Aug 2009 issue

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PAGES (44-51) August 2009

COVER STORY The Okanagan Valley Heats Up Patricia Savoie

The next hot wine region may be emerging not from the warm zones of Brazil or India or Israel or China, but rather from the chilly latitudes of Canada. The Okanagan Valley is a narrow, 125-mile-long strip of land that wends its way north from the Washington border, hugging both sides of the Osoyoos and Okanagan lakes and the Okanagan River. Although the southern end of the valley is actually the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert—which stretches all the way from Mexico—the cactus and sagebrush here quickly give way to fruit orchards, then pines and meadows, everywhere interspersed with grapevines.

This is the new frontier of Canadian wine. Paul Gregutt, an expert on wines of the Pacific Northwest, has called it “the most interesting wine region” in the world (tied with Western Australia).

Of the 710 vineyards in British Columbia’s five Designated Viticultural Areas, 84% are in the Okanagan Valley. There are now 96 wineries in the valley, up from 40 in 2002 and only 26 in 1995. Most of these are small, occupying less than 10 acres each, but they account for a total of more than 7,600 planted acres. A key factor in the growth of wineries and fine-wine production has been the 1988 free-trade pact with the United States, which eliminated price protection. Facing the prospect of wines flooding in from the south, the Canadian government paid subsidies of $30 million to British Columbia grape growers to pull out 2,400 acres of Vitis labrusca and hybrid grapes, leaving about 1,000 acres of Vitis vinifera . Most of the uprooted vineyards were replanted with vinifera grapes, which now account for 97% of the valley’s vines. Although this means that two-thirds of the vineyards are fairly new, it has led to a significant boost in quality.

A frontier mentality and the quest for excellence have brought a cadre of international winemakers to the Okanagan. Quails’ Gate winemaker Grant Stanley, who spent several years at Ata Rangi in New Zealand, says “the fruit here is superb.” John Simes, the winemaker at Mission Hill, is a native New Zealander. Tom DiBello of CedarCreek Estate Winery has made wine all over the world, including Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Australia, but says “this is the most interesting place I’ve been.”

GRAPE VARIETIES AND VINTAGES

Okanagan grape production is currently about half red and half white. Primary white varieties are Pinot Gris (which just passed Chardonnay as the most planted white grape), Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Merlot (the most planted red), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are the most successful red varieties; as in Washington, a number of Bordeaux-style blends are also made. And this being Canada, icewines are produced from Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Vidal, and even such obscure grapes as Ehrenfelser and Pinot Auxerrois.

Because of the region’s relative youth as a wine producer, a considerable amount of experimentation with grape varieties is still under way. Nk’Mip Cellars, for example, has dedicated 9 acres to grapes not commonly found in the valley, including Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Carménère, Tempranillo, and Corvina. Sandhill is making wines from Viognier, Barbera, and Sangiovese, and three other wineries—Inniskillin Okanagan, Lake Breeze Vineyards, and Stoneboat Vineyards—are producing Pinotages from South African cuttings.

Only about 2% of Okanagan’s wines are currently available in the United States; to date, most of the wines have been snapped up by B.C. consumers and restaurants or by the rest of Canada through the provincial liquor stores. But this situation is about to change: a number of wineries are working with importers and distributors in the United States and are about to head south.

Among recent vintages, the 2008 growing season was called “easily the white wine vintage of the decade” by the 2008 B.C. Wine Institute Vintage Report . Red wines were said to be “generally very good with fresh flavors. Some Pinot Noirs and Syrahs are outstanding.” Icewine quality was also judged “very good.” The 2007 growing season was more challenging. Following what many considered an ideal 2006 harvest, the winter of 2006-2007 was extremely cold, and some bud damage occurred in the spring. Summer was plagued by heavy rains and heat, requiring expert canopy management. Harvest began about a week early. Many of the 2007 wines now being released, however, are good to excellent.

MAJOR GROWING AREAS

The Okanagan Valley has two distinct subregions: the south, which ranges from the U.S. border to north of Osoyoos Lake at McIntyre Bluff, and the north, running from the rock to the northern tip of Okanagan Lake.

