Friday, February 1, 2013

The Grape Debate

"Should BC have a signature wine variety?"

The question has been raised for years, but the question has clearly never been answered to the satisfaction of the BC winemaking industry - or to the wine drinking public for that matter. Indeed, an ancillary question is begged: "Does anyone care outside of a few pundits and wine writers?"

Well, the UBC Alumni Association thought it was a question worthy of discussion and they must have been on to something because a sold out crowd of over 300 folks showed up at the Vancouver Public Library for The Grape Debate.

The actual "debate" might have been more like a panel discussion and I'm not so sure that - beyond the bravado of the format - there was really all that much disagreement between the pro and the con sides.

Despite the fact that there was a tasting that featured a couple dozen wineries after the debate, I don't get to add a bottle to The List. As such, I'm not going to endlessly recount the evening's events. Rather, I'll refer you to Anthony Gismondi's article in the Vancouver Sun for a nice little encapsulation of some of the discussion points - although maybe I should advise you that he was arguing on the "yes" side at the debate.

What I will do though is mention a few a few of what I found to be the most intriguing or quote-worthy points that were made:

In advocating against a single variety, David Scholefield emphasized that an identity for BC wines needs to come from a sense of place as opposed to a grape. He argued that the grape variety is simply a point of departure as opposed to the final destination. It won't matter what the grape variety is IF the wine is good.

Sid Cross, on the other hand, couldn't believe that we're were still even debating the topic. He agreed that BC has good stories to tell with its wine but he just thinks we're telling too many different ones.

Michaela Morris was arguing for a signature variety and took it a bit further by extolling flights of Syrah and Riesling that were placed before recent tasting panels.

Despite being "just a Chinese guy from Canada" who was "scared to death" of Sid Cross and couldn't possibly know anything about wine, Howard Soon thought the argument should be more about defining the different terroirs in the province. For him, it's a question of "terroir vs. varietal."

Anthony Gismondi lauded Howard's sense of adventure but wants him to "eventually settle down" after all of his experimentation. He might have had the sound bite of the evening when he said that without focus BC would be "nothing more than beaches and peaches."

During his bout, Kurtis Kolt reminded everyone that BC's own Master of Wine, Barbara Philip, wrote her MW thesis on whether BC should pin its winemaking hopes on the championing of Pinot Blanc. She concluded that this wasn't the route to take.

It was definitely pointed out that Argentina and New Zealand may have respectively made names for themselves based on Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc, but that notoriety has also become a bit of double-edged sword as their association with those varietal wines has pigeon-holed them somewhat when it comes to marketing different wines.

After everything was said and done, I don't know that either side could be declared a winner. As is often the case, the best answer likely lies somewhere between the two camps. I don't think it's a stretch to say that both sides agreed that the industry needs more focus and needs to identify which grapes work best in the different regions. The Okanagan Valley may not be that big but everyone agreed that it presents a whole array of issues to growers and winemakers. The grapes that grow best in Oliver and Osoyoos aren't going to be the same ones that excel in Naramata or in the northern end of the valley.

I do know that the time seemed to fly by and, before we knew it, the panel discussion was over and it was time to enjoy some wine. Following the tasting, I'd be hard pressed to pick one varietal wine that stood head and shoulders above the others. There seemed to be a bit of satisfaction, however, in the fact that there was a good assortment of wines, styles and grape varieties to choose from.

As for me, I'm not quite ready to campaign for a single varietal (or variety) yet. I certainly don't think that every winery, up and down the Valley, needs to offer a full slate of ten or twenty or more different wines. Something tells me there is quite that much terroir in that little piece of the province. Funny that.

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