Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beautiful Brilliance: Joie Farm of the Okanagan

Joie Farm has gained a lot of acclaim in the Canadian wine industry, and relatively quickly. A project of two trained sommeliers, Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn, in conjunction with their current winemaker Robert Thielicke (who joined them in 2009), Joie Farm is making some brilliant aromatic white wines. The couple has made a very pointed and focused effort to produce white wines in the style of Alsace and Burgundy in the cool climate Okanagan Valley, a focus that has certainly played a role in getting them so far so quickly. "The Okanagan is one of the only cool climate growing regions in the New World. Our growing conditions have more in common with alpine France and Italy than with other New world regions" says Michael.

If you take a quick perusal of wines being produced in the Okanagan, you'll find nearly every varietal you can imagine. While the Okanagan has been home to wineries since the 1930s, there still seems to be a little of everything being made. This is in contrast to an area like Oregon's Willamette Valley, where though you may find some people experimenting with cool climate Syrah, for the most part wineries have honed in on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and a few others that have demonstrated themselves to be fit for the climate. At Joie Farm they've eschewed the "shot-gun" varietal selection you see in much of the Okanagan and gone with a more calculated approach, choosing to focus solely on the Germanic and Burgundian varieties that they confidently feel can ripen properly from vintage to vintage.

Another factor that has differentiated Heidi and Michael's approach to the wines they're producing is their sommelier backgrounds. "Because we both come from sommelier/wine trade backgrounds we have taken our winegrowing and winemaking cues from specific producers in relevant regions in the Old World and tried to apply those same lessons here in the Okanagan Valley in order to shorten our learning curve." Michael and Heidi take inspiration from relevant Old World producers and use them as clear targets to shoot for in terms of quality and style. What has resulted are some of the most interesting white wines you'll find in the "New World." The Noble Blend, Riesling and Muscat as well as Chardonnay provide an array of aromatics that almost have a physical buzz about them.

With few local examples to follow from a climate and varietal perspective, Joie Farm looked across the pond for guidance. This has enabled them to apply many of the tried and true techniques which in turn has allowed them to carve a distinct niche in the market. Michael and Heidi cite the style of Pinot Noir produced in the Okanagan Valley as a good example; it is "lighter bodied and quite pretty, much like a Mercurey or a Santenay." To prevent the wine from becoming overpowering, they looked to their European brethren, who often use large format stand up casks to age the wine. Since the oak to juice ratio is lower, the wood doesn't overpower the wine. At the same time, these casks allow the slow oxidative quality of oak to show through, and avoid the high note that stainless steel can sometimes bring to a red wine. It's non-traditional as far as North America is concerned, but it's exactly the result Heidi and Michael were looking for.

The soaring acidity and delicate balance you'll find in the Joie Farm wines is a direct product of the climate of the Okanagan as a region. A growing season with long warm days and an enormous cooldown overnight gets the right level of ripe flavor (that's 'flavour' for our Canadian readership) with a preserved delicacy. Perhaps wine's most important pairing is played out beautifully in all of the wines that Joie Farm produces, including their sole red; the PTG. The varietals selected are able to shine in this cool climate where ripeness can often be elusive.

The wines across the board are impressive. Are they the best in Canada? It's a real possibility. I've sampled some Canadian Bordeaux and other varietals that I thought were questionable choices for the cool climate of the Okanagan; these, however, are all spot on. I was sent samples of all of the current releases, and found all of them interesting and at the same time fun. Fun is typically a label slapped to a wine that is unremarkable; these wines were anything but. For brevity's sake I've focused on my favorites below.

The 2010 Noble Blend is a proprietary blend of four varietals from ten vineyards. Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, with tiny bits of Pinot Auxxerois and Pinot Gris, this is an homage to the Alsatian Edelzwicker, translated "noble blend." This might be my favorite white wine of the year. Enormous aromatics burst onto the scene with lemon zest, peach skin, grapefruit and floral notes. The acidity soars to beautiful heights on this wine, with more citrus and tropical fruit, spices and a kiss of sweetness across the palate. For the $23 Canadian this is a wine well worthy of that price tag, I'd drink a case of it, easy.

The Riesling (2010) is another thing of beauty and a real nod to the German Spatlese. The off dry style results in a beautiful interplay between that significant acidity and the sweetness of the fruit. Again the aromatics are singing on this wine with spice, not quite ripened apricot, apple skin and tropical fruits. The palate is a new world imagining of Germany to a t. That spicy zesty acidity balances sweet fruits and flowers. Key lime, grapefruit and sweet honeysuckle. $22.

The 2010 Muscat is a wine that is obviously suited to the Okanogan and this one is the second vintage from the Joie Farm estate vineyards. While sweet Moscato is flooding the wine markets world wide this is perhaps the grape's great redeemer. (A word to the wise please don't drink that sickly sweet moscato that's out there, it makes you dumb.) A dry style muscat that again brings such a singing acidity that it is unmistakably a serious wine. Beautiful aromatics, and a palate of green grapes, grapefruit and sweet floral notes. $22


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