Festive Showcase for B.C. Red Wines

Cabernet barrels compared; International Syrahs sampled

by Peter Mitham
Osoyoos Celebrity Wine Festival
Moderator Jay Drysdale talks to tasting panellists (left to right) Treve Ring, Harry Hertscheg, Michelle Bouffard and David Walker at the Judgment in Osoyoos during the Osoyoos Celebrity Wine Festival.
Osoyoos, British Columbia—The 3-year-old Osoyoos Celebrity Wine Festival balances glitz and small-town glamour, befitting its cinematic location on Osoyoos Lake within sight of the U.S. border. The sage-strewn ranchlands above town have been the setting for post-modern Western movies; the cattle grazing those spreads make an appetizing pairing for Bordeaux-style blends and Syrahs that fit somewhere between the Rhône and Barossa.

But if British Columbia wines are fit for the world-stage—as many believe they must be for B.C. wines to command prices that make them economically viable—then the positioning between the Barossa and Bordeaux is about right.

This year’s festival, June 9-12, kicked off with two events designed to showcase the B.C. wine industry. Riffing off the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when California wines definitely earned international legitimacy, the events were designed to place B.C. wines in an international context.

A lakeside party and auction to raise funds for children's charities supported by the South Okanagan wing of the United Way was the setting for the official release of results from the International Barrel Challenge organized by Cal and Trish Craik of Okanagan Barrel Works in Oliver, B.C.

Barrels square off
Billed as the “Judgment in Oliver,” the barrel competition compared versions of a single-block Cabernet Sauvignon from 100,000-case Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate’s Bull Pine Vineyard on the Osoyoos Lake Bench. The wine was aged in barrels from A&K Cooperage, Higbee, Mo.; Canadian Oak Cooperage, St. George, Ontario; Carriage House Cooperage, Wellington, Ontario; Demptos Napa Cooperage, Napa, Calif.; Okanagan Barrel Works, Oliver, B.C.; Radoux USA, Santa Rosa, Calif.; and Seguin Moreau, Napa.

Staves for the barrels were seasoned 24 months and given a medium toast by the participating cooperages. An initial physical inspection of the participating barrels was made in October 2009, and the barrels were filled in December 2009 with wine from that year’s vintage. Blind tastings were made at regular intervals to determine which of the barrels had the most beneficial impact on the wine, as well as which one was the most cost-efficient for the final result.

In the first four tastings, barrels from Seguin Moreau, Radoux USA and Demptos Napa led the pack, with rankings of 1.4, 1.6 and 2.8 (of seven), respectively. Okanagan Barrel Works ranked fourth with a score of 3. But following a final tasting in February 2011, the panel of seven tasters ranked Seguin Moreau tops with a score of 2 and Okanagan Barrel Works rose to second place with a score of 2.9. Radoux, meanwhile, dropped to third with a score of 4.1 and Demptos Napa slid to fourth place with a final score of 4.4. ETS Laboratories provided technical analysis (PDF here) of the finished wines.

Brooke Blair, winemaker at Jackson-Triggs in Oliver, said the exercise was useful because it demonstrated the variations among individual barrels and cooperages as well as the effects on a particular wine. But finding the right match for a wine still requires plenty of testing.

“It did allow us to see which barrels came out on top in terms of working with the style of wines that we make,” she said. “There’s so many coopers out there, so it’s just a matter of a lot of trials; at the end of the day, you’re going to find out which barrel is going to work best for the style of the wine that you’re making.”

Consumer response is another matter. Wines from the top three barrels stood out for the integration of characters, although the mouthfeel of the Seguin Moreau-aged wine presented noticeable tannins compared to the wine aged in the barrel from Okanagan Barrel Works. The lower ranked barrels yielded wines with a rough edge relative to the top examples.
“A lot of nice wineries might make a Cab Sauv, (but) they’re all different styles, so what might work best for one isn’t necessarily going to work the best for another,” Blair remarked. “And because the Osoyoos Lake Bench is arguably the hottest region we have here in Canada, the fruit sourced from there is going to be very different from the fruit sourced from the Naramata Bench, which is a little further north and a little cooler.”

Syrah surprise
The other festival competition—touted as a “Judgment in Osoyoos”—was more dramatic. The tasting of eight Syrahs on June 10 was open to the public and featured four examples from British Columbia, two from Australia and one each from France and California. But it wasn’t the B.C. wines that stole the show: The tasting panel and audience were almost uniformly surprised by a deceptive dusty, berry-rich wine replete with Old World stylings.

The majority of opinion among panelists Treve Ring, Harry Hertscheg, Michelle Bouffard and David Walker—all well-known personalities in Western Canada wine circles—tagged it as a fine example of a Rhône wine.

But the wine was in fact a 2005 Cuvee Christine from California’s 5,000-case Pax Wine Cellars (now owned by Donelan Wines).

Just two examples from B.C.—2008 Equinoxe Syrah from 3,500-case Le Vieux Pin and Jackson-Triggs 2006 Grand Reserve Syrah rose to the top half of the rankings, tying for fourth place. The other two B.C. examples—18,000-case Nk’Mip Cellars’ 2005 Syrah and 10,000-case Desert Hills’ 2007 Select Syrah—fell short, lacking the complexity of the other examples.

Session moderator Jay Drysdale, who oversees business development for Le Vieux Pin owner Enotecca Winery and Resorts Inc., told Wines & Vines the results show that B.C. wines have promise, but remain younger players on the international stage. “Going up against regions that have generations of trial and error vs. us not only being a new region but also dabbling with a newer grape...I think we stood tall,” Drysdale said.

Distinctive mineral and peppercorn characters distinguished the B.C. wines at the tasting, and Drysdale thinks those characters, combined with New World stylings by the wines’ makers, promise to set apart the B.C. rendering of the grape. Le Vieux Pin, which originally chose its location on Oliver’s Black Sage Road for its Rhône-like soils, is shifting its red wine production away from Pinot Noir into Syrah, which will account for approximately 85% of its red wine production this year.

Moreover, if the barrel competition saw bold Cabernet Sauvignons receiving doses of oak, the examples of Syrah featured at the “Judgment in Osoyoos” tasting require a lighter touch. An overly oaked character contributed to the low estimation of the Nk’Mip Syrah, but winemaker Randy Picton has since scaled back his use of oak.

“We’re learning that our Syrah’s a softer touch—and with our natural acidity and bright flavors, we’re still fine-tuning that recipe that then time can perfect,” Drysdale said.



1 Seguin Moreau, Napa, Calif. 2.0 1.4
2 Okanagan Barrel Works, Oliver, B.C. 2.9 3.0
3 Radoux USA, Santa Rosa, Calif. 4.1 1.6
4 Demptos Napa Cooperage, Napa, Calif. 4.4 2.8
4 A&K Cooperage, Higbee, Mo. 4.4 4.2
5 Canadian Oak Cooperage, St. George, Ontario 4.6 5.0
6 Carriage House Cooperage, Wellington, Ontario 5.6 4.6

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