PENTICTON, Okanagan Valley — The Okanagan Valley and surrounding area never fails to amaze me. It is a beautiful wine region, of course, but it is the pace of growth and quality in the wines made here that is most fascinating.
I am fortunate to visit the Okanagan Valley one or twice a year and target the areas I explore rather than make quick sweeping journeys, which only scratch the surface of what the region has to offer.
A trip this summer, to judge wines for the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards, offered a close examination of a few pockets in the area that highlight the explosive growth and maturity of the Okanagan Valley both as a wine region and a destination for wine lovers.
I spent a week judging the best of what Canada makes, over 1,400 different wines spread across every variety imaginable, during the day and explored a different wine region every night.
The results of our judging will be published in Wine Access magazine, but I can tell you that it was the best showing of Canadian wines I have encountered.
The most impressive categories were, in my opinion, Shiraz/Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris/Grigio, sparkling wine and some red blends. It was extremely difficult choosing the top wines because so many scored 90 points or higher.
Each day, after judging from 8 a.m. until about 4 p.m., we were loaded into a bus to sample more wine paired with the local produce from the Okanagan Valley. There is such a vast array of wineries now in B.C., with most centred in the Okanagan.
A total of 209 wineries are now licenced in five designated viticultural areas: Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. The number of vineyards has skyrockted to 864 with over 60 different grape varieties grown.
The top five white grapes are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc while top five red varieties are Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz), and Cabernet Franc.
Our first excursion was to the heart of the Okanagan Valley, an area that wraps around Okanagan Falls and covers wineries from Penticton to Vaseux Lake. The wineries of Okanagan Falls are sandwiched between the northern wine regions of Naramata, Summerland and Kelowna and the southern regions of Oliver and Osoyoos.
The area is famed for some of Canada’s top wine production with the highest quality wines in the valley. What has largely been a well kept secret, only sought out by those wine lovers in the know, these hidden gems of small wineries offer a taste of some of the finest wines, wonderful people and the heart of the Okanagan wine experience.
Our hosts for the evening were the owners of Wild Goose Vineyards where we were feted and left in awe of the raw beauty of this gorgeous stretch with mountainous vistas and rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see.
Wild Goose is off the beaten track in a spectacular setting, especially on a hot summer’s night.
Other wineries in the association were pouring their wines alongside Wild Goose. Some of my favourites were:
• Stag’s Hollow GVM 2011, a gorgeous white blend with apple-citrus notes. I also loved the Cabernet Franc 2011.
• Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2011, with lovely tropical-grapefruit notes and great acidity. The Gamay Noir 2011 was quite special as well.
• Meyer Family Chardonnay 2009, with apple tart and melba toast in a lean, Chablis-like style.
• Painted Rock Syrah 2009, with dark, rich berries, peppercorns and currants.
For our second night, we moved just out of the Okanagan Valley and into the Similkameen Valley.
It is a short 20-minute drive from one valley to the other, but the differences are striking.
Yes, there are stunning mountains, valleys and big-sky views at every twist and turn in both the Okanagan Valley and the Similkameen Valley, but there is an unspoiled natural quality to this little patch of vineyards and orchards in the hot, dry and sunny valley and the area is turning out some stunning grape and fruit wines.
Set amongst the dramatic backdrop of craggy mountains, it is not surprising that wine lovers are starting to take notice.
The beautiful Orofino Winery was our host for the evening that featured not only the wines and fruit wines from the region but the tasty local organic produce that is grown there. What a night it was.
Wood-fired pizza, home-grown toasted almonds, heirloom tomatoes, fresh peaches and every grilled veggie you can imagine paired with the wines of the region that included both fruit and table wines.
Orofino is a standout. The winery is making spectacular Bordeaux style reds that are rich, complex and cellar-worthy. I also was impressed with the Orofino Riesling, a dry, austere style that reminds me of some of the great Niagara Rieslings.
The wineries that have come together to form the Similkameen Wineries Association include Cerelia, Clos Du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Forbidden Fruit, Orofino, Robin Ridge, Rustic Roots, and Seven Stones.
The setting for our third night was the Stunning La Punta Norte resort near Summerland, perched high above the awe-inspiring Okanagan Lake.
