Canada, British Columbia: Rocky Mountain highs

Go west – British Columbia

xBritish Columbia boasts a number of wine-producing zones, including Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley, but it is the Okanagan Valley that has carved BC’s reputation for real quality. The Okanagan, a 100-mile-long north-south valley around Lake Okanagan, has a uniquely mild microclimate. This puts huge pressure on the price of vineyard land, as lakeside developments spring up.

In the extreme south, close to the US border, lies Osoyoos, which with less than ten inches of rainfall per annum is officially a desert. Groves of ponderosa pine, more familiar in Arizona and New Mexico, are a startling sight. Bordeaux varieties flourish here, and the quality of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc impressed in particular.

xThis is a region of very small wineries, a number producing less than 5,000 cases of wine per year. Again, the tourism scene is thriving, with excellent restaurants at many estates. One of the best restaurants, and one of biggest players in BC, is Mission Hill, who’s wines are well-known in the UK, and who’s beautiful winery is pictured left.

Vines grow along the length of the lake, but certain terroirs are beginning to carve a reputation for quality amongst BC wine lovers. The Naramata Bench is one, a community as much as a business alliance, with around 15 boutique wineries on the eastern shore of the Okanagan who make some strategic decisions as a group.

Talking to winemakers in areas like Naramata and Black Sage Road (and similarly in areas like the Beamsville and Vinelands Benches in Ontario), some are already pressing for the appellation system to identify their quality sub-zones. But surely that would be running before they can walk, in a wine-producing country that is still little understood by Canadians, let alone the rest of the world?

British Columbia’s producers:

Burrowing Owl
xNamed after tiny owls found in the area, there is a very good restaurant here and a 10-unit guesthouse was under construction on my visit. In the vineyards ‘bird bangers’ (compressed-air guns that scare off starlings and other flying grape munchers) are effective against bears too, which come down from the mountain above the winery (right) and can devour 50lb of grapes at a sitting. The all gravity-fed winery has a fine self-guided tour and 50 per cent of production is sold directly via their web site.

100 Burrowing Owl Place
Tel: +1 877-498-0620

CedarCreek Estate
xCedarCreek is another of Canada’s blue-chip estates, where Tom Di Bello (left) fashions a world-class range of wines, building on his experience at Stag’s Leap and Cape Mentelle amongst others. Owner Senator Ross Fitzpatrick (glad-handing like a true political pro on my visit) clearly lavishes love and money on this project, working with the best tonneliers in France and using prime, tight-grained oak that Di Bello says his wines just “absorb” giving them real elegance.

5445 Lakeshore Road
Tel: +1 250-764-8866

Gray Monk
xI visited Gray Monk on the very first day of the 2005 harvest and the wafting perfume of freshly picked Siegerrebe filled the courtyard of this beautiful winery perched high above Lake Okanagan. George & Trudy Heiss (right) started Gray Monk back in 1972, which is positively ancient in terms of Estate wineries, and they are still very much in evidence with son George Jr. handling the winemaking. There are some lovely aromatic whites here, as well as fine Cabernet and Merlot in the ‘Odyssey’ series.

1055 Camp Road
Okanagan Centre.
Tel: +1 250-766-3168

Hillside Estate
xThere’s another rustic, down-home, but excellent restaurant here, in a winery on the edge of the Sonoran desert on the Naramata Bench. One of the warmest climates in BC means that Zinfandel and Malbec are grown successfully, with obvious attention to detail from winemaker Kelly Symonds, like a grape-sorting table, micro-oxygenation equipment and open-top fermenters for reds. Daily guided tours are offered, and around 13,000 cases per year are produced.

1350 Naramata Road
Tel: +1 250-493-6274

Mission Hill
xThis is one of the big players of BC, with a strong presence in the UK market, including Sainsbury’s for their delicious Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. This is another architecturally stunning estate, with a very fine restaurant and visitor facilities. Winemaker John Sime (right) is a Kiwi, and indeed their white wines are remarkably vibrant and punchy in the style of many from New Zealand. Be sure to visit when the beautiful bronze bells in Mission Hill’s tower, cast by an historic French foundry, are rung.

