By Dan Berger
There is a refreshing ebullience among the insiders of the emerging wine industry of Western Canada’s remote Okanagan Valley.
And a bit of self-consciousness too. World acclaim, which is just now happening to them, is a bit of a shock. But it’s well-deserved.
I’m often smitten with new wine cultures such as this one. I have written glowingly about a few of them, from New Zealand’s Marlborough and now Hawkes Bay to Piedmont’s Roero. And I’m pleased to have discovered the Okanagan as early as I did, some 15 years ago.
Yet I feel like a late-comer when chatting with the effusive A. Coke Roth, an attorney who was here in 1980, who saw the potential, and who helped guide the fledgling industry in its early meanderings. Coke’s passion is infectious, notably about western Canada.
I’ve visited the region three times, nowhere near enough to boast of knowledge of the regions, but enough to know of the wines’ greatness. I see the wines in many wine competitions, and they are simply sensational.
My first wine competition here was 20 years ago, and it was Coke who got me to attend. “You‘re not gonna believe the wines, pal,” he said. And I didn’t!
All it takes to fall in love with the wines of Canada’s western province is one visit to Penticton, a charming town on an eponymous lake some three hours north of Wenatchee, Wash.
It may be surprising to some people that Western Canada makes so much wine. That’s because most Americans have never tasted such wines. And that’s because almost none of them are available in the United States.
That’s too bad, especially if you are a white wine lover. Or even a red wine lover.
The best way to see these great wines is to visit. Penticton and its big brother city Kelowna are charming, unassuming towns that jointly host many wine festivals each year.
What’s truly exciting is the wine. Amazing Pinot Blancs, strikingly fine Gewurztraminers, superb Rieslings, some of the best ice wines I have ever tasted, and a lot more. Indeed, some of the finest rosés I have ever tasted are from BC.
That the Okanagan is a wine region might surprise the uninitiated. North of rain-plagued Seattle, it might seem to be a cold, frozen, barren wasteland for crops of any sort.
Quite the contrary. Sheltered by mountains, some 200 miles from marine influences, this valley is blessed with long, warm summers virtually free of rain (annual rainfall here rarely exceeds 10 inches), and a winter not as long or as harsh as those of America’s Midwest.
Thus it is an agricultural paradise, with apples seemingly everywhere, as well as other fruits and vegetables.
Located here, too, is a Canadian agricultural research center, a vast complex that uses leading-edge science to maximize the flavors in all fruit, improve fruit shelf life, and increase production of numerous crops.
Among the subjects under the microscope here are fine wine grapes, a far cry from the hybrids and native American varieties that dominated the landscape here three decades ago.
It was the passion of one man who got the industry moving in the direction of world-class wine.
Harry McWatters, former owner of Sumac Ridge Estate, was an early visionary. It was he who pushed neighbors to take the leap and plant French varieties. It was he who helped organize the first wine festival, he who pushed for a now-successful wine center in Penticton, and a hundred other things to persuade locals that great wine was possible.
Today most of the wine grapes in this valley are French, Vitis vinifera.
Today you can find world class Pinot Gris (not a contradiction; just try the wines), Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. Recently we have seen some startling efforts with red wines. Over the years, I have been awed by the crispness of so many of the white wines with perfect varietal character. Now there are reds to match.
Considering that it has been just 25 years since the Canadian government paid growers to pull out hyrbids and natives and plant Vitis vinifera, the Okanagan Valley has come a long way and remarkably quickly — faster than many other North American wine-growing regions.
The major problem for U.S. consumers is getting the wine. Few Canadian wineries distribute in the United States.
But by visiting, Americans can bring back some of these startlingly fine wines in the trunk of their cars, paying a small duty at the border.
Not only are most of the wineries nicely situated, with gorgeous views and grand edifices, but a few have spectacular restaurants. British Columbia is a North American vinous gem with open arms to U.S. tourists.
It’s a summer vacation opportunity for wine lovers that should not be missed.