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The Most Beautiful Wine Region That You've Never Heard Of…And They Make Good Wine, Too
By Michael Apstein
Sep 12, 2017
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Our exceptional bus driver and guide, Matt Wentzell, assured us that he could make it up the steep twisty and bumpy dirt road.  I remained unconvinced as the road became more twisted and bumpy.  Halfway up, we stopped, carefully disembarked and stepped onto a plateau overlooking the narrow, mountain-lined valley.  John Weber, who with his wife, Virginia, moved here a dozen years ago to start Orofino Winery, recounted his first impression upon seeing this view.  Driving from Eastern Canada, they took a wrong turn and came over the pass into the valley on this same dirt road instead of the main--and equally beautiful--road.  They looked at each other and simultaneously said, “This is the place.” 

The Similkameen Valley runs northwest off the much larger, and marginally better known, Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  Home to only about 19 wineries and approximately 700 acres of vines, the Similkameen and the Okanagan with its several hundred wineries and roughly 8,600 acres, accounts for over 90 percent of the province’s wine production.  (By comparison, Napa Valley comprises about 50,000 acres of vineyards.)  And contrary to the conventional impression of Canadian wines, most of the production is not ice wine, but rather dry, still and sparkling.

Indeed, consistent with the prevailing pioneering wine culture--the modern industry is only about 25 years old and many producers narrow that to the last ten years for quality production--winemakers have planted most everything.  The results have been astonishingly good, though inconsistent still.  Orofino’s single-vineyard Rieslings, for example, are brilliant, combining elegance and finesse with a distinct sense of place, while other producers are still making over-extracted and ponderous reds. 

Jay Drysdale of Bella, who makes only sparkling wines, and focuses on single varietals from single vineyards, epitomizes the adventurous spirit.  “We are not harnessed by rules,” he says, noting that they have a completely different climate and soil compared to Champagne. “There’s no reason to follow their rules.  We must make wines to adapt to our conditions.”  And he has.  This year Bella produced a total of 2,000 cases of 12 different bubblies, including a half a dozen “Pet-Nats.”  His wines are certainly not for everyone, but he has an unbridled enthusiasm, matched only by Buddha, his tail-wagging and body-shaking bulldog. And this enthusiasm, I am sure, will certainly help propel the region forward as, for example, when he says, “I love working in a place where other guys are playing with Touriga, Zinfandel, and Grüner.”

Along with Orofino, Little Farm Winery and Clos du Soleil Winery are two other outstanding producers whose wines will make the Similkameen a name to remember.  Co-owners Rhys Pender, MW and Alishan Driediger, at Little Farm Winery, aptly named considering the garage-sized winery, produce small quantities of exciting Riesling and Chardonnay, while Mike Clark at Clos du Soleil shows the extraordinary diversity of the area with his suave red and white Bordeaux blends as well as an uncommonly deep and elegant Pinot Blanc. These three wineries and their vineyards are within a couple of miles of one another, yet the variations in soil and exposure--the shadows cast by the mountains exert an enormous influence on temperature--allow varieties as different as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling to thrive in close proximity.

Across the pass in the Okanagan Valley, Pender explains that the culture and feeling is more akin to Napa compared to the rural and laid-back Sonoma-like Similkameen.  With majestic houses and wineries bordering the lake, the Okanagan actually makes Napa look down-market.  The views are breathtaking, matching many of the wines.  But still, not surprisingly given the youthfulness of the area, inconsistency remains.

What is consistent, however, is the spirit of adventure; the, “why not try it” attitude.  Take, for example, CedarCreek Estate Winery’s 2016 Ehrenfelser, made from the grape, a cross between Silvaner and Riesling, of the same name. Instead of ripping out the few remaining acres of it, they have made a delightfully floral fruit salad of a wine with gripping acidity that prevents it from being cloying.  CedarCreek refers to it as a “patio-sipper,” but I think they underestimate its complexity and balance.  Indeed, there’s a modesty bordering on insecurity on behalf of most of the producers in these valleys that is reflected in the tremendous quality/price ratio of the wines.  Sadly, for those of us south of the border, the wines are virtually impossible to find.  When and if we can find them, I suspect the prices will be far higher thanks to our three-tier distribution system. 

The pioneering spirit of Donald Triggs, one of the pioneers in the Okanagan Valley and certainly now past normal retirement age, is still very much alive after he sold the Jackson-Triggs winery in 2006.  He founded Jackson-Triggs with Allan Jackson in 1993 and it went on to become Canada’s most important winery.  Now, he and his wife, Elaine, have started anew, purchasing vineyards and creating a winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, in the Golden Mile Bench, the Okanagan’s only officially classified sub-region.  They were the first in the Okanagan to plant Grüner Veltliner (2011).  Six or seven other growers have followed.  What is amazing about Culmina’s wines is how good they are despite coming from vines that are only a few years old. 