1730 Mission Hill Road
Tel: +1 250-768-6448

Nk’Mip Cellars
xNk’Mip (pronounced ‘inka-meep’) is joint venture between the 370 members of the Osoyoos Indian band and Vincor. The band has grown grapes for many years, but now a winery forms part of a whole complex of recreational facilities on the shores of Osoyoos Lake, creating jobs and stability for the band. Winemaker Randy Picton (left) has two young assistant winemakers from the band, and after a fixed term he and Vincor will step aside, and the Osoyoos will run the venture for themselves.

1400 Rancher Creek Road
Tel: +1 250-495-2985

Osoyoos Larose
xI was extremely impressed by the super-premium Bordeaux blend being made here in a joint venture between Vincor and Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux, owners of Château Gruaud-Larose. A limited allocation for the UK will target fine dining restaurants and specialist retailers. Tasting through the 2002, 2003 and a barrel sample of the 2004 vintage with winemaker Pascal Madevon (right), the quality of this wine reflects a painstaking approach in the vineyards and winery, and some of the finest sites in the Okanagan.

Osoyoos Larose is not open to the public.

Quail’s Gate Estate
xAnother winery with a gorgeous location and a top restaurant under chef Judith Knight. The Stewart family owns this estate, and Ben Stewart showed me their brand new winery extension and restaurant facilities, as well as some prime, old-vine vineyards. There are 90 acres of estate, with all grapes for the ‘Family Reserve’ range coming from within a quarter mile of the winery. Winemaker Grant Stanley is another with Kiwi experience, and Pinot Noir is a passion here.

3303 Boucherie Road
Tel: +1 250-769-4451

Sumac Ridge
xThis property has an outstanding reputation for its wines. Founder Harry McWatters remains in day-to-day charge, and winemaker Mark Wendenburg (right) continues to enhance Sumac Ridge’s reputation for quality and innovation. Their sparkling wines (including the sensationally good 1997 ‘Stellar’s Jay Brut’), and a broad range of table and dessert wines really impressed, their ‘Meritage’ and white and red blends in the ‘Pinnacle’ ranges catching the eye in particular.

17403 Highway 97N
Tel: +1 250-494-0451

Township 7
xThis tiny winery on the Naramata Bench produces just 5,000 cases of very high-quality wines, and is totally ‘hands-on’ for owners Corey and Gwen Coleman. The simple one-room winery with counter at front, tanks and barrels behind, is functional but basic. Tanks are large Polythene bins (just visible in photo, left) “because they cost $800 each and not $10,000,” according to Corry. The range has attracted a lot of fans and plaudits from the critics.

1450 McMillan Avenue
Tel: +1 250-770-1743

Tom’s Canadian wine highlights


Cave Spring, ‘Indian Summer’ Late-Harvest Riesling 2003
This ‘mini-icewine’ is harvested very late, well into the thick of winter frosts. It has lifted, glacial and sherbetty aromatics, with fine lemon and peachy sweetness on the palate. 92/100. £12.75, Berry Bros & Rudd.

Château des Charmes, Equuleus 2001
A Bordeaux blend produced only in exceptional vintages, this has minty black fruit and a touch of silage on the nose, with real spice, flesh, grip and structure on the palate. 90/100.

Colio Estate, ‘Signature’ Meritage 2002
This Bordeaux blend has a complex nose with bloody notes, a cedary, meaty quality and a plush depth of cherry and raspberry fruit. Structured yet approachable, with fine balance. 92/100.

Henry of Pelham, Baco Noir Reserve 2002
Aged in American oak and with 15% Cabernet Franc in the blend, this is a big, spicy, crushed velvet style of wine, with masses of raisiny sweetness and a liquoricy, mouth-filling finish. 90/100.

