Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Silver Lining : The Okanogan's Black Cloud Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir both buds and ripens early, making it perfectly at home in a cool climate where the temperatures allow it long hangtime, which develops complexity and depth. It's a varietal that has the potential to show up in the bottle with high acidity and so the prolonged hangtime and respiration work to bring that acid down to approachable levels. The cool climate, the underlying acidity, and that ability (when the weather gods cooperate) to let the fruit hang work together to makes Pinot Noir and British Columbia's Okanogan Valley such an excellent pairing. The Okanogan is a region apart in terms of heat units and growing season. The Pinot, like most of the red varietals coming from the Okanogan, will be brighter, with higher acidity than those that are grown further south in Oregon or California.

Black Cloud Pinot Noir is one such Okanogan Pinot Noir, and is a project of Okanogan-based winemaker Bradley Cooper. (Cooper is also the winemaker at Township 7, a Namarata Bench winery that makes around 11 or 12 different wines, though Pinot is not among them.) Bradley's winemaking experience is rather varied, beginning in 1997 at another Okanogan winery with stints that took him to Washington and New Zealand. His love for Pinot began with the Pinot Noir coming from California's Central Coast and was solidified by his experience in New Zealand.

"Any region making wine to the best of their collective ability deserves the attention of wine lovers."

You get the sense that Bradley's allegiance to the Okanogan is driven both by his belief that it is a region that can create excellent wine as well as respect for the challenges that it presents. "We never have to worry about 'cooked' flavours. They never have to contend with acids that just will. not. come. down!" "We sometimes don't get enough hangtime to develop secondary or multi-dimensional flavors with our short season. Proactive cultural practices like site selection and vineyard design is helpful. But aggressive sites can serve to drive sugars when what you really want is flavours." (Canadians sometimes use extra u's).

Bradley firmly believes that the Okanogan should be on equal footing with any Northwest wine region, as they have things to contribute on all fronts in a region that they strive to define by what they do with what they have. The colder clime and shorter season require innovation and exploration between the growers and vintners and the varietals that do best are defined by the site: Bradley notes that if the vineyard aspect is slightly north or northwest or sundown/sunrise is shadow-affected then perhaps a varietal that isn't a long season heat lover would be best. In some cases, the answer may be a slightly more exotic trellis system.

Despite all the challenges and talk of the cold climate, I found the Black Cloud to be denser and more concentrated than I expected from such a Northern latitude. This was no light bodied, flimsy Pinot Noir. The 2008 Altostratus was a fairly concentrated, darker-hued, medium bodied Pinot Noir. There is a fair bit of acidity and a lower ABV at 13.2% but this Pinot is bold enough to stand on its own and should not be characterized as a "food wine." The aromatics were all red and blue fruit notes for me, highlighting cherry and ripe raspberries. The wine continues to hit the high tone fruit notes on the palate, with more of those cherries, blackberries and an herbal zesty character that comes from the acidity. The finish... is a long one. Fruit for this wine came exclusively from Okanogan Falls for the 08 but fruit from a younger vineyard in the Namarata Bench will make an appearance in the 2009 vintage.

Black Cloud got its name from a stroke of what was thought to be bad luck at the time. The silver lining is clear: Bradley Cooper is making a BC Pinot Noir that not only exhibits what this region is capable of in terms of this varietal, but at $27, this is a true bargain in the states, let alone in alcohol-tax-happy Canada.


The subject is actually from Okanagan. Okanogan is immediately south of the border in Washington, and pinot noir is grown there, too.

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