Jak Meyer's passion for pinot noir reads like a second-marriage cliché. For the longest time, he was wedded to big reds such as Napa cabernets and Australian shirazes, trophy tastes he acquired as a high-flying Vancouver business consultant.
Then svelte, seductively perfumed pinot walked through the door, threw him a come-hither smile and whispered, "How about dinner?"
That's the thing with silky, supple pinot. It tempts you into sitting down to food, not drinking it in lieu of dinner.
Meyer, who co-owns Meyer Family Vineyards in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley with his actual wife, Janice Stevens, gave no thought to making high-octane reds when the couple decided to move to the country to start a small winery. It opened in 2008 with a focus on pinot noir and chardonnay, though there's also a good gewürztraminer in the mix. Ironically, his personal cellar of about 600 bottles, most of them acquired while in Vancouver, leans almost exclusively toward cabs and shirazes. "I can't even drink the shirazes any more," he says with a laugh.
The first pinots, sourced from estate vineyards in Okanagan Falls as well as from farmers growing on contract to Meyer's specifications, were released just two years ago. They are among the best from British Columbia I've tasted, in a league with those of Blue Mountain, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is located in the same district, a short drive south of Penticton. I'd say they're also better than most comparably priced,premium pinots from Oregon, a northwest state with a lofty global reputation for the variety.
One secret to the quality is winemaker Chris Carson, a Canadian with a resume that includes eight years at leading wineries in New Zealand's pinot noir capital of Central Otago plus three vintages in Montrachet, the great chardonnay appellation in Burgundy, and a year at the esteemed Calera Wine in California.
The other big secret lies in Meyer's aggressive vineyard measures. Quality fruit is crucial for any wine, but pinot, more than most grapes, tends to be a rascal on the vine, yielding thin, acidic juice unless pruned with discipline and planted on favourable sites with suitable clones.
Meyer's top wines are cropped to less than two tonnes of fruit per acre, in some cases as low as half a tonne for immature vines. That's drastically low and costly,but it encourages better ripening and more concentrated, balanced flavours. It also encourages bankruptcy unless you can convince consumers to pay the price.
And so, the wines are not cheap. His three top reds sell for $40 each at select stores in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba as well as via courier from the winery (www.mfvwines.com), while an excellent entry-level pinot made from purchased fruit costs $24.90, a bargain for fine pinot. Even at those levels, I'm certain Meyer is earning a lot less than he did in the finance industry.
"You can't really make a living," he says. "There is still a barrier to selling a whole lot of wine at high prices, especially when you're new and trying to get your name out there." If he keeps doing what he's doing, that recognition will surely come.
Meyer Family Vineyards Mclean Creek Road Vineyard Pinot Noir2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $40
Made from 16-year-old vines on a vineyard in Okanagan Falls that Meyer purchased in 2008, this is dark and concentrated for a pinot, with flavours of plum jam, cherry and strawberry supported by baking spices and light, dusty tannins. Supple and suave, it tastes like a cross between elegant Burgundy and punchy California.
Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.90
Remarkable pinot for the money,it was made from purchased fruit grown in Summerland, north of Penticton. The dark berry flavour is perfectly ripe and layered with persistent spice that carries through to the harmonious finish.
Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Avenue Vineyard 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $57.95
The first sip is the first paragraph in a short story, by no means the whole story. It starts light, with a nuance of dried cherry – perhaps too lean for palates accustomed to fat shirazes. But stick with it and pay attention. Mushrooms and dried earth begin to fill out the rich plot. Twelve months in French oak add a toasty subplot as fine-grained, sticky tannins and balanced acidity bring it to a satisfying climax. This is refined, complex fare for serious pinot hounds, a wine that gets better with each sip. Available exclusively at the excellent Niagara estate. www.tawsewinery.ca.
The Old Third Vineyard PinotNoir 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $42
The warm 2010 growing season delivered the goods for this new Prince Edward County winery focused entirely on pinot noir. There's good limestone below the ground, which may help explain the Burgundian character of this top-notch offering from the passionate young team of Bruno François and Jens Korberg. Jammy, succulent and round, the berry flavours get adusting of baking spices and good support from integrated, lightly toasty oak. www.theoldthird.com,613-471-0471.
Summerhill Pyramid Riesling2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
One of the finest rieslings in the country, and by extension the continent, this took home White Wine of the Year honours at the B.C.
Wine Awards. Made from organically farmed vines planted in the 1970s, it genuflects toward Germany's Mosel region with its low alcohol (a mere 8.5 per cent) and slightly sweet profile deftly balanced by refreshing acidity.
Silky stone fruits and red apple mingle with sour lemon. It would be splendid with freshwater fish. Available in B.C. private wine stores, VQA stores, in Alberta and direct from the winery through www.summerhill.bc.ca, 250-764-8000, ext. 101.
La Velona Rosso di Montalcino2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $17.95
A fabulous and well-priced Tuscan sangiovese, this red is medium-full bodied and offers up classic regional character of cherry, earth and violet with supporting hints of chocolate and mineral. Available in Ontario.
Elephant Island Pink Elephant 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $24.99
The fun name is more than matched by the package, a Champagne bottle beautifully silk-screened with pink bubbles. Elephant Island is an island only in the figurative sense, a fruit-wine producer in a small sea of grape wineries huddled in the small Okanagan district of Naramata. This has a Granny Smith apple base and is fermented according to the expensive Champagne method – its bubbles the natural product of yeast feeding on sugar in each each bottle. Then it gets a squirt of cassis, which adds a seductive red colour and blackcurrant flavour. It's an inspired, very Okanagan take on the kir royale cocktail, which combines Champagne with cassis liqueur. Essentially dry but with a hint of sweetness, it shows tart apple, cranberry and cassis flavours over fine bubbles. Available through www.elephantislandwine.com, 250-496-5522