Canada has a growing reputation for its wines, just keep an eye out for bears

Everyone knows that bears like honey, so what do you do if you are in bear country and you decide to keep beehives?

‘It is really quite simple’, said Taylor Whelan, winemaker at Cedar Creek in the Okanagan Valley, Canada. ‘We set down a shipping container on site, then cut out the sides and installed mesh windows.  We put the bee hives inside the container, so now the bees can get in and out but the bears can’t get at the honey.’

Since the shipping container was installed, the few local bears in this beautiful, slightly remote location are no longer tempted by the honey but there are other attractions.  ‘Down by the lake there are a few rows of Muscat grapes and in the early morning I occasionally see a bear who seems to like that particular grape variety,’ said Taylor

Taylor Whelan, winemaker at Cedar Creek

Bears aside, why would a winery keep bees?  ‘It is part of our organic programme. Although grape vines don’t need bees to pollinate the flowers, we plant various crops between the rows to help aerate and add nutrients to the soil.  The bees pollinate those flowers, and they provide us with terrific clover honey as well.’

Cedar Creek is just one of the wineries in the portfolio of estates, owned by Anthony von Mandl of Mission Hill.  With five significant wineries and 1300 acres of vineyards spread the length of the valley, von Mandl is one of the driving forces behind the continued development and international success of the Okanagan wine region.

I have been visiting British Columbia for some time and regularly spend a few days in the wine growing regions, and while there have always been wonderful people and great enthusiasm, in recent years the whole region has stepped up a gear.  In particular, the Okanagan Valley, now responsible for 84% of BC’s wine production has seen new investment and expanding vineyards.

Although no one is really making the comparison, this region has the feel that Napa Valley had a few decades ago.

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.  It spans a whole degree of latitude from 50 degrees in the north to the US border at 49.  At the heart of the valley is the massive Okanagan Lake, around 84 miles long and 3 miles wide, running north to south.  The whole region was shaped by an ancient glacier which scoured out a string of lakes large enough to moderate the worst of Canada’s winters.

This glacier is responsible for the key soil types in the region, as it exposed rocks in some places, deposited different rocks elsewhere and left alluvial deposits as the waters receded.  These soils are now being matched to specific grape varieties as the development of the region continues.  Combined with warm summers, cold winters, variations in altitude and sun exposure Okanagan is a region that has the ability to produce a wide range of quality wines.  The low natural rainfall also makes organic viticulture a natural choice for many grape growers.

‘We get just 12 inches of rain a year here, all in the winter’, said Taylor at Cedar Creek, ‘so we don’t get much disease, and while we can pull water out of the lake to irrigate, we get snow-melt running off the mountains well into the growing season so don’t do much irrigation either.’

Located on the cooler eastern side of the lake, the Cedar Creek focus is on Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all noteworthy for their freshness of style and depth of flavour. Also noteworthy is the new restaurant, Home Block which had been open just three weeks when I was there and was already busy.

Right next door to Cedar Creek stands the dramatic, steel-clad, gravity-fed winery of Martin’s Lane.  Named after von Mandl’s father and now producing just 2000 cases of wine a year, this has been designed as a winemakers’ fantasy playground.  Top quality equipment, elegant barrel rooms and the occasional large piece of artwork make this not just a place of work but of inspiration too, and Kiwi winemaker Shane Munn is in charge.  Intense in nature and talent he makes small volumes of site-specific wines that truly reflect the soil and grape.

 

His Pinot Noirs are delicate, savoury and complex while his Rieslings are shot through with minerals and vivacity.  ‘I really believe that Riesling could be the key varietal of the northern Okanagan,’ said Shane.  These are world-class wines that will only appear on top-class wine lists.

Shane Munn, winemaker at Martin’s Lane

The key property in the Von Mandl portfolio is Mission Hill which overlooks Okanagan Lake and while it is definitely a working winery, is also a significant tourist attraction for its architecture, its tall mission bell tower and its superb restaurant.  It is ranked as one of the top 50 vineyards in the world to visit.

Once again design and artwork mix with the nuts and bolts of winemaking and now with Australian winemaker Ben Bryant in charge the wines reflect the availability of grapes from across the Mission Hill estate of vineyards.  From the bright, fresh style of a simple 2018 Sauvignon Semillon blend to the fabulous depth of the Legacy Collection the wines show the quality of the region and its ability to hit a range of price points.  Compendium 2013 from The Legacy Collection is a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot which shows dark, structured fruit and depth, backed by Okanagan freshness.

 

 

 

 

 

Around an hour’s drive south, within sight of the US border another Von Mandl winery is undergoing major renovation.  CheckMate perches on a hillside overlooking old Chardonnay vineyards planted in the 1970’s. Australian-born winemaker Philip McGahan is based here.  ‘We are not quite sure what clone they are but they make wine with a touch of spice and hints of Muscat.’  There are new plantings here too, with clones matched to soils and the results are stunning.

These Von Mandl wineries reflect just some of the investment taking place in Okanagan and there are many more driving this region to success.  So far very few Okanagan wines are imported but that too will soon change. Meanwhile if you want to explore British Columbia vineyards, let me know and I will be delighted to help.

 

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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