NORTH

The glacially formed Okanagan Lake extends for 85 miles, but it’s only 2 miles wide on average. More than 750 feet deep at its deepest point, it provides a “lake effect” that keeps the vines from freezing in all but the most extreme winters. With an annual rainfall of only 12 inches a year, the lake and river are critical sources of irrigation. While this is technically a cool-climate region, it has hot, dry summers, averaging an annual 1,200 degree days. Mission Hill’s director of wine education, Ingo Grady, notes that the long days of summer actually add an additional 12 degree days compared to California. Soils are alluvial and volcanic, thanks to Mount Boucherie, an extinct volcano on the west side of Okanagan Lake. Key northern growing areas include Naramata/Summerland, Penticton, Kelowna, and Oliver.

CedarCreek Estate Winery

CedarCreek was recognized in 2002 and 2005 as Winery of the Year at the Canadian Wine Awards, sponsored by Wine Access magazine. Current president Gordon Fitzpatrick’s family, which founded the winery in 1986, has acquired vineyards in both the northern and southern Okanagan.

2007 Ehrenfelser: A German cross between Riesling and Sylvaner, this is one of the first vinifera grapes planted in British Columbia. Cedar-Creek’s version exhibits floral, honeysuckle, and citrus notes with hints of peach and spice. A touch of sweetness balances the crisp acidity.
2005 Merlot Platinum Reserve: Rich with aromas of black plum, coffee, and vanilla.
2005 Syrah Estate Select: This Syrah, now sold out at the winery, was named Red Wine of the Year at the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards. A jammy black-cherry nose carries through to the taste buds, and a bit of smoke and pepper add complexity. The 2006 is nearly as good.

Gray Monk Estate Winery

George and Trudy Heiss started Gray Monk in 1982, importing the region’s first Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Auxerrois vines from France.

2006 White Brut Odyssey: This sparkling wine from Riesling and Chardonnay is bottle-fermented and left on the lees for 16 months. It’s fruit-forward and crisp.
2007 Pinot Auxerrois: A fruity nose of lime and peach is carried by fresh acidity.
2005 Merlot Odyssey: Aromas of dark berries, plum, and clove are followed by ripe-black-cherry, spice, and licorice flavors.
2005 Pinot Noir Odyssey: This Pinot features a fragrant nose of black cherry and plum.

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery

From its perch on Mount Boucherie, Mission Hill commands a view of Okanagan Lake and the valley. Sometimes referred to as the “Mondavi of the North,” the property was bought by entrepreneur Anthony von Mandl in 1981. He immediately began construction of a winery, a job that took five years, and set about acquiring 1,000 acres of vineyards. The winery in recent years has adopted a “green plan” with an emphasis on sustainability. Simes, who took over as winemaker in 1992, says that “it’s not about growing grapes; it’s about farming wine.”

2006 Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon Select Lot: One of only a handful of Okanagan white Bordeaux blends, this one has nicely developed fruit and clean, crisp acidity.
2007 Riesling Reserve: Fresh fruit and tart citrus flavors dominate.
2005 Oculus: This Bordeaux blend (42% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot) is Mission Hill’s flagship wine. It will benefit from a few more years of aging.
2006 Pinot Noir Reserve: The Reserve Pinot, featuring a red-berry nose and sour-cherry palate, will soon be exported to the United States.
2006 Riesling Icewine Reserve: Excellent balance and acidity frame big, lush fruit.

Quails’ Gate Estate Winery

The Stewart family was the first to import Pinot Noir vines into Canada. Winemaker Grant Stanley says, “I’m always looking at texture when I blend and five to 10 years of aging.”

2006 Chenin Blanc: 90% Chenin Blanc, 10% Sauvignon Blanc. Lemon-lime aromas and flavors of ripe melon mix with a touch of honey.
2006 Pinot Noir Stewart Family Reserve: A blend of the best of four Pinot Noir lots, this is a structured, velvety wine with raspberry and cherry notes. Soft tannins underlie the ripe-red-fruit and vanilla flavors, with hints of spice and earth.

