Winter 2013

The Great White North

For decades, red wine was considered the best wine in the world. Phrases like “All wine would be red if it could,” and “White wine is what you drink until someone opens a red” were spoken more in truth than jest. Even today, those who rate wines consider that the greatest wines in the world are red.

With that sort of disrespect as its legacy, white wines – with very few exceptions – command lower prices, and as a result get less analysis from the wine press. Consumers, seeing the lower prices, make the false assumption that all white wines are mediocre at best.

Yet what is most apparent to anyone who has a wine memory longer than two years, the greatest strides in wine quality over the last decade or two has been with white wines. Technology has ramped up in ways no one ever imagined in the late 1960s when jacketed stainless steel tanks first began to upgrade white wines.

For one thing, far more sophisticated rootstocks and clones entered the picture, followed by more distinctive yeast strains that yielded interesting flavors and aromas. Add to that trellising systems that were more variety-specific, thus allowing grape varieties to retain their unique characteristics.

And then came technology that permitted fine wine to be made from regions that previously were considered too cold to grow grapes. All that was needed then was for the wine making, grape growing and marketing to educate the public that what we were seeing was revolutionary.

This effort began in the 1990s, and reached a zenith in the mid-2000s with some people understanding there was greatness in previously disparaged varieties. Until about 2000 or so, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were the two dominant whites in the United States, but by 2003, it was clear, many other whites were entering the fine wine scene.

It may well have started with the great 2001 vintage in Germany that gave us spectacular Rieslings, and that helped focus American wine lovers’ attention on this variety as grown elsewhere. Next came the Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand, the Torrontes of Argentina, the Albariñõ of Spain, the Gruner Veltliner of Austria, and then really fine examples of Pinot Gris, like those of Oregon and Washington. Even Semillon was carving out a small but vital niche. We recently had a sensational 1999 l’Ecole No. 41 Semillon that was still available at the winery!

White wines were getting more mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that retail wine shops had to increase the shelf space allocated for whites, Chardonnay was no longer the de facto “by the glass” house white, and more wine maker dinners were calling for things like white Rhône blends, dry Rieslings, Viogniers, and even Pinot Blancs.

Enter Canada. More specifically British Columbia.

What is most fascinating about this story is that for the last 15 or more years, BC’s wine industry has grown into one of the world’s finest wine regions, but it has done so mainly with fabulous white wines, which get no respect. Moreover, BC has done this almost completely under the sonar since the best wines made here are rarely sent to the United States.

Since the wines are not sold here, the major wine publications do not feel any need or responsibility for taking the wines as seriously as they do wines from other regions. This chicken-egg situation boils down to the fact that BC wines are nearly completely unknown to Americans, a real-world “out of sight, out of mind” experience that deprives real wine lovers of some of the most fascinating wines in the world.

Yes, world. As a wine judge at competitions from New Zealand to Yugoslavia and throughout North America, I can honestly say that the percentage of truly great white wines being made in British Columbia today is far greater than the percentage from nearly any wine region you can name.

From sublime Pinot Gris to dramatic Gewürtraminers, from distinctive and age-worthy Rieslings to sparkling wines of real character, BC has made some startling headway in ways that cannot be appreciated until you taste the wines.

The main reason for this is that BC wines come from vineyards planted in regions barely warm enough to ripen the fruit every year, but these regions also have very cold nights, notably in the growing season, and the result is high acid levels from which to build the aromatics and structures.

Among the best producers in BC today are Michael Dinn’s excellent (if not dramatic) JoieFarm, which has won numerous gold medals and trophies at wine competitions, and Gehringer Bros.

Quail’s Gate, Mission Hill, and Sandhill are just three more of the latest to develop high-caliber images over the last decade, and newcomer LaFrenz, which has recently startled consumers with its overall quality across numerous varietals, has leaped into the discussion.

This short column can’t really do justice to the great number of exciting wineries who have conquered white wines over the last decade in BC, and the sad fact is that so few people know of this exciting wine development.

However, the Canadians are not doing themselves any favors in the recognition department. I completely understand how difficult it is for any emerging wine region to gain the positive image it so deserves. Exporting wine to the United States is not only expensive and risky, but fraught with paperwork headaches and is potentially less financially rewarding than it might appear.

But until the rest of the world gets a taste of BC whites, the fame the region so richly deserves will elude it.

Fortunately, consumers have a solution. Go there, buy the wines and truck ‘em home. The visit is well worth the effort.

--Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

This story was originally published December 20, 2013 12:00 AM.

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