If Canada doesn’t scream wine to anyone, that idea might be forgiven. But if the Okanagan Valley isn’t on your list of wine places to visit, you’re sorely missing the proverbial boat. When one thinks of world-class wine the short list is easy: Names like Napa, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Rioja, Mosel, among others. Canada it seems, is better left to hockey and maple syrup. You might be embarrassed how wrong you can be.
There are two main wine producing regions to Canada, the East Coast’s Niagara region, and the oft overlooked Okanagan Valley, which abuts Washington State. It’s here, in an unusually fertile valley carved out by glaciers, that a large swath of land is beautifully ripe with a multitude of growing regions, soil compositions and climates. The Okanagan Valley is well known within the borders of Canada as a destination unto itself as part culinary capital, wine region, ski central and golf Mecca. Outside of Canada, and to some degree, outside of the province (state) of British Columbia itself, the area is not the topic of the latest merlot or pinot noir. But the Okanagan has, over the last decade, proven itself to be capable of creating fabulous wines.
The Okanagan, running north to south for nearly 125 miles, is home to about 100 wineries. Many of these are small, family-owned wineries turning out respectable wines. Then there are the major players in Canada; wineries that are heavily invested in the success of the wines produced here. Part of the issue is that the Valley is so large an area that defining a wine as coming from the Okanagan does not do it justice. The central part of the valley is home to Kelowna, the de facto jumping off point to tour the Okanagan.
Top end wineries like Mission Hill, Quail’s Gate, Cedar Creek and Tantalus are leading the renaissance of wines. Mission Hill is, without question, the leading winery in terms of presence. “What Robert Mondavi did for Napa is what Mission Hill is trying to do for the Okanagan,” resident sommelier Jesse Harnden told me on a recent visit. The estate itself, more in common with a compound like the Getty Museum in L.A., is a force to be reckoned with. Though they produce a wide range of wines at this 100,000 case winery, like pinot noir, Riesling and sauvignon blanc, their flagship wines remain Oculus (a Bordeaux blend), Perpetua (a beautifully crafted chardonnay with a 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. And the views from the estate to the lake are stunning.
Quail’s Gate, literally a stones throw from Mission Hill succeeds with pinot noir, pinot gris and old vine Foch, a 44 year-old planting that is currently producing a beautiful wine, in spite of it being something of a dinosaur. Rollingdale Winery crafts stunning ice wines from pinot gris and pinot noir inside their unglamorous Quonset hut style facility. Vintner Steve Dale and winemaker Joe Slykerman also produce some excellent varietally correct merlot.
Across the lake Tantalus is raising the quality bar by dedicating their production solely to Riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay. Using some Spätburgunder and Dijon clones, Tantalus wines defiantly take on an old world sensibility.
Cedar Creek is another winery that is raising the bar. In fact, standing on the banks at Cedar Creek, you look across the lake and can clearly see the gentle sloping vineyards at Quail’s Gate. American Tom DiBello is the winemaker at Cedar Creek and he utilizes 37 different soil types to produce 65,000 cases of chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and pinot gris. Tom is also coming out with a 100 percent malbec we barrel-tasted which he’s designed to support the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the influx of people who will inevitably show up.
The Okanagan is historically short on the growing season, but long on sunlight. It’s not uncommon for days to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks, but also have bitter frost and snow in the winter. Being so far north the sun rises up 5 a.m., and routinely it stays light until 9 p.m. Though the area is becoming dedicated to Burgundy varietals, there are a host of the odd heirlooms like Foch, Ehrenfelser, Sylvaner, Auxerrois and Lemberger. What you don’t find as much are the Rhone varieties. What you will find are exceptional wines, not routinely available in the States, let alone Europe.
Getting your hands on these wines is difficult as many wineries do not have distribution even outside the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta Therefore a trip to the area is a must. Many locals describe this area as “undiscovered,” and they are exactly right. Canadians know about the Okanagan but few outside of the country do. That’s enough of a reason right there to visit and sample excellent hard to get wines. It’s a great opportunity to be ahead of the curve.