The enormous length, about 150 miles, of the Okanagan Valley brings with it markedly varied growing conditions, which also stem from whether the vineyards are on the eastern side and receive warmer afternoon sun--or the western side of the valley and receive cooler morning sun.  These variations also suggest that
the region will never have a single signature grape.  Too many grape varieties do equally well.

For example, in the south, which is hot and is really an extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert, Syrah excels.  Indeed, Pender believes that Syrah is the best grape for this particular part of the Okanagan.  Judging from a tasting of Syrah organized by the British Columbia Wine Institute and held at Le Vieux Pin Winery, one the top wineries in the region, I wouldn’t argue with him.  Le Vieux Pin’s winemaker, Severine Pinte, a transplanted French woman who makes three delectably different Syrahs, believes the area is “exceptionally well-suited to the grape.”  Other producers, such as Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Bartier Brothers, C. C. Jentsch Cellars, do equally well, capturing a style in-between the New and the Old World.  Some producers co-ferment Syrah with Viognier as is common in Côte Rôtie, while others make 100 percent Syrah.  Regardless of particular practices, these Syrah-based wines manage to deliver generous plumy quality without over ripe jamminess, while maintaining the savory peppery quality and meatiness so prized in their Rhône Valley siblings.

Tasting wines with winemaker David Paterson from Tantalus Vineyards shows the importance of vine age and how far the region has come in such a short period of time.  I had heard from many knowledgeable writers and growers that Tantalus’ Old Vines Riesling, made from vines planted in 1978, was Canada’s best rendition of that noble variety.  After tasting a series of them ranging from the 2014 to the 2006, I have no reason to disagree.  The 2014 had a paradoxical laser-like penetration while still being delicate, while the 2006 had developed a luxurious texture balanced perfectly by a lime-like zestiness.  A similar range of his regular Riesling, made from far younger vines, had buoyancy and lacey qualities that made them easy to recommend, though they lacked the complexity of the “Old Vines” bottlings.

Tasting Tantalus’ Pinot Noir was equally instructive.  The 2010 had developed nicely but lacked finesse compared to the gorgeously proportioned and seemingly weightless yet intense 2015.  Paterson admits he’s learned a lot in the intervening years and so have the vines.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, three pairs of them from three different wineries show that the Okanagan is likely to rank with other great Pinot Noir areas for showing that elusive “sense of place” or terroir. 

At CedarCreek, they harvest and vinify two separate portions--an upper and a lower--of one of their hillside Pinot Noir vineyards because they think the soil and climate is different.  And indeed, so are the wines; one is more robust and one more delicate.  Even more convincing are two pairs from wineries located on the Naramata Bench, a non-officially categorized subzone of the Okanagan on its eastern bank.  The Naramata Road marks the level of 10,000 year-old Okanagan Lake formed by a glacier.  Below the road, the soil in the vineyard is sedimentary, reflecting the presence of an ancient lake, while above the road, the vineyards are rocky and less fertile.  Two wineries, Howling Bluff Estate Winery and Fox Trot Vineyards, each make two Pinot Noirs, one from their vineyards that lie above and below the road.  Although the winemaking at Howling Bluff and Fox Trot are different, each uses the same techniques for both their Pinot Noirs.  Yet in each case, the wines are wonderfully and dramatically different.  The wine made from Pinot Noir grown in the less-fertile vineyard above the road in each case was more elegant and savory compared to the riper, fruitier wine made using the same techniques from the grapes grown below the road. 

Place matters.  At least for Pinot Noir and Riesling, the Okanagan/Similkameen Valleys allow those varieties to show their distinctive and unique origins.  It may take another 50 years or so to fine tune the map, but the basics are there.  Will the same be true of other varieties?  Time will tell.  It would help if the authorities would de-lineate and define the other important sub-regions, such as the Naramata Bench, Kelowna, Okanagan Falls, and Osoyoos, of this diverse area. 

Don’t expect a single grape or two to represent the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys the way Malbec and Torrontés have defined Argentina.  From my experience, Riesling, Syrah, and Pinot Noir all can excel, as do Bordeaux varieties (more on those in a future column).  These two British Columbia areas, while still finding their way, will be home to many stars.  Will one shine brighter than another?  I doubt it.  Rather, I think we’ll be looking at a bright constellation.

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September 13, 2017

E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wine in general and those from British Columbia in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein