By Peter Rod
What do you get when you put 18 wines from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley in front of six winemakers, a sommelier, a winery sales manager, a wine educator, and a hotel GM all presently working in Niagara?
This was the scene several weeks ago when this eager group of wine enthusiasts descended on my dining room table for this intriguing blind tasting. The goal of the event, besides camaraderie and tasty grub, was to evaluate a collection of wines from a part of the country that some perceive a significant competitor to the Niagara wine region. Tastings such as these, where you have so many different wines from one small region, are typically eye opening and quite educational.
Hidden among the wines were a few “ringers” from Ontario and France. The purpose of adding these was to keep everyone’s mind open and to ensure assessments were honest, fair, and unbiased. The wines were sampled in four flights: sparkling, white, red, and dessert/fortified. Needless to say there were a dizzying array of colours, flavours, textures, and quality levels, and the very best of the bunch were truly spectacular wines that would rival anything from anywhere in the world.
British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is the province’s main wine producing area, accounting for 84% of all vineyard area in the province (BCWI, 2019). While many might think the valley offers a somewhat homogenous terroir consisting of semi-desert like conditions of deep sand and hot dry weather, it’s entirely unfair to paint the entire appellation with this broad brush.
While the southern end of the valley between the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos, mere metres from Washington State, is hot and arid with deep sandy soils, as you travel through Okanagan Falls, Naramata, Kelowna and points further north you find an increasingly impressive range of terroirs. This is no surprise considering the valley lies between two low mountain ranges offering a huge variety of slopes, aspects, and soil types. The rain shadow effect caused by the Monashee mountains to the west of the valley means there is very little rainfall and thus lower disease pressure than Ontario typically experiences.
Proximity to the deep glacial lakes also impacts growing conditions, not unlike the lakeside vineyards on the shores of Lake Ontario, offering some moderating effects for those vines nearest to the water’s edge. The lakes also provide a reliable source of clear water for irrigation, and use vital to battle the wildfires that the valley experiences almost annually.
The Okanagan Valley starts at 49 degrees latitude and extends north beyond 50 degrees, generally considered the northern limit for the production of quality wines. At such as northerly position, the growing season is quite short but the hot, dry, long summer days seem to make up for this by providing the vines with plenty of opportunity to accumulate sugar while balancing acids and pH.
Like the Niagara Peninsula, the Okanagan Valley appellation has started to sub-divide itself into smaller VQA sub-appellations based on years of distinctive, high quality wines being produced that carry with them the unique ‘flavour’ of the regional terroir. The four sub-appellations from north to south are: Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, Okanagan Falls, and Golden Mile Bench. Although Ontario and B.C. share many common grape varieties, unlike Niagara where most popular vinifera varieties are Riesling and Cabernet Franc, in the Okanagan Valley, Pinot Gris and Merlot dominate plantings.
Rather than providing detailed notes for the full range of wines tasted, instead I’ve zeroed in on some of the highlights of the tasting. A full list of wines tasted can be found at the bottom of this post.
In the first flight, a superior dry sparkling wine from Sperling Vineyards was the standout. Succulent acidity, savoury yeasty notes and sublime balance had everyone thinking it was a classic traditional method “Champagne look-a-like.” It came as a wonderful surprise to discover the wine was actually made from 100% Pinot Blanc.
In the white flight, two of the five wines were noteworthy. The best of the bunch was a spectacular old vines Riesling from Tantalus Vineyards from the 2007 vintage. At 12 years old, this wine was still full of life. Although some attractive petrol notes had started to emerge, they shared the stage with juicy lemon-lime and green apple. The mouthfeel was bright, tangy and stony and showed excellent length.
A beautiful Chardonnay from a tiny producer on the Naramata Bench, Saath Vineyards, wowed the entire group too. Australian winemaker Ashley Hooper has transformed the southern Okanagan fruit into a real gem. Masterfully handled oak aging, combined with pleasantly reductive leesy notes, and ripe yellow apple, hazelnut, and fresh cream resulted in a very satisfying combination.
Alas, there was no Pinot Gris in the flight so we were unable to assess the valley’s most widely planted white variety. There was, however, a 2014 Servin Blanchots Grand Cru Chablis hidden in this flight and although several tasters identified it as the outlier, much to my surprise, not a single person was able to identify the variety or origin.
The largest flight of the evening was the red flight with a total of 11 wines including two wild card wines: 2011 Essence Cabernet Franc from 13th Street Winery in Niagara, and a 2008 Chateau Balestard La Tonnelle St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé.
Two Okanagan Valley wines stood out as particularly exceptional. Not surprisingly both wines were dominated by Merlot. The 2013 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin is a blend of 57% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. Considered one of the finest red wines in Canada, this joint venture between Constellation Brands and the Group Taillan of Bordeaux has turned heads since its inception in 1998.
This version was no exception with remarkable complexity, purity, and balance. While the warmth of the southern Okanagan valley comes through in sweet dark berry and warm alcohol, the wine also had excellent tannic and acid structure to keep it from feeling heavy or flabby. Furthermore, there is just a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ French flare and elegance in this wine. The 2004 Grand Reserve Merlot from Jackson-Triggs Okanagan was also a head turner. At 15 years old, this beauty was nowhere near fully mature. It was rich, soft and dense with plenty of ripe plum and cherry showing off in a beautiful frame of fine acid and ripe, polished tannins.
The final flight consisted of two Icewines and a fortified wine and while all three were interesting, only the 17-year old Summerhill Riesling Icewine was quite lovely, and like so many of the older wines in the tasting, was still showing exceptionally even at an advanced age.
We wrapped up the evening with seared duck breast on red sauerkraut and duck confit with egg noodles served alongside hearty conversation and debate. There was no doubt in any of our minds at night’s end that there is no shortage of exceptional wine being produced in the Okanagan Valley, but we were also pleased to note that stylistically the wines were quite different from those of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.
Bottom line: Canada is a world-class wine producing country offering domestic and international wine aficionado’s excellent diversity and quality regardless which part of the great white north you are shopping in.
Wool Sock B.C. Friday Wines
The Sparkling wines
• Summerhill Blanc de Noirs 2008
• Sperling Estate Riesling Brut
• Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2007
• Saath Naramata Bench Private Reserve Chardonnay 2016
• Servin Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot 2014
• Corcelettes Estate Trivium 2014 (50% Chasselas, 25% Gewurztraminer, 25% Pinot Gris)
• Summerhill Organic Gewurztraminer 2016
• Tantalus Pinot Noir 2007
• Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2008
• Jackson Triggs Okanagan Estate Grand Reserve Merlot 2004
• Misconduct Wine Co. Suspect Series Cabana Estate Vineyard Malbec 2014
• Poplar Grove Cabernet Franc 2014
• 13th Street Essence Cabernet Franc 2011
• Inniskillin Okanagan Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
• Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2013 (57% Merlot, 16% CS, 17% CF, 4% Malbec, 6% PV)
• Chateau Balestard La Tonnelle St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe 2008
• Mount Boucherie Meritage 2012 (74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cabernet Franc)
• Saath Private Reserve Cabernet Shiraz 2016
The Sweet Wines
• Summerhill Estate Riesling Reserve Icewine 2002
• Lange Vineyards Chardonnay Icewine 1998
• Bench 775 Spirit 2014 (fortified Petit Verdot)
To learn more about author Peter Rod, go here