Surprise: It's Riesling and Syrah
Analysis points to British Columbia's candidates for signature grapes
While regions such as Burgundy and Oregon claim Pinot Noir excellence, Napa is known for Cabernet, and New Zealand is synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, British Columbia—like neighboring Washington state—has wrestled with whether it should have a signature grape variety at which it excels or simply celebrate its diversity.
And then there are others who say, with such a short history of Vitis vinifera cultivation, that it’s just too early to commit.
But a run of data from the past five years, collated and crunched by graduate student Grant Hurley from the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, indicates some clear—and even surprising—candidates for B.C.’s signature grape.
Viognier and Malbec promising
“Based on my analysis, candidates for signature grape status are Riesling for whites and Syrah for reds, with Viognier and Malbec showing significant future promise,” Hurley’s study, completed in December 2013, concludes.
Hurley reached that conclusion by analyzing publicly available information from the British Columbia Wine Institute regarding the B.C. grape harvest as well as a register of approximately 8,000 awards the resulting wines garnered.
The genesis of the project—undertaken for a course in visual analytics that assistant professor Victoria Lemieux, acting director of the school’s Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre, introduced in 2012—occurred during Hurley’s WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) studies under Iain Philip at the Art Institute of Vancouver in summer 2013.
Philip “talked a lot about this signature grape thing, and how this was a conversation in the industry at the moment,” Hurley said.
Returning to UBC last fall and Lemieux’s visual analytics course, Hurley saw an opportunity to explore the idea of a signature grape by correlating harvested tonnage with the listing of awards the British Columbia Wine Institute maintains.
The greater the proportion of awards relative to production, Hurley reasoned, the greater the grape’s chance of emerging as the region’s signature variety. Hurley represented the correlation in various charts—the visual analysis component of the project—and the project ranked first in class when Lemieux’s peers reviewed the class projects at the end of term.
While bias is an undetermined variable, so far as what wineries submit to competitions and what a judge’s palate deems best from the hundreds of wines being assessed, Hurley assumes the varieties that come forward are an accurate reflection of what the province is choosing to build its reputation on—and, hence, its signature.
“Winemakers vote with their feet by paying attention to some varietals over others in both their winemaking and submission to awards,” Hurley told Wines & Vines. “The assumption here is that varietals that grow well will be more likely to be carefully produced, submitted and win awards.”
What about Chardonnay?
The conclusions challenge a prevailing interest in Chardonnay, the province’s dominant white grape by harvested tonnage, and the one that allowed Mission Hill Family Estate to bring home the Avery Trophy in 1994 for “Best Chardonnay in the World” at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in the United Kingdom. Chardonnay also remains a focus of the UBC Wine Research Centre under director Hennie van Vuuren.
Hurley’s analysis also sidesteps the assessment of Iain Philip’s wife Barbara Philip, who explored Pinot Blanc’s potential as a signature grape for the province in the thesis required for her master of wine designation.
Pinot Blanc showed well in the province’s early trials of vinifera varieties but it is considered a variety without glamor, and winemakers have failed to champion it.
On the other hand, Hurley’s findings regarding B.C. suggest a parallel with Washington state, where work with Germany’s Ernst Loosen has taken Riesling to the fore and evolved an aromatic style for the grape.
Hurley also confirms the potential of Syrah, which others have tipped as a signature red variety for the province that produces more Merlot than any other single variety (see “Festive Showcase for B.C. Red Wines”).
Master of wine Rhys Pender, owner of the wine education firm Wine Plus+ and co-owner of Little Farm Winery in Cawston, B.C., led a tasting of both grapes at an event the B.C. Wine Institute hosted last fall, and he believes the grapes can produce “very distinctive wines” in the province.
“Syrah is in the style that falls somewhere nicely in weight between the richer Shiraz of Australia and many from France,” he said. “Riesling is also full of potential. Now that people aren't just trying to make inexpensive, high-yielding wines with some sweetness but treating the grape with respect and making intensely flavoured, dry wines, there are some amazing Riesling coming out of B.C.”