Monday, September 1, 2008

Updates from British Columbi'a Wine Country - The Okanagan

Happy Labor Day everybody (Labour Day in Canada). It's been a while since I have posted, and I thought I should take these few minutes in the early hours of Labor Day to say hi from the Coast Hotel in Kelowna, BC, right in the heart of the Okanagan.

I'm up here with my parents and my husband. My parents' good friend's daughter was getting married this weekend, and since I am in the midst of changing jobs, I felt it a good idea to fly up here and spend a long weekend with them, in preparation for not being able to take any time off between now and the end of the year.

We didn't arrive until late Thursday evening, as there was an important Rudi Wiest tasting Thursday around noon - the famous Dry Tour - this is a tasting of German dry wines. We tasted 55 dry German wines presented by 7 winegrowers who flew in from Germany - Sebatian Furst of Furst, Fritz Becker Jr. or Becker, Rainer Schnaittman of Schnaittman, Christoph Graf of Von Buhl, Hansjorg Rebholz of Rebholz, a last-minute substitute for Felix Buerklin with Gunter Kunstler's step-daughter whose name I cannot remember - of Kunstler, Uwe ___ of Hans Wirsching, and a few other dry winemakers.

It was also my opportunity to meet some folks who would be my clients - a wine director from Wolfgang Puck's Cut, and another wine director at the Regency Club. There were others - a lot of meeting and greeting and gathering of business cards for folks I need to follow up with when I get back to Los Angeles.

Now back to my little vacation. Got to visit briefly with my siblings before they took off in various directions for their Labor Day weekend jaunts. Then, Saturday morning, my parents, my husband and I packed ourselves into the car to make the drive into the Okanagan Valley.

It has been over a decade since I have been to this part of the province. When I was a kid, we would take vacations here, a region rich with peach and apple trees. In recent years, the area, probably like similar places in the state of Washington and Oregon, has been transformed away from orchard land into vineyard land.

One of my goals for this trip was to observe the changes that have taken place, and taste the wines that people all over Canada rave about, but people outside of Canada have not had a chance to experience. This is due to the small quantities produced here, and the tendency to sell most of it within the province (80%), while "exporting" the rest of it to the other provinces (eg. Ontario).

The drive was difficult. Lots of mountain passes, often hitting patches of rain with poor visibility. In August! It reminded me of trying to get over the Voges range in France to get from Lorraine into Alsace. Difficult!

Finally, we arrived into Kelowna, a pretty town on the lakeside. The lake that dominates this valley is called Lake Okanagan.

Now, about the wineries: We managed to visit 5 of them: Mission Hill, Quail's Gate, Summerhill, Gray Monk, and St. Hubertus. All were beautiful and scenic, located on a hill of some sort overlooking the massive blue lake. Many had restaurants with great views, featuring the local fresh ingredients and wines. All were quite busy entertaining visitors and tasters coming to enjoy the location, the wines, and the shopping.

These are my observations and impressions:

1. The Pinot Noir here does not impress me. I have heard many great things about B.C. Pinot Noirs and how great they are, being cool climate and all. I find them generally lacking. It could be that I haven't tasted any premium ones, or I didn't hit the right ones, but I have tasted them before in Vancouver restaurants and now at these cellar doors, and they just don't do it for me! Please still give me a Burgundy, thanks!

2. I like the dry whites. I was impressed by the 2007 Quail's Gate Dry Riesling and we bought a bottle to bring home. I also liked a 2007 St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc but we didn't get that one, as Johan preferred the 2007 St. Hubertus Chalassas (Swiss variety, we were told). I preferred the dry whites to the sweet or off-dry whites I tried. There weren't any sweet whites that I particularly liked, though I didn't try any ice wines. I think icewines are more rare here anyway - the dessert wines are mostly late harvest here (maybe it really doesn't freeze that much out here compared to in Niagara in Ontario).

4. Johan liked the Marechal Foch. Everything I have read about this French hybrid has been negative, ie. it is terrible and it has practically been ripped out of most vineyards, especially in Ontario. But it appears that the Okanagan has been a champion of this variety, giving it almost a cult status. I compare it to Dornfelder - it is dark in color, so it looks like it will taste like a ton, but on the palate, it is gentle, has virtually no tannin, and tastes like an earthy red when done well, like a foxy, skunky red when done not so nicely. We tasted three of these from three different estates: Quail's Gate (where it tasted funky), Summerhill (where it tasted quite pleasant), and St. Hubertus (where it was also good, but not as tasty as the Summerhill's). The grape is also early ripening - at St. Hubertus, they had put nets over their already ripened Foch vines (it is Labor Day weekend, so these hybrids are ripening possibly a month or month and a half before other grapes!)

In all, this is a very youthful and vibrant wine region, a region I would imagine to be similar to those in Washington State and Oregon. The new world that wants somewhat to be the next Napa/Sonoma/Santa Ynez, and has the clientele to the support it. A farming community that used to grow apples, pears, peaches and other stone fruits, but now supports enotourism. Why not? My parents asked me how this is different from the wine regions of Europe - I was at a loss to describe how it was truly different other than the ones in Europe being much older. And the food is different. But generally, I see them as similar. It's the wines that are different. The wines in the new world are good, fine, drinkable, enjoyable. The old world wines, for me, are out of this world. And the regions are historic.

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