The evening showcased the wines of Bottleneck Drive, an association created to offer a beautiful scenic route that connects all 12 Summerland wineries. It is a comfortable drive, and easy to follow, and includes some historic wineries as well as rising stars.
The wineries of Summerland enjoy unique grape-growing conditions that are formed by the terroir, a moderately hilly terrain, and the microclimate that Giant’s Head Mountain and Okanagan Lake provide.
Our evening featured a meal fit for kings (and queens) with a starter of “left-coast” oysters, stuffed apricots, Okanagan summer melons, smoked First Nations Okanagan sockeye salmon and bulls blood beet salad.
The main dinner featured roasted loin of B.C. beef with sauté of corn, summer squash and carrot farmers market berry sauce.
Outstanding wines included the Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut, Dirty Laundry Hoar Frost Icewine, Sleeping Giant Black Currant and Peach wine, SilkScarf Cabernet Franc and Thornhaven Rose.
Our final evening was reserved for a good old-fashion BBQ, extensive walkaround tasting of some of B.C.’s finest vino and a sensational twilight concert in the vineyard at Quails’ Gate Winery in Kelowna.
To stand overlooking Lake Okanagan on a hot summer’s night as the sun was setting over the extinct volcano of Mount Boucherie, a glass of Cedar Creek Riesling in hand, a belly full of fresh grilled fish and just-picked Okanagan veggies and surrounded by the vineyards of Quails’ Gate, there is a sense of total contentment.
It is like that at every turn here in the Okanagan. It is where profound beauty meets vineyards, orchards and peace and tranquility. And it’s right here, all here, in the valley of goodness.
The new releases of JoieFarm from the Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley:
JoieFarm, the winery owned and run by Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble, continues to impress with each and every passing vintage. The wines are firmly established as some of the most sought-after in the Okanagan Valley.
With the release this fall of the Reserve Series, wines that are hand-crafted, small batch with an emphasis on superior sites, low yields, careful selection and traditional Old World winemaking methods, two wines have been added that only strengthen the winery’s reputation.
A reserve Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer have been included in the 2010 reserve series.
Here’s what’s available from the reserve series fall release (Joie wines are represented by Lifford Agency in Ontario and occasionally find their way into Vintages):
JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($30, 91 points) — A lot of work has gone into this Chard with extended lees contact and bi-weekly stirring for 10 months. The result is a complex and exciting wine with a lot of moving parts. It is a generous Chard with apple, pear, butter, toasted vanilla and minerals on the nose that gain strength and intensity in the glass. The cool 2010 vintage helped varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot show more complexity and that shows on the palate of this wine. Look for apple, lemon-citrus and pineapple fruits surrounded by wood spices, butter, roasted almonds and stoney minerals all carried on a vein of razor sharp acidity. Give this Chardy some time in the cellar to round out all the moving parts and you will be rewarded.
JoieFarm Reserve Gewurztraminer 2010 ($28, 92 points) — For lovers of the Alsatian style of Gewurz, meaning balanced and unctuous, this is a wine you will love. The nose reveals overt musk, grapefruit concentrate, lychee nut, ginger and nutmeg spices. It’s made off-dry, but the racy acidity keeps it balanced on the palate with rich, layered fruits and exciting exotic spices through the finish. Enjoy with spicy foods or on its own.
JoieFarm Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 ($40, 90 points) — This top drawer Pinot is made from a mix of clones and grapes grown on the Naramata Bench and Skaha Bluff and selected from the top eight barrels. The nose is brilliant with cherry, strawberry and blueberry fruits to go with savoury spice, violets and vanilla notes. It’s silky smooth on the palate with pretty red fruits, bramble notes, spice and fine textured tannins through the finish.
JoieFarm PTG 2010 ($24, 91 points) — PTG stands for Passe-Tout-Grains, a classic but little-known wine of Burgundy that combines Pinot Noir and Gamay. Joie has made this a signature of the winery. The nose is gamey-meaty with cherry, bramble and savoury oak spices. The rich cherry fruits on the palate are joined by pepper, spice, well-defined tannins and sweet oak notes all delivered on a vibrant core of acidity.