SOUTH

In the southern Okanagan Valley, at the northern end of the Sonoran Desert, rainfall averages only 8 inches a year, making irrigation a necessity. Soils are sandy here. The area averages 1,490 annual degree days; as in the north, the grapes benefit from the long summer days. The most important growing areas are the Golden Mile, Black Sage Road, and Osoyoos Lake Bench.

Burrowing Owl Estate Vineyards

The Wyse family, owners of this estate named for an endangered species of owl, are leaders in sustainable farming. Winemaker Jeff Del Nin’s Chardonnay and Pinot Gris define the Okanagan style; his Viognier, Cabernet Franc rosé, Barbera, and Sangiovese are also distinctive.

2006 Chardonnay: This fresh, crisp Chardonnay is barrel-fermented, but the oak is not overwhelming.
2007 Pinot Gris: A floral nose and rich mouthfeel are accompanied by a touch of sweetness.
2006 Pinot Blanc: This lush, mouth-filling wine is full of tropical fruits, with pineapple notes and lemon-lime acidity.
2006 Merlot: Fresh, with blueberry notes typical of the region.
2006 Cabernet Franc: This grape does well in the southern valley. Burrowing Owl’s 2006 is dark in color, with notes of dried currant, smoke, chocolate, and cedar that carry through to the palate. A rich, full-bodied wine with additional sweet-fruit flavors of prune and black cherry.

Nk’Mip Cellars

Nk’Mip (pronounced “Inkameep”) is the first North American winery owned by an Aboriginal people, the Osoyoos Band, in partnership with Vincor, a subsidiary of Constellation Brands. The estate sits on the eastern shore of Osoyoos Lake among 230 acres of vineyards. (In fact, about 25% of all Okanagan vineyards are leased from the Osoyoos Band.) Winemaker Randy Picton, formerly at CedarCreek, is training Band members as winemakers and says he looks forward to the day he turns over the operation to one of them. Nk’Mip produces two levels of wines, one labeled Quam Qwmt (QQ), the equivalent of a Reserve.

Across the lake is Osoyoos Larose, a joint venture with the French Groupe Taillan, which owns Château Gruaud-Larose, among other properties. In the Bordelais fashion, the winery turns out a single red blend each year.

2006 Chardonnay QQ: A serious food wine with lots of assertive oak.
2005 Merlot QQ: Lush, red-raspberry fruit predominates on the nose and palate.
2005 Syrah QQ: Soft and spicy, with fresh, clean fruit.
2005 Meritage QQ: 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc. A representative Bordeaux blend, but a bit hot from alcohol.
2005 Osoyoos Larose: Mimics Bordeaux in assemblage (47% Merlot and 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) and taste.

Road 13 Winery

At this estate, formerly known as Golden Mile Cellars, winemaker Michael Bartier focuses on 100% varietals, but is expanding his reach to include a Rhône blend.

2006 Chenin Blanc: These vines are among the oldest in the valley. A complex nose offers hints of sage with meaty overtones.
2006 Pinot Noir Black Arts: Burgundian in style, with a raspberry nose and earthy, mushroom notes.
2006 Syrah Black Arts: Dense and black in color, this wine shows white pepper on an earthy backdrop.

Sandhill

Part of the Andrew Peller Ltd. wine empire, Sandhill produces single-vineyard bottlings in small quantities, as well as a few blends called Small Lots. Winemaker Howard Soon likes to conduct tastings in the vineyard, surrounded by the grapes, from the back of his muddy pickup truck.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc: A classic Sauvignon Blanc with aromas of fresh white peach and citrus. Great acidity and fruit balance.
2007 Pinot Gris: Mineral and fresh citrus notes come to the fore.
2006 Pinot Blanc: Barrel-fermented for six months on the lees, this wine offers lush pineapple notes with lime acidity.
2006 Viognier: White flowers emerge on the nose, followed by a mouth-filling palate.
2005 Sangiovese: Full of typical cherry aromas and flavors.
2005 Barbera: An earthy version with mushroom notes.
2006 Gamay: This wine tastes like a big Beaujolais Villages.
2005 Small Lots Two: A Bordeaux twin with 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, and 14% Cabernet Franc, this wine spends 16 months in French and American oak. Juicy!