Okanagan Gems

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Several months ago I was approached about hosting a wine tasting that exhibited my favorite Okanagan wines. Having visited the area less than a month before the request, my enthusiasm was still fresh and the wines were bright in my mind. A decade or two ago, selecting six producers to represent would have been a challenge ultimately ending with settling for wines that were sound but that didn’t inspire passion. In that short time, quality and consistency have both increased dramatically.

My greatest challenge with Canadian wine is varietal in nature. It is my belief that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as the other later ripening grapes we’ve tried to plant, are just not suited to our short growing season. In order to compensate for under-ripe fruit, producers resort to interference in the winery which ultimately undoes terroir. When wine makers bend to the market instead of their land, the final product will be uninspired and contrived.

That being said, we have an incredible opportunity to make delicate and nuanced wines, worthy of international fame. Aromatic grapes like Riesling and Gewurztraminer love our steep vineyards and cooler growing season, both of which help maintain acidity and balance. One of the best heralds of terroir, Pinot Noir, is so picky about where it is planted yet has graciously decided that the Okanagan Valley is worthy.

In the south, closer to Osoyoos on the American boarder, temperatures are warmer but admittedly not tropical. Here, grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Franc pick up an incredible pepperiness, sage like qualities and even the refreshing nature of crushed pine needles. When balanced with spicy oak and ripe black fruit, these wines are bold.

If the Canadian wine industry continues to increase their quality at the speed they have been in the last decade, we are in for a huge treat. Here are the wines I chose for our Okanagan Gems tasting –

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Dirty Laundry Threadbare Gewurztraminer

Dirty Laundry is a quirky little vineyard located in Summerland. Named after an infamous laundromat whose real purpose was to provide a venue for a brothel and illegal gambling ring, their wines are anything but secretive. The Threadbare Gewurztraminer exhibits classic flavors like jasmine tea, lychee, honey and apricots with a kiss of sweetness to accentuate the fruit qualities. Bright acid and minerality help balance the wine.

Tantalus Riesling

I have a huge amount of love and respect for Tantalus and their vineyard. Planted in the late seventies, their Riesling vines were given to them by the Weis family of St. Urbanshof, a legendary producer from the Mosel in Germany. It would be hard to imagine a much better start than that. By maintaining not only a healthy vineyard, but also a vibrant ecosystem surrounding the vineyard, they are able to achieve balance. There is a ten acre forest running through their vineyard that acts as a wild life corridor and adds biodiversity. They also maintain a thriving colony of bees which provide Arlo’s, a local honey producer, with award winning honey; a real testament to how healthy the vineyard is. Ripe peach, river stones, petrol, dried apricot and lavender all leap from the glass. A linear palate and long finish really round out this wine.

Road 13 Fleet Road Pinot Noir

Every once in a while I enjoy seeing a tour-de-force from a wine maker. Road 13 pulled out all the stops for this Alberta exclusive, a Pinot Noir hailing from two vineyards along Fleet Road. By increasing contact with the grape skins by hand instead of machine, they were able to keep the process as gentle as possible. Additionally, with the help of a fork lift and some MacGyver-like ingenuity, they were able to simulate a gravity fed winery. Eliminating machines that rattle the wine results in a softness. Finally, they use the Okanagan’s only basket press to gently collect all the wine so it can rest in barrels. This attention to detail and respect for the grape really show through in the wine. Telltale notes of strawberry, smoke, mushroom and spice coyly waft from the glass. This wine would benefit from a year or two in the cellar, allowing it to develop even further.

Nichol Cabernet Franc

Nichol Cabernet Franc has both power and finesse packed into every glass. A distinctive nose of cracked black pepper, crushed pine needles, cured meat, blackberry and cumin give this wine an earthy funk. Balanced by floral components and fresh fruit, it is certainly one of the most unique wines in the Okanagan. Located just north of Penticton, the warming influences of the cliff-face behind the vineyard and the lake help ripen fruit that would otherwise taste hollow.

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Painted Rock Syrah

Painted Rock’s owner John Skinner was once questioned about whether he wanted his wines to be Californian in style or French. What initially gave me so much respect for their vineyard was his answer. True to the land he stated his wines would be Okanagan in style as they should be. While tasting barrel samples I got the goofiest smile on my face. I could barely believe the intensity their syrah had obtained. With upfront blackberry and blueberry and subtle game and spice qualities, it draws you in sip after sip. With their immaculate view of Skaha Lake, it shouldn’t be a surprise that their wines are as gorgeous as their vineyard.

Quails’ Gate Fortified Old Vines Fosh

The final wine of the night was a true ode to all things Canadian. The pioneers of wine growing in the valley never thought european grape varieties could ever survive the harsh winters and short growing seasons. To compensate for the rough conditions, they planted hybrids; literally a cross between two grape varieties to best exploit desirable characteristics like early ripening and frost survival. Sadly, with the agricultural benefits came a loss in quality. Bowing to international tastes and the subsidies given by the Canadian government, most of the hybrids were ripped up and that land was replanted with more accepted varietals like Pinot Noir and Riesling. A few rogue producers like Quails’ Gate took it upon themselves to preserve this viticultural heritage. The 44 year old Foch vines planted by the Stewart Family give us some of the most interesting wine in the Okanagan. Done in a dry and fortified style, they both have notes of dark chocolate, dried leaves, raspberries and soil. Spectacularly earthy and rich.

Most European wine regions have hundreds of years of history, Australia has over a century and even California has vines that predate our own by a long shot. That, in addition to our harsh climate and short growing season, make the wine in this tasting remarkable. We’ve managed to find tiny plots of land that can not only sustain vines, but create wonderful wine. It’s only a matter of time –

 -Erik Mercier
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