Scratching the Earth on the Golden Mile and Black Sage Benches
The Dirt on Dirt Part 2:
Scratching the Earth on the Golden Mile and Black Sage Benches
Sandra Oldfield is CEO, winemaker, and co-founder of Tinhorn Creek Winery, which has vineyards on both the Black Sage Bench and the Golden Mile Bench. Both are important sub-regions in the Okanagan, and although they are within sight of each other, they are very different. Sandra is one of the vintners currently discussing an application to define the Golden Mile Bench as an officially recognized sub-geographical indication for BC VQA wine labeling. She was reluctant to be interviewed. She is aware of the political issues involved with drawing a line on a map, and stressed to me that she is not an official spokesperson for the group.
Ezra Cipes: My angle in writing this is to bring awareness to it; to make sure that this ends up being good for our industry long term. If we're labeling terroir, we have to be delivering terroir, and not just empty marketing BS.
Sandra Oldfield: We’re defining our bench because of the uniqueness of the geography, but in the end you can’t escape that this is about marketing. I mean, French appellations are about marketing. It's about making your land more important than your neighbor's, or really just unique from it. The tricky part is where you draw the line. With the Golden Mile, where we draw the line is solely based on science. The primary dictator is soil, and the second is elevation. Alluvial soil spreads right out across the valley floor. The crumbling of Mount Kobau lays out fans of primary material down the various creeks, and they formed these shelves - this elevated bench.
EC: What’s the soil like?
SO: The soil is very rocky with a gravelly loam. It is on the East facing slope of Mount Kobau so it receives the early morning light, but is in shadow hours before Black Sage on the other side of the valley. Tinhorn’s plantings on the Golden Mile Bench are almost all white grapes. We’ve got Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, and Chardonnay planted here, as well as small plantings of Syrah and Pinot Noir.
EC: What about Black Sage?
SO: This is where more and more of our reds are planted. Black Sage Bench is at a lower elevation, and the aspect is South-West. It get more extreme heat in the summer, and cold in the winter. It’s pretty much pure beach sand, and growing grapes there is almost hydroponic farming. My winery is on the Golden Mile, so I won’t be the one to drive Black Sage as an appellation, but that is where all my Merlot and Cab Franc is. Black Sage is harder to define and draw a line around. How big is it? Does it go all the way from Inkameep Vineyards to Osoyoos, or is there some historical precedent for what is defined as the Black Sage Bench?
EC: When you first planted Black Sage, how did you choose what to plant?
SO: It was based on the wines that we wanted to sell. We had everything planted there. We are now slowly replanting, and varieties are finding their home. The Merlot we had on the Golden Mile was always the weakest Merlot, every vintage. We are little by little replanting the Golden Mile to aromatic whites, and reds are going to Black Sage. Once our canopy was established on Black Sage, and the vines were established, the flavours became much more developed and deep. We generally get lower acids on that side, so we often acidify. Golden Mile has higher acid, good fast flavour development, but not as much heat. Having Gris grown on both sides balances out the wine. I don't have to do anything! One side has the sugars, the other has the acid.
EC: You have Syrah in both vineyards. What about that?
SO: Syrah is better on Black Sage from a ripeness perspective. It's more meaty/bacony on Black Sage, more white pepper on Golden Mile. Frost is a major consideration on Black Sage, though, so we’re going to experiment with planting later ripening but frost sensitive varieties like Malbec on the Golden Mile side. Bill Eggert from Fairview somehow manages to make good wine from late ripening reds on Golden Mile.
EC: What has it been like bringing all the Golden Mile vintners together to make this application? I understand that you're not a spokesperson for the group, but are you personally in favour of adopting specific production practices for the sub-region?
SO: We're not talking about any restrictions on varieties, but migration of varieties is inevitable over time. We're not talking about any production limits at the out-set, like max tons per acre, but it may be discussed in the future. I would not advocate stylistic restrictions in regards to production practices.
EC: What about ingredients?
SO: Should processed ingredients be allowed? We haven’t talked about it. I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point. If we had a sub-appellation, I would really like to have a third party accounting for where the grapes grown here are going, to make sure labeling is legit and 100% from the sub-region. A lot of wineries have grapes grown here, and they end up all over. If we get to use Golden Mile on the label, the wine’s got to be 100% from Golden Mile.
Ultimately, just like every growing region, the two benches have their own advantages and challenges. Terroir is complex, and cannot be simplified by comparing soil types or sunlight hours. This is just scratching the surface. The real trick will be for the vintners on both benches to come to terms with the challenges of their farms, and to figure out how to make best use of the advantages. The Black Sage Bench has the heat, but because of the coarse, deep sand, and all the human intervention needed to grow here, can the wines really be said to have terroir? The soil here must be considered in more detail, as it is a complex subject, and Black Sage has many good qualities aside from the soil. Certainly many fine wines have been grown on Black Sage. The Golden Mile is blessed with a finer textured but stony soil. It is likely that the Golden Mile Bench will be the first sub-region to apply for a sub-geographical indication, and if it is successful, it will then be up to the vintners to make good on the promise of terroir, and to develop the special reputation that the fulfillment of this promise will entitle them to have.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2011/12 issue of Savour Magazine.