sits on the west side of the southern part of the Valley and is planted primarily to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.
This sub-GI is home to nine different wineries and one of the best to visit is Road 13. Originally an orchard, Road 13 was purchased in 1985 by Peter and Helga Serwo who planted the site with grapes and created a winery. As an homage to their Bavarian roots, the winery building they created was made in the image of an old castle.
In 2003, ready for retirement, they sold it to the present owners, Pam and Mick Luckhurst. The Luckhurst’s have kept the original castle on the property but added a beautiful, modern new winery and reserve tasting room immediately adjacent. The two buildings together form a wonderful statement of old meets new.
We are greeted at Road 13 by their wonderfully passionate winemaker, Jean Martin Bouchard, or to his friends (and everyone instantly becomes one of his friends!), just “J-M”. J-M originally hails from Sherbrooke, Quebec. His first foray into winemaking began in 1998 in Australia. He started at the top, working for iconic Australian wineries Penfold’s and Torbreck. From there J-M’s love of Riesling took him to Alsace where he learned their winemaking techniques. But a love of home brought him back to Canada, where he is now making some terrific wines at Road 13.
J-M started our 3 hour tour at Road 13 with where it all comes from: the vineyards. We walked among the rows of 2 of their 5 vineyards: the Home Vineyard and the Castle Vineyard. On this fascinating walk we learned about the loose alluvial soils that make up their vineyards: loose clay and loam covers a bed of hard rock, holding just enough water and nutrient to allow the vines to survive, but making them struggle. This struggle in the vineyard results in small berries that have a greater skin to juice ratio that imparts more flavour. Vines at Road 13 are carefully tended to, as J-M explains that canopy management is very important in the Okanagan to leave enough leaves on the vines to encourage photosynthesis but not too much to overly shade the grapes. A combination of different irrigation techniques are used to give their vines just the right amount of water. As J-M explains to us, he is constantly out in the vineyard near harvest, tasting grapes to check their ripeness. While degrees brix are measured in the vineyard (which indicates how much sugar has developed in the grapes, which ultimately determines the level of alcohol) it is not a simple matter of picking when desired sugar levels have been reached.
As we taste the grapes he asks us to hold out the pips and look at them. He wants them to have turned from green in colour to brown, and indication that tannins will be ripe and will not impart excessive astringency in the finished wines. He says a challenge for the hot and sunny 2015 vintage will be ripe sugar levels against a lack of phenolic ripeness in the skins and seeds. If they wait too long for the seeds to ripen, the sugar levels will become too high and the wines will taste hot and alcoholic. If they pick too soon the wines could taste green and herbaceous. So managing the amount of leaves, the amount of water and the picking dates will be vitally important. The expertise that he and other great winemakers have is a diversity of experiences over a number of vintages in different regions. These experiences help them get through those unique harvest conditions to produce optimum wines.
After the vineyards tour we toured their winery and tasted from numerous of their barrels. Barrel tasting is always a fascinating experience. Barrel samples are unfinished wines; they are wines that are still evolving, picking up barrel characteristics, shedding tannins, taking in oxygen, etc. They are great indicators of how the finished wine will eventually perform. But barrel samples are inevitably young and grapey tasting. And they can induce a lot of palate fatigue! It is, in our opinion at least, unfair to rate wines from barrel. The further evolution, and the fact that many barrels are blended with other barrels in the finished product, means that a true rating cannot be given.
We did however taste some of Road 13’s finished wines after our barrel tasting. Our palates were too fatigued at this point to provide accurate and detailed tasting notes on the individual finished wines. But we can give an overall assessment of the quality of Road 13’s wines. All of their wines came across as very good to excellent on the AdVINEtures rating scale.
Standing above the rest for us were the Chenin Blanc and the Syrah. The Road 13 wines stood out from other wines we have tasted in BC. Road 13 has achieved an intensity of flavour that puts it ahead of most other BC wineries. The further good news is that this flavour intensity is achieved without over-extraction and without making a wine that seems over-the-top. These were all wines of balance and finesse, as well as wines of intense flavours.
We would put Road 13 as a must stop on your next tasting trip to the Okanagan Valley. A beautiful setting and excellent wines. What could be better?