Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - Week 3 - Blue Mountain

Like bubbles? If so, you may well be apt to agree with Lily Bollinger when she states that "I only drink Champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

It's time to gear up for a third stop on this pre-WBC13 road trip and I ran across that quote while taking a look at Blue Mountain's website. Obviously, you can't buy a true "Champagne" from this - or any other winery in the Okanagan - but Blue Mountain is well known for making some of the finest bubbly in BC. Indeed, the range of sparkling wines makes up about a quarter of the winery's total production and they are all made as Méthode Traditionelle or Méthode Champenoise wines.

Blue Mountain makes four bubblies: a Non-Vintage and a Vintage Brut, a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé Brut and I think it's safe to say that any one of them - if you can find a bottle - will compare favourably to similar wines from the "real McCoy." And, no doubt at a far more reasonable price. The sparklers are made predominantly from the traditional Champenoise grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir - however, both the Non-Vintage and Vintage Brut feature a small percentage of non-traditional Pinot Gris, giving the Brut its own touch of a house style.

As highly acclaimed as Blue Mountain's sparkling wines are, they may not be the wines that the winery is best known for. Indeed, there's a lot more to the winery than some well-made Brut.

The Mavety family has been farming the home vineyard since 1971; however, at that time, the family was only growing grapes for sale. During those early years, the BC wine industry definitely suffered from a lack of a clear vision. It was really only a change in economic times during the 80's and a desire on the part of Ian and Jane Mavety, Mère and Père, to improve the basic nature of BC grape-growing and winemaking that resulted in Blue Mountain's transition from grape vineyard to winery in 1991.

The winery has been a favourite of BC wine lovers basically since that first vintage in '91 and the view from the vineyard is now one of the most recognizable vistas when it comes to BC winemaking. Standing at the winery, the view overlooking Vaseux Lake towards McIntyre Bluff has graced their label since Day One and become iconic. But, more than a pretty view, consistency has been a hallmark of the winery - as in consistently good - and Blue Mountain really did come out of the gate running.  Perhaps it's true that, back in 1991, there wasn't all that much competition, but there is now and Blue Mountain has had to work hard to stay in the public's eye.

The winery has always been family-owned and operated and, even today, production is limited to around 16,000 cases annually.

As much as the wines have been consistently popular, the winery itself has had to adapt to the changing industry. A new tasting room was opened in 2011 and public access changed dramatically. Prior to the new tasting room, visitors needed to call in advance to arrange a tasting. Whether it was because there was often no wine available to sell or not enough family members around to man a tasting room, the winery was often associated with an unfortunate reputation of being aloof or unapproachable. When a forest fire ravaged the Okanagan in 2003, the Mavety's were lucky when the fire stopped short of their vineyard. The joke of the day, however, was "Why did the fire stop at Blue Mountain's gate? It didn't have an appointment."

Suffice it to say that that was then and that the winery has raised its profile and is far more interactive with the wine buying public nowadays. The winery welcomed the BC Wine Appreciation Society during its annual Fall Bus Tour last year - the first bus to invade the winery on mass - and current winemaker, Matt Mavety, led a BCWAS tasting last Fall that was a great hit with the club. The updated website is informative. A winery blog premiered in June 2012 and there's even a Twitter handle @BlueMtnWinery. Whether the expanded approach stems from greater competition and an ever-growing number of wineries, to a more direct involvement of the next generation of Mavety's in day-to-day operations or just to the fact that the winery has a larger staff today, the change seems to be well received.

Ian and Jane Mavety have been the face of Blue Mountain for decades but the winery is seeing a thorough integration of the next generation. As briefly mentioned, their son, Matt, is now head winemaker. After contributing "cheap labour" to the winery since he was 14, Matt finished his viticulture studies at UBC and in New Zealand and jumped into the winemaking business full bore, taking over the reins, as winemaker, in 2005. His sister, Christine, now operates the marketing side of Blue Mountain.

The story always comes back to the wines though. For the most part, the winery has been inspired by French wines as opposed to New World styles. They currently grow six varieties of grapes - primarily Burgundian: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc - and all of Blue Mountain's wines are made only from estate grown grapes. After 40-plus years in the vineyards, the Mavety's have a great handle on what's been done in the vineyard and what might be expected. The vineyard itself has a bit of everything in terms of terrain: east-, south-, north- and some west-facing slopes that are all planted with the same grape varieties. Over the years, the family has learned that each of the layouts of the terrain impart different characteristics to the fruit and that diversity allows for a greater depth of complexity when the grapes are blended together.

