Monthly Archives: April 2017

On Syrah

“What’s the most effective way to sell Syrah?” The industry joke nowadays: “Don’t put ‘Syrah’ on the label.” In the United States, the number of consumers who purchase Syrah has decreased by roughly 36 percent since 2008. In British Columbia, the acreage of Syrah has been relatively stagnant over the same period of time:


It’s hard to understand this trend. Syrah/Shiraz – the same grape variety – is responsible for many of the greatest wines in the world, whether from the Northern Rhone, Barossa, or Okanagan. The wines are complex and savoury, ranging in style from refreshing and quaffable to dense and ageworthy. It is a grape variety for nearly all occasions: it’s even made into sparkling wine.


Old Vine Shiraz

Maybe that’s part of the problem. You’re never sure exactly what’s in the bottle given the range of styles and flavours.  In theory, “Syrah” should refer to more restrained, savoury expressions of the variety from cooler climates. “Shiraz,” on the other hand, should denote fruit-forward, high octane wines from warm regions. But it’s not this straightforward. The decision to label a wine as “Syrah” or “Shiraz” is often left to the marketing department, and the style of the wine may not be a consideration.

For a long period, Syrah also became ubiquitous with Australian Shiraz. Not Barossa Shiraz. Or McLaren Vale Shiraz. Australian Shiraz – typically generically labelled as from “South Australia” –  competed on price. Bottles were often adorned with critters or the like. An argument could be made that it cheapened Syrah’s brand equity. Also likely: consumers simply tired of Shiraz. This helps to explain in part the boom and bust of Australian Shiraz, and why Argentinian Malbec’s stock is now stagnant. The wine industry may be more similar to financial markets than we’d like to think.

There’s hope on the horizon, however. Washington brought in a record 21,000 tons of Syrah in 2016. It trails only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as the most planted variety in the state. Both Washington and the Okanagan have established a reputation for the variety. “British Columbia is renowned for outstanding Syrah,” writes acclaimed wine critic Ian D’Agata.

At Phantom Creek, our estate vineyards also have a recognized history with Syrah. Anthony Gismondi has written that Phantom Creek Vineyard, planted in 1996, is “a great site for Syrah.” And there’s no question that the wines we have in barrel are distinctly and uniquely Okanagan Syrah. We’ll proudly put “Syrah” on the label.

So, we’re bullish about the future for Syrah in the South Okanagan.

The Soil Doctor

We are fortunate that our activities on the Black Sage Bench have piqued the interest of renowned soil consultant Dr. Paul Anamosa, who has analyzed and evaluated vineyard soils in many prestigious wine regions. This week, Paul is leading a digging expedition to assist with the development of two new properties on the Black Sage Bench. The plan is to dig two pits per acre, each five feet in depth, to evaluate soil texture and structure as well as nutrient availability. In short, we’re trying to answer: what’s the soil like?


Broadly speaking, soil analysis matters for two reasons. The first is to identify plots that share common soil characteristics. We can then design the vineyard so that the soil in each block is as uniform as possible. This, much like using only one clone, best ensures vines will ripen at an even pace. As Dr. Anamosa maintains, “Great wines are not made with grapes that have a broad variance of ripeness.”


Second, Dr. Anamosa’s analysis will allow us to make more informed choices in the vineyard design on a block-by-block basis. Soil characteristics will influence factors such as row spacing, vine density, trellising, rootstock selection, and irrigation. Ultimately, we want to work with – not against – what nature has provided. “Moving and sculpting soil is great for airports, roads, and strip-malls,” says Dr. Anamosa – “not vineyards.”


It’s a time-consuming process. Dr. Anamosa examines the physical structure of the soil in every pit. In total, he will evaluate 45 pits over three days. He then draws soil samples from different layers of the soil profile to be analyzed by an accredited lab.


Soil samples from three layers (0-22cm, 22-55cm, and 55-120cm) in pit number 22

From our experience on the Black Sage Bench, we know these two properties are ideally suited to late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Dr. Anamosa’s analysis will help us fine-tune our planting decisions.

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Sorting, Seriously

You could say we take sorting seriously. After all, why would we make wine from fruit you wouldn’t want to eat?

Sorting refers to the diligent selection of ripe, healthy fruit

After being hand picked by our vineyard team, fruit arrives at the winery to be sorted. The triage starts by hand around a sorting table.


The berries are then gently destemmed and rigorously sorted using a Pellenc optical sorter. This cutting-edge technology rejects any berries that do not meet Ross’ specifications. For each lot, he adjusts the desired berry size, shape, and colour to best suit the character of the fruit from that vintage. The aim is to remove unripe or damaged berries as well as MOG – material other than grapes such as leaves and stems.


The optical sorter has an attention to detail that cannot be matched by the human eye, and ensures we’re using the best possible fruit from our estate vineyards. A camera continuously scans and analyzes every berry at a rate of up to 2,000 berries per second. If a berry is rejected, a shot of compressed air tosses it into a rubbage bin. The time between a berry being scanned and rejected: just 30 milliseconds.

Because you don’t want this in your wine:


On Fine Wine

As an MW student, you’re supposed to be able to quickly and concisely define key terms. I never quite managed a definition for “fine wine”.