Inniskillin, Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003
Very delicate colour and an earthy nose with touches of bracken and truffle, and redcurrant fruit. Soft, sweet, raspberry fruit on the palate with good balance and a savoury finish. 91/100.

Jackson Triggs, Delaine Vineyard Cabernet Merlot 2002
A Bordeaux blend aged in a combination of French and American oak, this has a cedar, black cherry and chocolate nose with a deep, plummy, bittersweet fruitiness and good length. 91/100.

Pelee Island, Gamay Zweigelt 2004
Spice, cracked pepper and schisty minerals join with a cherry bubblegum character in an intriguing wine. Finely honed blue/black fruit in the palate is lip-smacking and delicious. 89/100.

Peninsula Ridge, Sauvignon Blanc 2004
Lovely tight, bright aromatics, with a fine herbal edge to the nose of citrus and white currants. On the palate there’s a blast of pithy grapefruit and lemon and a streak of mineral acidity. 91/100.

Stratus, White 2003
I loved this white wine, with its smoky, juicy, highly aromatic nose of tropical fruits, lime zest and nutty, toffeed oak. The palate is chewy and filled with fruit, yet with crisp, taut minerality. 92/100.

Vineland, Dry Riesling 2004
Displaying pure, scintillating lemon zest and green apple fruit on the nose, the palate goes on to display a waxy texture and toasty notes of sesame seed with plenty of zing and zest. 92/100.

British Columbia

Burrowing Owl, Cabernet Franc 2002
Very dark, glossy, svelte black fruit on the nose with real sweetness. The palate is big and dry, with a hint of raisins and rum-soaked cherries, and fine, smooth texture. 89/100.

Cedar Creek Estate, Select Pinot Noir 2003
Lovely nose, which is creamy and spicy, with touches of cranberry and violets. The palate has abundant black cherry fruit, black chocolate and crushed berry richness. Lovely balance. 92/100.

Gray Monk, Siegerrebe 2004
Wonderfully inviting floral, musky nose of rose water and downy peach skins, with some pink grapefruit nuances. Off-dry and terrifically juicy, before a burst of pithy acidity. Delightful. 89/100.

Hillside Estate, Riesling 2004
Though the Mosaic Bordeaux blend appealed, I’ve gone for this waxy, limey, and very intense Riesling from 22-year-old vines, which has terrific mouthfeel and length. 90/100.

Mission Hill, Chardonnay Reserve 2003
A 50/50 blend of barrel and stainless steel components, this has a fine, mealy quality with restrained oak, lots of crisp yellow plum and Asian pear, and superb acidity and length. 91/100.

Nk’Mip, QwMT Pinot Noir 2004
QwMT is a recently launched ‘reserve’ range showing terrific quality. This has beautifully delicate Lapsang Souchong and pomegranate notes, and fine, supple red fruit on the palate. 90/100.

Osoyoos Larose 2002
Very harmonious, supple, dark berry fruit tinged with coffee, cedar and a little gamey quality. Plush, fruity palate, with an edge of liquorice and good tannins and cherry acidity. 93/100 2001 in stock currently around £22.99, Cooden Cellars, Andrew Chapman,

Quail’s Gate, Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2003
Not every Canadian Pinot I tasted impressed by any means, but this (with a hefty 14.5% ABV) was an exception. Rich, smooth, beautifully composed and fleshy, a truly fine Pinot. 91/100.

Sumac Ridge, Pinnacle Red Wine 2001
Bordeaux grapes plus some Syrah give this a spicy, liquorice-tinged nose of blueberry and blackcurrant. The palate is supple, with plenty of extract and a peppery, finely balanced finish. 92/100.

Township 7, Semillon 2003
100% un-oaked Semillon, this has a lovely lemon cheesecake nose, and a palate that tingles with vivid green apple and citrus fruit, with a shimmering, clean style. 89/100.

Go to Canada part III: icewine, Canada’s ace in the pack.

Go to Canada part I: Canadian overview plus Ontario’s top estates.