It may seem impossible, but there are, as yet, vast, undiscovered areas where wines are produced that few people seem to know about. More specifically, there are few wineries that excel at a level of winemaking which belies the inherent strength of the specific region. Case in point: Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
Though most Americans have a hard time getting ahold of Canadian wines due to export laws and case production, Canada has a thriving wine industry. This is clearly evident in the Okanagan Valley, just across the border from Washington State. There, amongst 100 or so other wineries sits Mission Hill, near the city of Kelowna, one of the largest and certainly the most well known wineries in the area. Mission Hill turns out 100,000 cases of wine per year, and receives 120,000 visitors from all parts of the globe. A commitment to producing the finest wines and a stunningly rich architectural winery have made Mission Hill a destination for wine, food and travel lovers. But even that might be too limiting. It’s been less than 15 years since this region has begun to fully express itself.
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“Our pursuit of quality only began in the late 1990s,” says Mission Hill’s resident sommelier, Jesse Harnden. And the vision belongs to one man, Anthony Von Mandl who started the winery in 1980. “What Robert Mondavi did for the Napa Valley, Anthony Von Mandl is doing for the Okanagan.” Harnden says. “We don’t want to compete on a provincial (state) level. We want to compete on a global level,” he adds. To do that they have implemented a hard line of technology: Computerized drip irrigation systems, thermal mapping of specific blocks to determine the heat units associated with various vineyards and the ripeness of the fruit, weather stations to monitor climate changes, and an attention to detail that is impressive. It’s no secret that owner Von Mandl has poured an estimated 50 million dollars into creating Okanagan’s showpiece. Architecturally the place feels more compound-like, similar to the Getty in Los Angeles, a mammoth board formed concrete structure that harkens to the tones and colors of the surrounding mountains.
Though its size and scope are commanding, the place still feels intimate, and the quality of what’s in the bottle is the surprising story. And the storyteller is winemaker John Simes, originally from New Zealand. “We have invested heavily in this area to produce the best wines we can and to drive vineyard quality,” Simes acknowledges. But there are farming issues to growing grapes so far north. “We have a lot of challenges in the Okanagan, We have a significant advantage over Niagara in that it’s drier here, and we have very few wet weather problems like Niagara does,” Simes says. “But it’s warmer here, we get very hot, usually two to three weeks when it’s over 100s degree in the vineyards. July and August we get over 90 degrees everyday,” he says. Conversely, it gets cold, often times with snow falling on the vines during winter. But the greatest challenge is ripening the grapes. “Our longer day light compensates for a shorter growing season.” Routinely during the growing season it is light until 9 p.m., and day break comes in about 5 a.m. “We’re a young region. Most of the varieties here were planted about 10 years ago,” Simes admits.
The wine claims center stage with the food as well. Menus for the award winning The Terrace are built around the wine, not the food, which seems odd, given the abundance of farmers within the area. No matter, wine drives everything at Mission Hill. “The bounty of the Okanagan is the real star here,” says executive chef Matthew Batey. And certainly the region, historically of tree fruits like apples apricots, peaches, plums, and nectarines seems to be a magnet for farmers, supported by local communities who have a sincere desire and passion for producing and showcasing the fertile valley. But Mission Hill takes it a step further. They have created a wine and herb garden where the planted herbs reflect and approximate the nuanced flavors in the wines. For example, the sauvignon blanc area allows you to pluck a leaf of lemon verbena, inhale the fresh aroma and you’ll understand how that characteristic fits into the over components of that wine. Though they produce a wide range of wines, like pinot noir, Riesling and sauvignon blanc, their flagship wines remain Oculus (a Bordeaux blend), Perpetua (a beautifully crafted chardonnay with a rich floral nose) and Quatrain (a merlot-shiraz blend with a tad bit of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon).
While you visit, dining at their award winning Terrace restaurant is a must. Only open May through September chef Matthew Batey’s sumptuous foods are always prepared around winemaker John Simes’ wines. “There’s a big story we have to tell in order to put an Okanagan Valley wine in front of a consumer in, say, New York,” Simes confesses. “It will take time to tell that story. Our wines have finesse, structure and power but are also delicate and have great consistency. Give them a go.”