If fine wine somehow related to price, the concept would be less abstract. Sure, we could argue over the appropriate price range for a bottle to be considered “fine”. It could be any wine over $50. Or maybe $100.

A price-based approach is more fitting for terms like “luxury wine”. Within the global wine industry, Dr. Liz Thach MW classifies “luxury wine” as a bottle priced from $100-499. An “icon wine” is one from $500-999. These are wines that have to be perceived as unattainable. Consequently, the notion of luxury is just as much a function of marketing as it is what’s in the bottle. Of the seven defining attributes of “luxury”, only one has to do with the quality of the product.

But that’s not really what we mean when we talk about fine wine. We’re referring more to the wine itself. Imagine yourself in a marketing void with just four ounces of wine in your glass. Does it taste, well, fine?

It’s a rather laughable question, and demonstrates that this second approach also doesn’t capture the notion of fine wine. It’s not merely a quality judgement. Take the example of two different $30 bottles. You’re served both wines blind. You say, “Both wines are excellent. Why shouldn’t these be considered fine wines?”

Then, you’re shown the labels. The first is from a small, family-owned winery practicing organic and biodynamic principles. The second is from a publically traded company that makes 50,000 cases of this particular SKU per year.

Is one now finer than the other? Ask yourself: which of the two wines would you buy? Even if you liked both wines equally, your perception of the wines has changed.

Jamie Goode has previously said, “I want the good guys to win, not just the guys with big marketing budgets.” We like our underdogs, whether real or perceived. It helps to explain the uproar over Bianca Bosker’s article, Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine, in the New York Times. Alder Yarrow, in his articulate response on Vinography, wrote “those of us who know something about wine…have a responsibility to point people towards something better” than mass-market wines.

At this point, you may think it’s unrealistic that both wines showed equally well blind. The biodynamic wine has to be better than the mass-market wine. Maybe it’s a root day, you said to yourself. I’m not so sure.

So, what about fine wine then? I’d argue the term refers to a concept of what wine should be. A quality product that’s not too cheap and made the right way. It’s this last qualification – made the right way – that makes fine wine difficult to define. And open to endless interpretations.

Photo Gallery: Spring Racking

We’re currently racking all of our 2016 barrels for the first time. The purpose of this racking is to take the wine off its gross lees – a combination of spent yeast cells and grape solids – barrel-by-barrel.

Racking: moving wine from one vessel to another

Karin transfers the wine from barrel to a temporary tank, cleans the barrel, and then moves the wine back to the same barrel. This approach is more time consuming, but allows us to evaluate the sensory profile of each individual barrel. We can then refine our selection of barrels – whether by cooperage, grain tightness, or toast level – for the next vintage.

Redeveloping Becker Vineyard

Redeveloping a historic vineyard is not an easy decision.

Becker Vineyard was initially planted in 1977 to over thirty different grape varieties as part of the Becker Project. Its potential for Bordeaux red varieties was later identified by Harry McWatters in 1993. That year, Richard Cleave was contracted to plant the property with some of the first Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc vines in the South Okanagan.


Why redevelop a vineyard after 24 years? It’s more common than you’d think. The iconic Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in Napa is one year younger than Becker and will be replanted in phases beginning this year. But it’s not a decision we took lightly. The quality of the fruit from Becker continues to be exceptional. However, yields are progressively low and unsustainable.

The benefit of redeveloping Becker is the opportunity to update the vineyard design. Ross and John are currently working on the replant plan. Not only will this allow us to refine which grape varieties are planted, we’ll also be able to make changes to clonal and rootstock selections.

This is the replant plan to date:

Replant Plan for Becker

We’re starting this year with 2.2 acres of Cabernet Franc. From Black Sage Road, you can see our new hand-split cedar end posts and metal line posts in place. Now we’re just waiting on the vines.

The plan outlines not only what variety will be planted in each block, but also the clone and rootstock. For example:

CF refers to the grape variety, Cabernet Franc.

13 refers to the clone.

101-14 refers to the rootstock.

Over time, Becker will be almost completely replanted to Bordeaux red varieties, specifically Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. This means saying goodbye to some of the white varieties previously planted: Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Chardonnay. The sun-catching aspect of the vineyard, combined with the warm climate of the Black Sage Bench, makes it best suited to later ripening varieties.



The differences in clone and rootstock between blocks will allow us to bring more complexity of flavours to the palette of the vineyard and optimize quality.

Clone: a population of vines derived from a single “mother vine”

Rootstock: the root system grafted onto the desired grape variety

Each block is planted with one clone to ensure uniform ripeness as some clones will ripen earlier or later than others. Planting a vineyard with multiple clones across different blocks then helps to build complexity, as each clone has a different sensory profile. Take the example of two Cabernet Sauvignon clones:

Clone 337: approachable, fruit-forward flavour profile

Clone 4: more structured with an herbal influence

The vineyard is harvested and vinified block-by-block. We’re left with many different micro-lots – over 60 in 2016, for example – providing us with a full palette from which to make our blends. With nearly a quarter-century of experience, we can also update the rootstocks we use so that they’re perfectly matched to each block. The focus is now on low vigour, low yielding rootstocks over higher yielding alternatives like SO4.

Replanting requires patience. We don’t expect to replant the last block until 2024. And then there’s three more years until the first crop from each newly planted block. But we can’t wait to share the results with you.

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