B.C. winemakers call for new geographical sub-regions

Byline: Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun

B.C. winemakers are seeking an overhaul of the province’s geographical labeling system in order to compete with the most prestigious winemaking regions in the world.

An industry task group recommends the addition of 15 new appellation sub-regions within the Okanagan Valley to better market the province’s most distinctive wines.

The report of a task group of vintners released Thursday also calls for the creation of four new emerging wine regions — Thompson Valley, Lillooet-Lytton, Shuswap and Kootenays — in addition to the five existing regions.

The changes are intended to enhance, refine and promote the notion of terroir, the influence of local geography, climate and soil that make the world’s best wines unique.

In California, well-known appellations such as Napa Valley and Sonoma are further divided into unique sub-regions such as Los Carneros — famous for its Pinot Noir — or Calistoga, known for volcanic soils that encourage deep flavour.

“In the premium end of the market, wine is about an experience of place and we need to authenticate where our wines come from to protect our brand value,” said task group chairman Ezra Cipes of Summerhill Pyramid Winery. “When a wine is from a very specific place, we will be able to put that on the label, really zone in and create special reputations for special land.”

In response to industry-wide concerns about the wine appellation system, the task group held eight town hall events this year with winemakers across the province to form priorities and hone 13 recommendations to the B.C. Wine Authority (BCWA).

The current rules suffer from regulatory gaps about the use of geographic descriptions on wine labels, which are creating confusion in the marketplace.

“We knew that our appellation system wasn’t functioning properly,” said Cipes. “It was never mandatory and while there are some regulated terms, the wine authority can’t prohibit geographical terms used by wineries that opt out of the appellation system.”

“They can put whatever the heck they want on their label, whether it means anything or not,” he said.

Under the proposed rules, use of geographical indicators, whether it’s simply British Columbia or as specific as Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Valley, will be regulated and applied to all wineries.

Other recommendations include scrapping the taste panels that test the province’s premium VQA wines for faults.

“It’s always been a sore spot,” said Cipes.

Many winemakers argue that some of the flavours defined as faults — such as sour brettanomyces or volatile acidity — can in moderation make wines that are unique and even sought by connoisseurs.

“It was put in place to protect consumers, but some vintners believe it restricts innovation, interesting styles and new frontiers in winemaking,” he said. “We’d like to leave it to the marketplace.”

The recommendations will be considered by the BCWA to be approved by plebiscite before being passed into legislation by the provincial government, according to Mike Klassen, executive director of the BC Wine Appellation Task Group.

B.C. is home to nearly 1,000 vineyards and 250 licensed wineries.

Randy Shore is the author of Grow What You Eat, Eat What You Grow, a guide to cooking and eating sustainably all year round.