Monday, 15 August 2022

The wines of British Columbia



In June my wife and I headed to western Canada for a long, overdue holiday. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we spent plenty of time hiking in the Rockies, looking out for bears and looking at stunning scenery. However, you may be surprised that we also wanted to do some wine tasting…! British Columbia as a wine region is a very large, very varied and relatively new one (at least in terms of wine regions around the world). It is made of a number of sub-districts stretching from Vancouver Island in the west through to the Kootenays in the East. The climate varies hugely over this range: the area around Vancouver and Vancouver Island is a temperate rainforest, but as you hit Osoyoos in the southern Okanagan Valley you find yourself in the desert. I think this was one of the things that I was least prepared for when visiting the region from the UK.

My perception of Canada prior to embarking on this trip was that it is a cold, northerly country. Actually, where we were in southern BC we were considerably further south than the UK - more on a level with France from a latitude perspective, which explains its propensity for growing French varietals. In fact, I am willing to bet that quite a few people that read this article will be positively surprised to hear that Canada has such a burgeoning wine industry; people may have been aware of its reputation for producing high-quality Ice Wine, but premium Chardonnay or Bordeaux blends? I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that very little wine from BC makes its way over to the UK / Europe. I was told by one producer that 90% of wines produced in BC are drunk in BC. Judging on the experience from my trip, I hope this changes soon!

Source: Wines of British Columbia, which is an excellent source for information if you are planning a trip

We were undertaking a road trip holiday and made a circular loop from Vancouver which took us through the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys, before we headed up towards the famous sights of Banff, Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefields and Whistler. Having a couple of days in BC’s wine heartlands at the beginning of the trip was a great way to ease ourselves into the country, recover from our jet-lag and stock up on wines to enjoy for the rest of our trip! We made our way to a few vineyards over a couple of days, but we quickly realised that we were not nearly as ambitious as others who were visiting the region - many people we met long the way were taking in eight to 10 vineyards in a day. Wine tourism is a serious business there! We saw plenty of people out on what looked like remarkably civilised “batchelerette parties”, but also great initiatives such as cycling wine tours which were promoted to reduce climate change impact (public transport is next to non-existant in the region and pretty much everyone drives).

 

I will shortly take you through where we went and (of course!) what we drank, but before that some general observations. Firstly, the people we met along the way were without exception incredibly kind, generous, and wonderful hosts. They were thrilled to have interest in their wines from us and we were looked after tremendously. Thank you to all those who played their part in that. Secondly, the quality of the wines we tasted was very good. I had been told not to set my expectations too high, but I found that the producers I was making were producing excellent quality, high-end boutique-style wines. Admittedly, I had sought to visit vineyards people had told me were at the top end of the quality spectrum. We did see plenty of evidence of production of wine at the other end to satisfy the casual drinker. Thirdly, as with many wine producing areas the impact of climate change is very real for producers in BC. They obviously have to think about vines that can cope with the deep, long Canadian winters; however my surprise was that they also now have to think about dealing with intense heat in the summer. Temperatures well above 40 degrees in the summer are commonplace. Last year in Osoyoos they experienced a ‘heat dome” which you might remember reading about where temperatures reached 54 degrees, which resulted in wild fires in the region and caused smoke taint in some parts of the crop. 


Similkameen Valley


The tagline for the Similkameen Valley wine area is “a river runs through it”, which it really does! As you drive through the area you are very conscious of the rolling hills that surround you and the wide river valley where the fertile land exists that houses the vineyards. We visited Clos du Soleil vineyard who are a relatively young vineyard, having started production in 2006. The vineyards current owner, Mike Clark - a quantum physicist who previously worked in Cern on the Large Hadron Collider, bought it in 2012. Clark wanted to bring some of his scientific approach to the wine production and has in his time overseen the move of the vineyard to biodynamic farming principles. The soil for the vineyard is rock and sand, the climate is semi-arid - temperatures here can reach the mid-fourties in the height of summer. The very name of the vineyard “Clos du Soleil” gives you a description of its environs - courtyard of the sun - it is somewhat of a sun trap, which is great for the ripening of grapes. The French name for the vineyard gives an indication of the French influence on the estate, almost all of the grapes grown are classical French varietals. The doffing of the cap to traditional styles does not mean though that they do not innovate at Clos du Soleil, recently they have tried out orange wines for example to rave reviews - particularly from the hipsters in Vancouver! 

