Corinne discovers a breadth of gorgeous wineries in the British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley
A longtime transplant to the Central Coast from Canada (I settled here for LOVE), I take pride in the Canadian wine and spirit world every time I read about it in magazines or blogs. Most notably I read about some of the best Icewines in the world. On a recent visit to see family in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, a dear friend invited me on a tour of a few of her favorite wineries in the area and a long catch up session. No arm twisting necessary, I barely let her finish her invite before enthusiastically replying “for freaking sure!”.
What followed was an afternoon of sheer delight as I tasted and learned about this area as a visitor coming back to her native lands. I learned a lot. Being a bit of a history geek, I found it most interesting to learn that following WWII, many immigrants from the old country (as my family refers to it, all of my grandparents were immigrants from Germany & Hungry), settled in the Okanagan Valley. Missing their native wines, they recognized the terroir similarities to the wine regions of Austria and Germany and determined that the area could replicate growing conditions of the vineyards of the old world. Many small vineyards were planted with clone varieties from the old-world, resulting in many small batch home-grown winemaking operations that included varietals such as Riesling, Ehrenfelser, Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
This region is also widely known for Icewine, no surprises as it is a nod to the German influence here. Wine Folly describes as “one of the sweetest mistakes nature has ever made”. History provides an interesting story of a miserably cold winter in 1794 in Franken, Germany when winemakers had to harvest what they had – resulting in frozen grapes and a wine with high sugar content. By mid 19th century, the approach had gained ground in the region of Rheingau with what Germans referred to as Eiswein. Outside of Germany, the Okanagan Valley is one of the world’s largest producers of this anomaly where the frozen grapes are crushed in presses.
First stop, CedarCreek Estate Winery. Greeted by a bustling intimate tasting room and a tasting attendant who was a very well-informed winemaking intern from Australia, CedarCreek was recognised twice as Canada’s Winery of the Year. We tasted our way through a crisp flight of well-rounded whites to a distinct Pino Noir. But the crowning achievement here was a nectar of the gods – Platinum Riesling Icewine and the Platinum M fortified wine. Not a fan of syrupy dessert wines, I was hesitant to try them, but young hip Mr Australia convinced me it wasn’t about that. He was right – it was a much more complex, deep and layered experience. The flavors of the M, my preference, somehow reminded me of the sweetness of childhood, mixed with the understanding and wisdom of growing old - perfectly ripe stone fruit, combined with deep pruney, roasted nuts and the slightest hint of spice. I could only imagine sitting out on the deck at the end of the day and sipping this while overlooking the beautiful lake from this pine laden hillside. This whole episode required that we stay and have a delectable lunch on the patio while sharing a bottle of vibrant, fruity and balanced Pinot Gris. Best afternoon in a while catching up with old friends, great food, crazy amazing view, good wine – for me it is the reason I adore wine, THAT experience.
Alas, the adventure continued, though I could have comfortably sat on the patio the rest of the day, we moved on to Summerhill Pyramid Winery. This winery is 100% organic and biodynamic. Summerhill is also home to a Pyramid Cellar, “built with precision Sacred Geometry and aligned to the stars to create a structure of stillness and harmony”, where wines are finished. OK, I'm intrigued by the spiritual approach to making wine. My quest was to taste the 2014 Pinot Gris Icewine at $178cnd a bottle. Saving it for the end, of course, this is definitely a dessert wine. A lovely sweet treat with only a smidge necessary. Light Amber in color, tasting deeper than just the initial sweet, hints of caramel dried apricot, I can see it being a before bed sipper for a celebration during the fall. Onward!
Last, across Lake Okanagan to West Kelowna to Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. For me this is the most commercial of the wineries, it is grand, gorgeous and very well executed for hosting events. My friend has been to world-class concerts here in the summer (sounds dreamy) and as we were visiting they were setting up for a wine maker’s dinner that had me drooling just from the setting alone. Ample installations of sculpture art also grace the immaculate grounds which is always a hit for me. Mission Hill very recently gained some fun press from Prince William and Katherine deeming it their favorite winery. Again, a decadent line up of wine here in a huge tasting room that on a weekday in August was packed to the brim. Several interesting Pinot Noirs which is where I landed at this part of my day. Distinct in that they are different than the Central Coast Pinots that are my standard drinkers. A little more fruit forward or jammy. Smoke turned down a bit – yet still peppery and balanced overall. Again, a solid Icewine here – probably the sweetest of the ones I’d tasted all day.
These wineries are part of a growing wine industry of over 300 wineries in the area. By growing I mean, existing wineries are expanding operations, and customer experience offerings including significant construction of new tasting rooms and barrel rooms as well as new small winery operations are popping up. Overall, I was impressed with what I tasted and saw. Having come of age (when you evolve from drinking to get tipsy to drinking for the enjoyment and knowledge) in California, I have become discerning in selecting my wine experiences. From that perspective, I would definitely recommend the Okanagan Valley wine experience – can’t wait to go back and enjoy some more of my native vines.