Canadian wines might not be household names yet, writes Christine Austin, but they are gaining a growing reputation.

Canada?  They make sweet wines don’t they?  Yes they do, but these mainly come from the Niagara Peninsular in Ontario where grapes stay on the vines until they are frozen solid and are picked in the dead of night, to be made into the most gorgeous, unctuous, stickies I have come across.

And while I have visited this lovely part of Canada, my main attention has been drawn to Western Canada, to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, where part of my family now resides. When visiting on holiday it is always tempting to head off to the vineyards, but there are always family things to do, so it was with huge delight that I accepted an invitation to go to Wine BC Boot Camp which was held in the main wine growing region of Okanagan. Boot Camp sounded like it might be fairly strenuous, but the only exercise involved understanding the landscape, soils, climate and vineyards of British Columbia, in particular the Okanagan and its surrounding areas.  There were definitely boots on the ground, but these were mainly walking through vineyards and tasting rooms.

The Okanagan Valley lies around 250 miles east of Vancouver, over a range of hills and mountains which shelter the region from the Pacific rain clouds.  Streams run off these mountains, running into the vast, deep Okanagan Lake where a mythical creature, Ogopogo supposedly lives.  Ogopogo’s status is pretty much like that of the Loch Ness monster and there is no better way to keep a bus-full of journalists busy than looking for him.   The lake is around 100 miles long and 3 miles wide, running north to south.  Rivers and a string of other lakes mean that this almost desert-like area is a lush, green oasis.  As well as creating a water sports tourist venue, the lake moderates the climate and so avoids the worst of Canadian winters.

This is a fruit-based agricultural area and grapes have been grown here for over a century, but viticulture has changed in recent years with the planting of classic vinifera varieties closely followed by serious investment in wineries.

Now the region has around 4000 hectares of vineyards and 200 wineries, mainly concentrated around the Okanagan Lake, spreading out to the Similkameen Valley and further afield.

The growing season is relatively short.  Spring is late but the summers are hot, then a long, slow autumn allows the grapes to ripen gently. In terms of sunshine, Kelowna, at the heart of the Okanagan gets more sunshine than Champagne and around the same as Marlborough in New Zealand. Where British Columbia really scores is in its northerly latitude which provides two extra hours of sunshine per day than Napa in California.  The warm days and chilly nights also retain fabulous balanced acidity in the grapes.

What this region does have is breathtaking scenery.  With lakes, mountains and clear, bright air, this is a fabulous place to visit.  There is also an amazing food culture, based on natural ingredients and the lightness of touch typical of west coast Canada. Vineyards welcome visitors for tastings and many have top-quality restaurants.

 

As with any fairly new wine region there are two main factors occupying the minds of wine producers. The first is defining the individual areas of the region, by soil type and climate while the second is international competition.  Do their wines stand up to comparison against the wines of the world?

The region is gradually defining its individual sub-regions, places like Golden Mile Bench and Okanagan Falls, and more are expected in the next few years.   But the matter of standing up to international competition is already being addressed.  It doesn’t matter that these wineries can sell all their wines in the restaurants of Vancouver; they want to be seen in London and Yorkshire to prove that they are capable of standing on the world stage.

The finale of the BC Boot Camp involved a blind tasting of sparkling wines and red blends of Okanagan against wines from around the world, tasted by around 30 wine professionals, both Canadian and international.  I was one of those tasters and it was not an easy task to decide on a preference order. Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs 2010 from the Okanagan beat serious wines from California, Spain and South Africa while Poplar Grove Legacy Bordeaux Blend 2014 came out top against famous Bordeaux and Californian wines. Clearly, British Columbia wines can stand shoulder to shoulder with other wines of the world.

It is not easy to find British Columbian wines in Yorkshire but two of the best producers are on the shelves locally.

Painted Rock is a 56-acre property overlooking Lake Skaha, that used to be an apricot orchard.  Around the world, the fact that you can grow good apricots is always a clear pointer to being able to grow good grapes. In 2004 it was bought by former stockbroker, John Skinner who planted it with Bordeaux red varieties, Syrah and a little Chardonnay.

He employs a French consultant Alain Sutre who has steered the style to be rich, complex and capable of ageing. Head for the Cabernet Franc 2013 (Field and Fawcett £28.95) for lifted, black fruit with a lively, food friendly finish.  The Merlot 2012 (also Field and Fawcett £28.95) is evolving, with deep red fruits and supple tannins.  Both wines go well with red meat.

 

Quail’s Gate overlooks Okanagan Lake and has one of the best winery views in the world.  Family-farmed for three generations, this winery produces a wide range of wines, including a distinctive, excellent Chenin Blanc.  They have bought more land on a windy ridge above the lake to expand their vineyard. Top wines include Quail’s Gate Pinot Noir 2015 (Corking Wines £25.93) for its bright cherry fruit and savoury palate and Quail’s Gate Chardonnay 2015 for its stone fruit flavours and balance.

If other retailers are considering stocking BC wines, then I heartily recommend Le Vieux Pin for glorious white blends, Poplar Grove for Syrah and Cabernet Franc, Meyer for Pinot Noir, Black Hills for Tempranillo and Viognier, plus many more.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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