 

 We tried a number of different wines in our tasting, I will pick out a few of our favourites. One of their more entry level wines is a lovely Fumé Blanc which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It spends a little time in oak barrels which just gives it a lick of breadth and texture, to accompany its fruity freshness. It is all succulent fruity notes: passionfruit and grapefruit abound. I found their 2019 Winemaker’s Series Chardonnay to be a step up in terms of quality - this spends 10 months in oak and you feel it in terms of the extra richness. I bought a bottle of this and had it one evening when we cooked a seafood pasta dish and it was *chefs kiss*…! On the red side, I’d actually already snuck a sample of one of their most sought after glasses at a wine bar in Vancouver: trying their 2016 Célestiale which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot - a classic Bordeaux blend. The 2019 Célestiale recently received a 92 score from wine critic Anthony Gismondi. Tasting an older vintage showed that this wine could really age well - the ‘16 was in a very fine spot when I tried it, but it easily had another five to seven years in it. The 2019 was clearly a baby and had a very long future ahead of it.


Okanagan - Naramata Bench


When I was looking for suggestions of where to stay when I visited Okanagan I received a number of recommendations for Naramata Bench. As we arrived, it became clear why. This was a stunningly beautiful area - a serene and wonderfully calm lake in the middle of it, flanked by gentle slopes which seemed to be covered in vineyards. This part of the Okanagan seemed to have the highest concentration of vineyards in the region, as you are driving along the roads you pass estate after estate. It is a popular destination for bachelor / bachelorette parties, some people do it by cycling between vineyards. 



As this is one of the more renowned parts of the Okanagan property prices have increased considerably. This tends to mean that most of the wine estates fall into the “boutique” production category - they are small production, but high on quality. That description is perfect for Daydreamer Wines who are nestled on a hilltop with glorious views over the valley. They are unique for a number of reasons - firstly, their head winemaker Marcus Ansems, comes from Australia - but more importantly he is a Master of Wine. That means he seriously knows his wine! A second unique thing about them are the sheep that they have grazing their vineyard who if you’re lucky will come and check you out during your visit. I was shown around by Adam, who is a globetrotting Brit with a love for wine who was settled in British Columbia. I must say that I was struck by how much Adam felt clearly part of the Daydreamer family - the passion with which he spoke about their work was really inspiring. 

As I mentioned wine production for Daydreamer is small, very small in fact - they only produce 2000 cases per year! They have a core stock of Daydreamer wines that they make every year, which is their entry level wine. I really enjoyed their 2021 Daydreamer Rosé, which had a light and pretty nose and was full of summer berry notes. On the palate it was juicy and fresh with a great balance and predominant notes of strawberry and ripe red cherry. We also tasted their 2021 Pinot Gris and Riesling, both of which were also excellent quality and particularly good value. On top of their Daydreamer range they make their “Marcus Ansems” range of wines which they only produce in years when they think the quality is high enough. From their Marcus Ansems range we tried their 2021 Viognier. When done well, Viognier is one of my favourite grapes - but it can also be done rather clumsily and end up a little flabby and ‘meh’. This was certainly in the former camp, as opposed to the latter - a seriously impressive wine. On the nose, it was really well balanced with both tropical and citrus fruits coming to the fore. I also got a faint hint of vanilla and a bit of blossom, which lifted it a little. On the palate it was very fresh and juicy - the predominant flavours were of nectarine and peach, but it had a great richness and weight to it. I bought a bottle of this, which we drank by a fireside in Lake Louise - divine! 

Okanagan - Osoyoos and Oliver 


As you head southwards from Naramata and head towards the US border you feel that the environment starts to change. You move from the grassy valleys and towards a more arid environment. Osoyoos is the most southerly part of the Okanagan wine area and is actually a semi-desert. I think it says something of the way that Canada is often portrayed as a cold, wintery country - but I had no idea that Canada had such variety in its climates!

 

The main part of my visit to Osoyoos involved a trip to see Nk’Mip vineyard, which is owned and run by First Nation people. This was such a remarkable story and an interesting visit that I intend to write a whole separate piece about it - so watch out for that! However, on the way back we stopped off at Phantom Creek vineyard in Oliver. This was clearly a vineyard on which some serious money had been spent - the visitors’ centre and tasting room building was absolutely stunning, with epic views across the valley, however I think what will stay in my memory was the two beautiful sculptures that flank the entrance to their complex. They add some serious drama to the scene. We hadn’t booked ahead for this vineyard and chanced our arm - mistake! They were fully booked, however we were very lucky that one of the staff who felt sorry for us (we may have played the ‘but we came all this way… pretty please!’ card) and managed to get us a couple of samples. He asked what we were interested in and I mentioned that I had heard great things about their Riesling. Well, the good things I’d heard were certainly true - it was gorgeous. I just had to buy a bottle, as you can see from the photo. Exploring their visitors’ centre we also found out that they have a brilliant restaurant on site - next time we come we are definitely booking ahead! 
 
So there you have it - hopefully I’ve piqued your interests in learning more about wines from British Columbia. Have you tried any? Let me know in the comments if you have any favourite producers or recommendations. Also, watch out for my second post on the amazing Nk’Mip winery, which will be coming out in a couple of weeks.