Fresh juice preludes finished wine

This past week I attended a fun and unusual tasting.

The B.C. Wine Institute arranged to have shipped in from the Okanagan four 2014 just-pressed juices (different varieties), which they poured alongside comparable finished VQA wines from current releases. The idea was to bring the excitement of the harvest right to Vancouver for those of us city slickers who aren't able to make it to the Okanagan (or elsewhere).

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The tasting was led by Rhys Pender, who knows a thing or two about wine. First of all, he's a Master of Wine, one of the youngest around as far as I know. Also, he's also a real winemaker, as in he grows his own grapes, and (with his wife Alishan) makes his own wines.

You don't usually get to taste free-run juice, except at the winery. As it happens, one of the times I tasted B.C. juice was at Rhys and Alishan's Little Farm Winery last year in Similkameen. I remember being pretty impressed as we swirled and spit the definitely apple-toned juice that would become Little Farm Riesling.

So what's so great about tasting fresh-pressed or fermenting juice, a.k.a. "must"?

It's really fascinating to realize that this cloudy, often quite sedimentary liquid will one day emerge as a finished wine.

It was pretty apparent that the Pinot Gris juice would indeed wind up not unlike the finished Lake Breeze 2013. And while the Gewurrztraminer juice didn't (yet) sport those classic rose petal notes, it was delicious to taste and reminded me a little bit of quince jelly: Bring Me My Toast!

Of the four tasted, the Merlot juice (from Sandhill, complete with a swack of whole berries!) resembled most closely the finished wine and, again, emphasized just how good the fruit is this year. Keep an eye out for the 2014 Sandhill Merlot a couple of years from now.

In fact, that was the overall message this tasting conveyed: 2014 is shaping up to be one of the best Okanagan (make that B.C.) vintages on record.

If you're in the Okanagan (or on Vancouver Island or anywhere), and have a chance to taste some juice, go for it! You'll get a real sense of what's to come.

The finished wines for this tasting were all part of BC Liquor Stores' current BC VQA harvest promotion: They offer a good cross-section of the value that B.C. can deliver, most priced around or under the magic $20 mark.

Standouts include:

Nk'Mip Pinot Blanc 2013

Hard to believe that Pinot Blanc was once B.C.'s most widely planted white, but when you taste wines like this you can see why. Think orchard fruits and citrus wrapped in juicy acidity. A bargain at $15.99 (90 points).

Lake Breeze Pinot Gris 2013

You could really see the flavours in the must mirrored in this wine. Orchard notes on top with tropical and stonefruit and a touch of spice, juicy acidity and good length $19 (89 points).

Wild Goose Gewurztraminer 2013

Hints of rose petal and sage on top, followed by a textured, slightly viscous palate of ginger spice, floral and mineral notes with well balanced fruit and acidity through a dry finish (BCLS $18.50, 91 points).

Moon Curser Cab Merlot 2012

From one of the South Okanagan's most prolific red wine producers. Solid, equal parts blend adds up to a plush and rounded drop with luscious cassis notes and blue fruit underpinned by added structure from the Cabernet. Think braised meats or hot pots ($20.90, 90 points).

Tim Pawsey writes about wine for numerous publications and online as the Hired Belly at hiredbelly.com. Contact: info@hiredbelly.com.

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