I'd mentioned the prominence of the sparkling wines in Blue Mountain's portfolio and, indeed, Boo and I served the Non-Vintage Brut at both our original commitment ceremony in 1998 and at our 10-year anniversary party (and formal marriage ceremony since it was legal in Canada by then). The winery, however, might be recognized even more for its Pinot Noir - and it's a bottle of Pinot that I'm going to add to The List for the purposes of this post.

1286.   2007 Blue Mountain Striped Label Reserve Pinot Noir (Okanagan Valley)

The winery grows nine different Pinot Noir clones - three of which are used solely for the sparkling wines - the assortment of clones giving Matt, as winemaker, an opportunity to take advantage of the different traits that each of the clones exhibits and impart a greater complexity to the finished blend. Aficionados of the winery already know that Blue Mountain has traditionally produced a cream and a striped label. The striped label wines have always been known to be a reserve level; however, it's only been recently that the word "Reserve" was actually added to the label. A quarter of the winery's production is released as striped label wine; but Matt was clear to point out to the BCWAS crowd that they make all their wines to a "reserve" level. There is no difference in how the fruit for the two labels is grown - whether it be thinning, shoot positioning or any other means of vineyard care. Furthermore, they ferment and age their wines block by block in the same manner. It's just that certain lots or barrels seem to offer a fuller expression of what happens in the vineyard.

Whatever the winemaking régime was behind our Pinot, it worked. The wine had a gorgeous nose, full of cherries and red fruit with hints of vanilla and spice. The flavours were just as expressive. And smooth. We had our first glass with duck confit and thought it matched wonderfully and, then, the wine opened up even more as we whiled away the evening, glass in hand.

Returning from our bottle at home to the winery as a whole, Matt has also advised that their vineyards enjoy a rocky soil and a micro-climate that is distinct from the sandier soils found on the Black Sage Bench, the sub-region that is on the same side of the valley but found to the South of Blue Mountain and its Okanagan Falls neighbours. The Mavety's refer to their little area as the "Vaseux Bench" and it is a few degrees warmer in the winter - which can be critical to a vine's survival in the Okanagan - and is a few degrees cooler in the summer which is beneficial for the winery's white varieties. Accordingly, all of Blue Mountain's wines are made from cooler climate grape varieties.

Starting in 2001, Matt also oversaw the introduction of some wild yeast fermentation of their wines (as opposed to using cultivated yeasts). The use of wild yeasts can be risky but many feel that it also lends itself to more expressive wines. Up to one-half of some particular varietal wines at Blue Mountain might now have seen wild yeast fermentation.

Blue Mountain is also one of the few BC wineries to emphasize the possibility of the Gamay Noir grape as a star in the Okanagan. Few wineries consistently offer a varietal Gamay wine and Matt has been quoted as saying that the "varietal has so much potential and is under-rated." He feels that Gamay Noir offers so much more than just being used as a blending grape or for Rosé wines and he notes that the winery always sells out of the thousand or so cases that they release each year.

Personally, one of the most interesting practices that has been introduced at the winery is that their latest plantings are seen as adding a new facet to Okanagan vineyards. The winery has decided to change over to high density planting - where both rows and vines are planted closer together. The new alignment of vines is closer to Burgundian practices and results in almost twice or even three times as many vines per acre than were previously planted. The vines are only just starting to reach their potential and the winery is still learning how these vines might need to be tended to differently in terms of canopy management and exposure to the sun and optimal yields but, so far, they are happy with the "interesting fruit" that is resulting from even the young vines.

With the new plantings, the winery is also introducing a higher degree of sustainable viticulture and they have worked hard on expanding the winery's composting program. The new planting method has also required the introduction of some new equipment. With the tighter spacing of the rows, the old tractors no longer fit amongst the rows. When I saw one new piece of machinery, my immediate thought was that I'd stepped onto the side lot of a Star Wars production. I'd love to see that baby in action.

Old. New. Consistency. Innovation. Blue Mountain and the Mavety's seem to be spokesmodels for all of those topics. I just know that the winery and I go back a long ways and that I hope to enjoy their wines for many years still to come.  After all, we're well on our way to needing some bubbly for our 20th anniversary - and WBC13 attendees would be well advised to accept a glass of Blue Mountain if one should be offered during the Conference.


  1. Thanks for your kind words and astute observations. We look forward to serving you more of our wine in the future!

    1. And I certainly look forward to filling many glasses with Blue Mountain down the road. Cheers.

  2. that's brilliant blog for traveling places.Blue Mountains Accommodation is so good.

    1. Thanks for checking in. Your Blue Mountains are a ways from our's but I actually did spend a couple of days there once many years ago (long before the blog). You likely wouldn't find our Blue Mountain wine in Australia's Blue Mountains - but it'd be a great fit. I'll have to bring a bottle should I ever make it back there.