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In the end, the panel did, and didn’t, answer the question.
The question, at the seminar of the same name this week at the Vancouver International Wine Festival, was: Does BC have a wine identity?
“I’m a scholar, so I don’t like yes or no answers to those kinds of questions,” said panelist Dr. Merje Kuus with a laugh.
“I think it’s more important to ask: What kind of identity does the Okanagan want?”
Kuus, a geography professor at UBC Vancouver who studies how wine is linked to sense of place, was one of four panelists at the seminar.
“The Okanagan is beautiful and anyone who tastes wine there at a winery, or especially at a winery restaurant, will fall in love with the place and the wine and forever be an ambassador for the region,” said Kuus.
Panelist Dr. Stephanie Marchand-Marion, a professor from the Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine in France, was on the same page.
“If you drink a beautiful wine in the beautiful place it was grown and made, you have a cool moment. It’s linked with emotion,” she told the crowd.
“That’s why tourism is so important to a wine region. Everyone that visits your region and drinks your wine becomes an ambassador for the region.”
As both a tourist destination and a winemaking region, the Okanagan is well-positioned to capitalize on its sense of place, its terroir, its wine identity.
“It’s important not to be just one thing, one identity,” said Kuss.
“The Okanagan should evolve and be diversified. Consumers are complex. Sometimes they want simple, drinkable wines and sometimes they want complex wines. The Okanagan can give them both.”
Some wine regions in the world have done an exceptional job pinpointing and marketing their identity.
Probably the best defined is Champagne.
The sparkling wine from the region of France with the same name is synonymous with French luxury, quality and taste.
Other wine regions with similarly strong identities are Porto in Portugal for port wines, New Zealand for its distinctive New World interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina for making Malbec its signature red wine.
With 80 different grape varietals grown in the Okanagan and many different wines made, we can’t hang our hat on any single varietal or identity, according to Kuus.
“The Okanagan is a beautiful landscape and part of its wine identity,” she said.
“Therefore, wine is an awareness building tool. Identity is not just marketing gloss. But, it is important for export and marketing. So recognizing and labelling the wine with the unique attributes of the Okanagan and the wine and will trigger those emotions of the wine’s taste and quality and sense of place.”
If all this sounds like a roundabout way of saying the Okanagan does and doesn’t have a wine identity, you’re right.
“The notion of identity is complicated and confusing,” said Dr. Jacques-Olivier Pesme, the director of the Wine Research Centre at UBC Vancouver and the moderator for the seminar.
“There’s been lots of academic research on identity and for wine it’s a quality that starts in the soil and then the grapes and then the wine.”
Well, the Okanagan can certainly hang its hat on pristine soils, ideal climate, premium grapes, world-class winemakers and quality wines that are fruit-forward with pleasing acidity, whether it be a big, bold red from the south of the Valley or a crisp and aromatic white from the north of the Valley.
Eugene Mlynczyk, the fine wines national sales manager for Arterra, was at the seminar to lead people through a tasting of one six wines on offer — the Nk’Mip Mer’r’iym Red Blend ($70) from Oliver.
“Our identity is that of a broad region with the yin and yang of warm, long sun days and cool nights that are good for both big, ripe reds and crisp, fresh whites,” he said.
The five other wines tasted at the seminar came from regions that have strong wine identity — Charles Heidsieck Champagne from France, Willamette Valley Bernau Block Pinot Noir 2019 from Oregon, ADVINI Chateau Patache d’Aux Medoc from Bordeaux, France, Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2029 from Argentina and Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port 2012 from Douro Valley, Portugal.
Lunch and rose
At the lunch after the seminar, keynote speaker, master sommelier, author and wine consultant Evan Goldstein also touched on wine region identity in terms of terroir — that catch-all term for soil, geography, climate, vine selection and vineyard management and the human interaction of winemaking.
“Terroir is an interpretation,” he said.
“It can’t be placed in a box and wrapped up and topped with a bow. It’s about making the best wine possible from the place where the grapes are grown. Terroir does exist. Terroir is story content. But where does terroir end and (wine) style (imparted by winemakers and marketers) begin?”
By the way, the standout wine at the roast chicken lunch was the delicious, new 2022 Chronos Rose from Penticton’s Time Family of Wines.
And to make it even better was the fact that Time winemaker Lynzee Schatz was sat at our table and to explain that its alluring pale pink colour was achieved with only 45 minutes of skin contact as the Syrah grapes were crushed to make the wine.
The theme region of this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival, running April 22 through Sunday, is South America.
As such, my wife, Kerry, and I also went to the Icons of South America dinner at the Five Sails Restaurant in the Pan Pacific Hotel.
It was hosted by Matias Jahn, the export director for North America for three wineries from Chile — Arboleda, SENA and Vinedo Chadwick.
Five course of food (think oysters, scallops, elk tartare, duck confit and spring lamb) were paired with wines that ranged from $30 a bottle (Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) to $200 a bottle (Cabernet Blend from SENA and Bordeaux Blend from Vinedo Chadwick).
“Chile has come a long way, whether it’s in the $30 or $200 price range,” said Jahn.
“All of our wines have elegance, finesse and drinkability.”
In all, the 44th annual Vancouver International Wine Festival, held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, is showcasing 148 wineries from 17 countries at 36 events over eight days that catered to both the public and the wine trade..
The fest is consistently ranked the No. 1 food, wine and hospitality event in Canada by New York’s BizBash.
You can still attend
If you’re in Vancouver this weekend and have a yearning for wine, the fest still has last-minute tickets for sale for its six final events.
International Festival Tastings are on tonight, Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening.
Depending on day and time, tickets range from $115 to $135.
Saturday there’s a grazing lunch with South American wines at the Sabor Sudamericano event. Tickets: $119.
And on Saturday afternoon there’s a La Crema de la Crema panel discussion and tasting of more South American wines for $75.
Tickets at www.vanwinefest.ca.