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Talking BC Wines with Kurtis Kolt and Jake Skakun of Cherries and Clay

Vancouver-based wine blog Cherries and Clay was started by Jake Skakun and Kurtis Kolt in 2008 to share their passion for wine, report on “rad tastings” they attend or just blog about things they “get stoked on”, which may veer away from wine into hockey, music and urban planning.

The pair claim not to be wine experts, but Skakun is the sommelier for Vancouver’s L’Abattoir, which was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in Canada for 2011 by enRoute magazine. And Kolt, an independent wine consultant who designs wine programs for hotels and restaurants, judges wine competitions and produces wine events, won the 2010 Sommelier of the Year award at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.

Skakun and Kolt filled us in on a wide range of their favourite Canadian wines and dispelled some common myths about wine production in Canada.

In terms of Canadian wine, what do you think are the best wine regions now? What region, if any, is up and coming?

JAKE: It’s a shame that we don’t see much wine from Ontario in our market, so it’s hard to speak on what’s going on back east. In BC, the Naramata Bench is a concentrated stretch of some of the Okanagan Valley’s top wineries. But the valley is large and diverse and certain grapes [grow] well in specific areas: I like the Riesling from Tantalus, southeast of Kelowna, and the Syrah from Le Vieux Pin in the Black Sage Bench, for instance.

KURTIS: Agreed about other provinces—we simply don’t see them. I’d love to try the sparkling wines from Nova Scotia I’ve heard many great things about. Locally though, the Similkameen Valley has some fantastic wineries and very distinct style, or terroir. Dry heat combined with glacial till and alluvial soils offers great character, plus there’s an intense nightly wind that blows through the valley, acting as a natural pesticide, which allows many producers to farm organically.

How do you respond to the stereotype that Canada doesn’t produce great red wines?

JAKE: That’s not true. The Okanagan has the heat and sun needed to ripen red grapes—maybe not perfectly every year, but that’s the trade-off of being a marginal climate. The best regions of France certainly don’t always have perfect vintages.

We’re a young wine-producing country and don’t have the experience  of ten generations of vignerons experimenting with grapes on one specific site. We still need to find out what grows best where and we need those vines to mature and produce better quality fruit.

I don’t believe that we should be following consumer trends for our plantings, however; there is probably way too much Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir grown in the Okanagan. I like what Syrah can do in the Okanagan (Nichol and Le Vieux Pin, for example). I’ve also been enjoying a couple Cab Francs lately. But we should experiment with less commercial vines, too. Stone Boat does a great job with Pinotage and Arrowleaf does a cool Zweigelt.

That said, I do believe that we tend to do a better job with white grapes [in Canada].

KURTIS: I’m on the same page as Jake on this one, and clearing up that myth is a constant battle. With our various microclimates in the Okanagan, there’s a lot of potential for many styles [of reds]. I’d say that with our intense heat and shorter growing season, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the best-suited varieties, but there are exceptions like Blue Mountain, which does amazing Pinot Noir year after year.

Are there any other common misconceptions about Canadian wine?

Jake: We make more than just icewine.

KURTIS: Heh! Very true. Because we hardly export our wine, people in other countries are surprised that we make wine at all and are consequently shocked that it can be good wine as well. We do well in competitions like the Decanter World Wine Awards, and in typical Canadian fashion we’re always so proud just to have our existence acknowledged.

Can you tip us off to any super-small or remote Canadian wineries that are producing excellent wine?

JAKE: A couple tiny producers that make delicious wine in the Naramata Bench are Van Westen Vineyards (less than 1,500 cases) and Nichol Vineyard (less than 2,400 cases). Look for Van Westen’s aromatic whites like the Viognier and the Cab Franc and Syrah from Nichol.

KURTIS: You go around saying “They can’t make wine on Salt Spring Island, what are they thinking?” and then along comes Garry Oaks Winery with incredible Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Rosé. That’s the fun part of being such a young wine region—we’re all still exploring our potential and constantly proven wrong in assumptions.

Can you give a recommendation of one of your favourite Canadian wines for under $20?

JAKE: Under $20 can be a tough price point for BC wines, but there are some gems out there. Lake Breeze does a fantastic Pinot Blanc for around $18. Road 13 makes a delicious Old Vines Chenin Blanc for $19.99.

KURTIS: The wines out of Monster Vineyards made by Poplar Grove Winery are all around $18 and quite cheery. I also like the fact that most pink wines out of the Okanagan are under the $20 and are a dry style that goes incredibly well with the kind of food we eat here, from seafood and vegetarian fare to Asian and Indian cuisine. There’s no need to restrict Rosé  to summer drinking.

How about a pricey wine that’s worth the splurge?

JAKE: I would be wary about splurging too much for a wineries’ “flagship blend”, but the Le Vieux Pin Syrah ($45) is a favourite of mine as is JoieFarm’s Reserve Chardonnay ($30).

When you travel, how do you usually get your wine home? Any tips or tricks you can share?

JAKE: If it’s a few bottles in my luggage then WineSkins are the trick: they are little bottle-shaped sacks padded with bubble wrap and sealed in case there in a tragedy. I’ve never had a bottle break in my bag, but I like not having to worry about picking up a sopping bag off the carousel filled with clothes with a new Rosé tint.

KURTIS: You can never be too careful, but yes, the wine-bottle shaped, bubble-wrapped WineSkins are best. Though in the past I’ve had success with a few layers of socks, a couple of plastic bags and crossed fingers.

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