The wines of home

March 2024

As we northerners struggle through our long, cold winter, that paradise on our west coast looms large in our consciousness. While we continue digging out our driveways, out there, daffodils bloom, and the first new shoots sprout on the grapevines. Climate is the principal reason for British Columbia’s wine-growing success: summers filled with warm days and cool nights – perfect conditions for ripening grapes. And winters are mild, ensuring good survival of vines from one season to the next.

Vineyards are sprouting up all across British Columbia; intrepid entrepreneurs from Vancouver Island to the Rockies are jumping on the fine wine bandwagon. The dominant region is the bountiful Okanagan, that long, sheltered valley lying in the trench between the Coastal Range and the Rocky Mountains. Today there are close to 1,000 wineries across BC, with some 220 of those – comprising more than 80% of total acreage – concentrated in the Okanagan. Quality ranges from everyday ordinary to cult-status superb. Plotting your way through this plethora of choice takes some careful research, ideally guided by local knowledge.

We were introduced to the cult-status wines from Checkmate Vineyards by long-time friends Darrell and Brian Gregersen – Darrell (Howard) was once Principal Oboe in the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. The Checkmate ‘Silent Bishop’ Merlot 2016 they opened for us was simply stunning, immediately leaping onto the list of great wine experiences of my life. Wine at this level transcends descriptors of varietal character or fruit comparisons; it stands apart in its power and intensity, its focus and complexity, its sheer personality and individuality. Great concentration coupled with great subtlety, layered flavours coupled with fine balance, long and warm in the mouth, with a lingering, intriguing finish – this wine was born with greatness in its soul. The next day came close, with a stunning 2017 Chardonnay from Coolshanagh Wines, from the renowned Naramata Ridge subdivision of the Okanagan. With six years of maturity in bottle, it was smooth and creamy from barrel fermentation, with added savoury, buttery richness from further oak cask ageing.

These remarkable rarities are unlikely to be found at our neighbourhood LCBO, although they may occasionally appear in the monthly LCBO Cellar Collection release. But with so much variety on offer, more BC wines are now appearing on local shelves, and they are well worth exploring.

Mission Hill is a good place to start. This large winery, with some 500 hectares of vineyard, produces a wide range of wines from entry level to premium collectible. Their ‘Reserve’ line starts in the low-$20s, with Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris regularly available. Their ‘Family Reserve’ Meritage is a classic Bordeaux-style blend that will benefit from a few years of cellaring to show its potential. These well-made wines are marked VQA Okanagan Valley on their labels, your assurance of authenticity.

I have had good experiences with wines from Quail’s Gate, particularly their Pinot Noir. Burrowing Owl is a notch up on the price and quality scale, with profound wines worthy of long cellaring; their single-varietal bottlings of Merlot and Cabernet Franc have made them world famous. Osoyoos Larose, recently available locally, approaches true cult status. Others worth seeking – and more reasonably priced – include Black Hills, Black Sage, Haywire, Mount Boucherie, Oak Bay, Poplar Grove, Sandhill. As always, look for the VQA insignia on the label.

But my best advice to you is to visit our westernmost province yourself and explore their wines close to the source. You will encounter many worthy discoveries, and will appreciate our great northern home even more upon your return!

*At time of writing, the Okanagan has experienced a savage cold snap, which may have killed 97% of the new shoots for this season’s vintage.

© Paul Inksetter 2024

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