August 26, 2013

Okanagan Wines via Beautiful Highways

Let me start with highways. Recently, we left Vancouver and took a week to drive to Calgary, from which valiant city we flew back to Ottawa.
Funky Calgary sculpture
The scenery is wonderful, and the Banff to Jasper highway, in particular, is spectacular. Everyone should drive it at least once. Turquoise lakes, glaciers galore, craggy peaks, mountain passes -a treat for the soul!

There are several beautiful routes east from Vancouver. For this trip, we took Highways 5, then 93 from Vancouver to Kelowna. A couple of nights were required here to do some winetasting at Tantalus, Cedar Creek, Quail's Gate and Mission Hill, four of the many wineries in the Central Okanagan Valley.

Central Okanagan Wineries

A word of advice if you're doing this sort of thing in 30+C and buying some wines along the way - wines really don't like hot cars, even for a short while. Stock up on coolers and ice and never be too far from your nearest air conditioned inn. A couple of my well chosen wines developed some pressure problems, and the corks raised just a little on the journey - enough to require earlier consumption than planned. If you're buying wine in the hot Okanagan Valley, or any other hot location, best to have the winery ship you the wines, if you can figure out how to do that to your Province of choice!

Tantalus Vineyards

Jane Hatch is the General Manager at Tantalus Vineyards. Like many in the industry, she is passionate about her work, the vineyard, and the wines. In the case of Tantalus, her passion is well founded. With a historical claim to be the oldest continuously producing vineyard in BC, Tantalus has come a long way from the table grape production on the site back in the 1920's. Although a small amount of other varieties are grown on the estate, including Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier,  it is for the outstanding Riesling and Pinot Noir that Tantalus is known. Through a combination of understanding the terroir, good vineyard management and excellent winemaking skills, the renown for these two varietals is well deserved.

The 2010 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir was excellent - my favourite of all the Pinot I tasted in the Okanagan. A pleasing earthy, mineral and fruity nose leads to a juicy palate and a long satisfying finish. The wine has great balance, good structure, and the characteristic brooding quality I love. Great Pinot, excellent value at $30.
The 2010 Old Vines Riesling, made exclusively from 1978 Riesling plantings in one block, is an elegant and complex wine, with a lovely nose of citrus and some tropical fruit, and that wonderful Riesling petrol aroma that occasionally appears. On the palate this wine is concentrated, displays great acidity and offers up lovely green apple and citrus flavours. This is a super wine, also around $30, excellent now with a wide range of foods, and one that will develop beautifully with cellaring. As well as producing great wine, Tantalus is BC's first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified winery

Cedar Creek

Not far south from Tantalus is beautiful Cedar Creek Winery. (Oh, let's face it - they're all beautiful)!  This is one of BC's first eight wineries and one which has twice been named as Canada's Winery of the Year. With four vineyards located between Kelowna and Osoyoos, each with different characteristics, the winery is able to produce a wide range of wines.

We had a brilliant tasting with Richard, a fine gentleman who's been in the industry a while and knows his stuff. He was the perfect host, warm, friendly, and offering up just enough information about each wine, but generally being guided by questions and specific interests. He had this wonderful habit of pouring each wine, then subtly leaving the tasting room, so that we could analyse and savour at leisure and come to our own conclusions. He'd return right on cue with the next wine and we'd chat about the previous one or not, as we felt inclined. How often have you been to a winery where an enthusiastic host assails you with details about colour, aromas, palate expectations and food pairings before you've even picked up the glass. Many could learn from Richard. Each wine was at the perfect temperature and the glasses were sparkling and detergent free.

We were delighted to meet Darryl Brooker, the relatively new and very accomplished winemaker, who has made wine in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere in Canada, including Thirty Bench Winery, my favourite Niagara region Riesling producer. Darryl's been at the helm since 2010, so most of the reds didn't have his personal imprint at this stage. Here's a rundown on some of the selection........
2012 Ehrenfelser. From 25 year old vines. This is a fantastic summer wine. If I lived in BC and had ready access to this wine, it would be on hand constantly. Beautifully refreshing and fruity, with loads of great acidity - superb. $18.95
2012 Gewurztraminer. A lovely nose with pronounced lychee aromas. Succulent and silky on the palate, but a wee bit short of acidity for my liking. Chill it right down to make it super refreshing. Same price range.
2012 Pinot Gris. Fruity and rich. A food friendly crowd pleaser. Another under $20 wine.
2012 Platinum "Block 3" Riesling. Granny Smith apples, petrol and mineral nose. Quite delightful and, most significantly, only 8% alcohol, achieved in part because Darryl decided to have the fruit picked early from the 21 year old, irrigation free vines. There's a definite market for lower alcohol yet tasty wines. Bravo on this one. Under $25.
Bottles of terroir!
Of the reds tasted, I particularly liked the 2009 Platinum Merlot. This one sports 14.9% alcohol - the other end of the spectrum from the Platinum Riesling. It's nicely balanced, with elegant aromas and tastes of black fruits and spice.
In all there are about 20 different wines available for tasting at the winery. Currently the LCBO has 2 Cedar Creek wines in inventory, in small quantities.
My planning for the day didn't take into account the fact that we had to zip around the lake and head south on the west side to our next tasting, so our lunch on the Terrace with the great views was excellent, but a bit of a rush. Perfect planning would have kept us there for a leisurely continuation of our chat with Richard, and more view soaking time.

