The Dirt on Dirt Part 1:
Why is it that wine is so variable depending on where, when and how it is made? Wine marketers give all sorts of vague answers to this question. "It's all about the dirt," says Road 13; Tinhorn Creek is “Naturally South Okanagan,” and at Summerhill we "Celebrate Nature's Perfection.” All of these statements point to the same thing: that the wine is made in the vineyard, and expresses terroir, a sense of the land on which it was grown. But is it? And does it?
Certainly wine is made both in the vineyard and in the cellar, but to a varying degree that is based on the quality of the fruit and the sensibility of the winemaker. And terroir... what is that again? Well it kind of depends on who you ask. In Europe the definition of terroir is stricter. There, the labeling regulations imposed by the appellation systems (legally defined, protected geographical indicators) are in place to ensure that the noble ideas about terroir are not reduced to platitudes and slogans. In many European countries, even watering the vineyard is considered an intrusion into "letting the land express itself," and irrigation is not allowed for wines that state the appellation on the label. If we eliminated irrigation in the Okanagan, our terroir would express bunchgrass.
But we do have our own concept of terroir, somewhat more liberally applied than in the French definition, and we are lucky that our dry climate allows wine growers to restrict water and create grapes to their own specification (be it for fat, watery ones or small, flavourful ones, as befits the preference and price point). From this example of controlled irrigation, which is just one intervention wine growers and wine makers make, one can see the difficulty in defining terroir within our province when compared to the stricter standards and definition of the word in Europe. One may ask whether the concept is even relevant to New World wine.
But there is a trend for marketing vineyard origin. Just look at Sandhill’s single vineyard program, or at the aforementioned marketing statements of various wineries. So the British Columbia Wine Authority (BCWA) is attempting to give our industry the opportunity to define our terroir, and hopefully make good on our lofty and idealistic promises, with a program for the introduction of sub-geographical indications that could be proclaimed on the front label as part of the statement of appellation.
Currently the only recognized geographical indications in B.C. are larger regions where wine grapes are grown. These include the Okanagan Valley, Vancouver Island, Similkameen Valley, and Fraser Valley. You may recognize these regions on the front labels of your favourite B.C. wines stated as, for example, “BC VQA Vancouver Island” on Rocky Creek’s Pinot Gris. As of now, no sub-region has applied for the special sub-geographical indication status, though a number have considered or are considering applying, including Naramata, the Skaha Bluff, Cawston, the Shuswap, Black Sage Bench, and the Golden Mile. If one is successful, you may see, for instance, “Golden Mile BC VQA” on a bottle of Tinhorn Creek Cab Franc in place of the current “Okanagan Valley BC VQA” geographical indication.
According to the BCWA’s Wine of Marked Quality Regulations, to gain an officially recognized sub-geographical indication these sub-regions must be “geographically distinct areas with clear, defined borders and commercially viable levels of production,” and the wines produced must “consistently demonstrate distinctive characteristics related to shared soil, topography and climate, enhanced by the adoption of specific production practices.” These specific production practices, as well as the distinct borders, would be defined by the producers of the sub-region; in fact, the regulations state that two-thirds of the producers (by production level) have to agree on all of these fine points in order for a sub-geographical indication to be officially added to the regulations. This is probably the reason there are not any recognized yet.
In the articles that follow in this Dirt on Dirt series, we will investigate various sub-regions for the uniqueness of their terroir, and the prevailing wine making styles that predominate in them. My aim is to illuminate various realities of wine making in British Columbia, so that the noble concept of terroir is not bastardized here, and for the sake of helping to realize the magnificent opportunity our industry has to be recognized on the world stage of wine.
This article was originally published in the Fall issue of Savour Magazine.