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Donald Triggs and the Benefits of Not Going It Alone (May 21, 2009)

If Donald Triggs had not been pulled out of the reach of a rearing rattlesnake, wine lovers might have been deprived of three of Canada's finest wines: Osoyoos Larose and Le Clos Jordanne Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Triggs, then chairman and CEO of Vincor, the fourth largest wine company in North America, was tramping the Nk'Mip vineyard in the Okanagan Valley in 1997. His purpose was to set up a joint venture winery in Osoyoos with the Inkameep Indian Band who owned the land. If rattlers thrive in this warm environment, Triggs thought, then the terroir and the climate of the southern Okanagan must be ideal for growing Bordeaux red varieties. Back in the office, Triggs brainstormed with his executives and they came up with the concept of another joint venture to continue to drive up the quality of Canadian wines.

"We talked about regions with similar growing conditions and where we could learn the most," recalls Triggs. "We wanted to start a no-holds-barred project where money was not an object. What we needed was a partner to enhance the transfer of technology." But whom to collaborate with? The obvious answer was Bordeaux. Vincor started putting out feelers to four companies. The most receptive was Le Groupe Taillan, largest producer of appellation contrôlée wines in France, who were interested in developing their wine business internationally and already had co-ventures in China and Argentina.

The next step was to find the right site for the vineyard. Triggs hired a helicopter and flew up and down the Okanagan Valley. "We were looking for benches of land that gave us protection from the high heat in the middle of the day. I happened to notice one bench where the guy had cattle and he was growing peppers and tomatoes. We had no idea who it was. So we got in the truck and drove down the road, knocking on doors to find out who owned the land up on the hill."

So Vincor acquired its first 40 acres, and with the help of Bordelais viticulturalist Alain Sutre, the company planted its vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. They named their wine project after the nearest town (Osoyoos) and the French company's flagship wine (Château Gruaud-Larose), and three years later the first wine was made by Pascal Madevon, a winemaker from St. Emilion, who had immigrated to Canada for the job.

The 2001 Osoyoos Larose, made from three-year-old vines, was greeted with acclaim. Said one wine writer: "This is a full-bodied, deep purple-crimson wine with beautiful aromas of raspberries, with just a whiff of blueberry, and plenty of dark fruits. Rich, deep dark fruit flavours are backed up by elegant tannins and texture." Subsequent vintages have confirmed its classic Bordeaux style.

What Vincor accomplished in British Columbia with Osoyoos Larose they wanted to replicate in Ontario. Only in the cooler Niagara Peninsula they wisely concentrated on the Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here, there was a precedent for co-production with a French wine company. In 1984 Bernard Repolt of Jaffelin got together with Inniskillin's winemaker Karl Kaiser to select that winery's best barrels Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to be labeled as Inniskillin Alliance. For the new venture, Repolt put Donald Triggs in touch with the Burgundy-based wine group Boisset.

When it came to planting 130 acres of vines in Jordan, Ont., the Burgundian concept of terroir trumped all other considerations. The Burgundian model also extends to the quality level designations of both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production. The basic Le Clos Jordanne label for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is a "village" wine, called Village Reserve and currently produced from the young Talon Ridge Vineyard. The three single-vineyard wines correspond to Burgundy's Premier Cru level – Petite Vineyard, Claystone Terrace and Le Clos Jordanne; and the top quality is Grand Cru, a wine selected from a favoured block of the home vineyard, Le Grand Clos.

What is remarkable about these wines in the four vintages I have tasted is the individual sense of "place" that each wine delivers. The soil speaks through these wines on the nose and on the palate in refined and elegant accents that are unmistakably their own. Winemaker Thomas Bachelder, a Montrealer who worked in Burgundy, calls it "terroir winemaking," letting the vineyards and blocks within vineyards express themselves.

Originally, the winery project was called Le Clos Jordan, after the Ontario village, but threatened legal action by a California winery forced the name change. And there was to be a magnificent new winery built to a Frank Gehry design, but that was put on the back burner when Vincor was bought by Constellation Brands in 2006 and will probably never be built to Gehry's magnificent vision.

Notwithstanding, Le Clos Jordanne takes its place beside Osoyoos Larose as a testament to the maturity and world-class quality of the Canadian wine industry. These wines now appear on the wine lists of fine-dining establishments of London, Paris and New York. And not a rattler in sight.




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