Quails' Gate Winery

But onwards to Quails' Gate, where winery concierge, Bill Wightman, showed us around and treated us to a fine tasting of some wines from this well known winery. According to Bill, current production levels are about 85,000 cases, with about a third of the production being Pinot Noir. The LCBO received a large shipment of the 2011 Pinot Noir on August 17th, priced around $27. In the best years, like 2011, the winery produces a Reserve Pinot, which will be released after aging.

The winery is a beautiful building with a renowned on site restaurant and gorgeous views over Okanagan Lake. The Quail's Gate wine collection includes a classic and lovely Chenin Blanc, an aromatic Riesling, a nice off dry Gewurztraminer, a refreshing rose and many others. These are all generally good value, tasty wines around $20. The Single Vineyard Reserve collection includes a brilliant Chardonnay - full, rich, and a wonderful food wine. Several dessert and specialty wines complete the offerings, including a tawny port made from Gamay Noir and a fortified wine made from Marechal Foch.
Things will undoubtedly change in the coming years. Nikki Callaway was recently named as the new winemaker and started her role just this month. With experience and education in Canada and France, she was most recently a winemaker at Mission Hill Estates, which is where we headed next, after a brief stop at Volcanic Hills Winery.

Mission Hill Winery

Caroline Box is the sommelier who led us through a tasting at Mission Hill Winery, one of the Okanagan Valley's largest producers. The Mission Hill complex is quite spectacular, with beautifully designed  buildings on an outstanding location over the lake.

The LCBO has about 15 products on the books from this winery, all from the five vineyards entry level tier or the next level reserve tier. We tasted some great wines, starting with a 2012 Viognier under the Martin's Lane Label. This was a gentle, medium bodied Viognier, with lots of apricot fruit and good acidity - a fine buy at $25. From the Legacy Series, we tasted a beautiful 2010 Chardonnay - Perpetua ($35) and a very fine Bordeaux Blend Compendium ($50). The 2007 is superb now and the 2009 will also benefit from aging. Oculus 2009 is another premium, small lot Bordeaux Blend, more Merlot dominant than the Perpetua, quite lovely, and $80.

We tasted a couple of Pinot Noirs from different tiers. Mission Hill has been much awarded for Pinot over the years, but Tantalus still had my number one spot for best Pinot Noir.

We had dinner in the Terrace Restaurant, named one of the top five winery restaurants in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Here we were well served by our excellent server, Bradley, and enjoyed a largely fantastic tasting menu with wine pairings. Pairing wines with dishes to meet everyone's tastebuds is one of the most difficult things to pull off, especially for a winery restaurant limited to the winery wines.

Consequently, although some of the pairings were superb, one or two were not perfect, and the Pinot was served a little warm, although immediately rectified. The food was outstanding and I'm nit-picking here, but fine-tuning those pairings is a good idea to ensure a continuation of a lofty top spot.
After Kelowna, we hit the highway again and headed for Banff, where I met up with an old friend, who`s now living life large in Canmore; and was reacquainted with mosquitoes - those creatures who love me but somehow never found me in Vancouver! Speaking of creatures, despite my ardent hopes, I saw none of these.

But I did see a black bear munching some roadside berries as well as this fine collection of elk.

At the Banff hot springs, I donned an historic bathing suit to "take the waters". It appeared to be made from iron encrusted polyester with zero spandex, and retained half the pool on exit. Fun to try - once!
 In Jasper we walked the Maligne Canyon Trail, one of hundreds of magnificent hiking trails in the area.

From there we took the highway to Edmonton to visit more fine friends, had a fancy breakfast at the Fairmont MacDonald Inn, then booted it down to Calgary, a vibrant and seriously spunky city, which was looking very fine considering the devastating floods earlier this summer. The return to normalcy continues, but there's overwhelming evidence of hard work and tenacity to revive the affected areas. Bravo Calgary.
Whisky lovers should definitely visit the amazing Kensington Wine Market, not just a wine lovers dream but a place showcasing a huge number of whiskies, and happy to let potential buyers have a wee dram or two from any opened bottles to "try before you buy". And there were quite a few opened! And the prices were pretty great!

The last supper of the trip - an anniversary dinner, as it happened, was at Charcut in Calgary. Worth a dining visit, but don't let them seat you at the tiny round table for two, with no room for the various plates, glasses and other paraphernalia. Nice dessert touch though!


Since September 2012 I've had the privilege of living a pretty nomadic life, visiting Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Israel twice, South Africa and "out west". There are 24 posts on the blog, peppered with great photos (thanks to some amazing weather and a cell phone), tales of distilleries and wineries, and super adventures along the way. It's good to be back in Ottawa, reacquainting, and busy with new tastings and ventures. Thanks to those who dropped into the website from time to time or followed the journey. Stay tuned for upcoming events.
Lake Louise
Cheers! Slainte!