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The Best of BC (August 31, 2006)

We have free trade with the US and Mexico but not between Canadian provinces. Which is why you don't see many British Columbia wines in Ontario. Unless you've visited the Okanagan, you've probably never heard of such great little boutique wineries as Black Hills, Fairview Cellars, La Frenz, Poplar Grove, Golden Mile, Kettle Valley and Sandhill. Occasionally we do see the flagship wines of Burrowing Owl, Mission Hill, Quails' Gate and Gray Monk at Vintages.

British Columbia is like Chile – a vertical wine region stretching from Salmon Arm in the north to the Washington State border. The natural BC tendency is to look south of the border, rather than east to the rest of Canada. BC's vintners tend to model their wines on California and Washington State, although there is still a lingering German influence using grapes such as Bacchus, Ehrenfelser, Kerner, Ortega and Schönburger.

Given its geography, the range in temperature and rainfall is enormous. The town of Oliver, the self-styled "Wine Capital of Canada," boasts 318 days with temperatures over 18° Celsius; Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island has a mere 52 days over that mark. Thus, the island and the northern Okanagan feature early-ripening hybrids, while Oliver and the Osoyoos region (Canada's only pocket desert) can ripen Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the Rhône variety Syrah. The cool Fraser Valley and the even more marginal Vancouver Island rely heavily on Okanagan fruit to supplement their own.

On a recent visit to BC I toured the properties owned or managed by Vincor. I have chosen the top five wines I tasted there.

Hawthorne Mountain is the only winery I know that has a dog cemetery on the property. The original owner, an eccentric Englishman, buried twelve dogs now celebrated by a portfolio of wines called See Ya Later. These feature a winged dog with a halo on the labels and some are actually named after the dogs in the cemetery.

2005 See Ya Later Chardonnay (barrel-fermented) has straw colour; spicy, tropical fruit, oaky nose; it's full-bodied, with spice, tangerine and mango flavours laced with oak, nutty finish. (****½)

Inniskillin Okanagan is not as imposing a winery as its Ontario counterpart. Basically, it's a cinder-block building off Highway 97, although they are in the process of building a new visitors' centre adjacent to the main road south to the US. Here I tasted several wines from the Discovery Series, experimental plantings of varieties not usually associated with the Okanagan.

Discovery Series Pinotage 2005 (barrel sample) is a dense purple colour with a bouquet of rose petals, cherries and spice; medium-bodied, lovely fruit character, very enjoyable. I would not have recognized it blind as a Pinotage but it was a delicious red wine. (****½)

The first time I saw Nk'Mip Vineyards was in 2002 for the ceremonial opening of the winery. The facility is on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band, who planted 250 acres of vineyard near Oliver in 1968. With Vincor, they created the winery and have subsequently added a golf course, a restaurant and a series of condos that look like a contemporary Navajo village. Winemaker Randy Picton lead our group through a series of his Pinot Noirs – 2002, 2003, 2004, 2004 Qwan Qwmt and a barrel sample of 2005. (Qwan Qwmt – an Indian expression for "achieving excellence" – is Nk'Mip's top-of-the-line range). The Pinot Noirs are really very good, very Burgundian in style, well extracted with great balance of fruit and oak. I particularly liked the 2003 (****½)

Jackson-Triggs Okanagan has been recognized as "Best of Nation: Canada" at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for the third time in five years. Bruce Nicholson, the head winemaker for Jackson-Triggs, makes spectacular reds – Shiraz and Cabernet Blends. But it is his Jackson-Triggs Proprietors' Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2005 that captured my attention: pale straw colour; grassy, green plum and grapefruit nose; full on the palate with a touch of sweetness, soft mouth feel but finishes with lively acidity. Stylistically more like New Zealand. (****½ )

Osoyoos Larose is Vincor's joint venture with the Bordeaux shipper Le Groupe Taillan (who own Château Gruaud Larose, hence the name). Since 2001 Pascal Madevon, the winemaker from St. Emilion, has been making a stunning Bordeaux-style claret. The 2005 wines are a real revelation, much more concentrated and defined than previous vintages, auguring well for the final assemblage. The blend that Madevon made for this tasting had a roasted nose with coffee-bean notes and a powerful yet velvety mouth feel. Tight and muscular, it will be long lived. 2005 looks like a spectacular year in BC for both reds and whites.

Sumac Ridge, one of BC's oldest estate wineries, opened its wine shop 25 years ago. Harry McWatters, the winery's founder, sabred a bottle of sparkling wine while we toasted him with Pinnacles Brut 2000 (a Pinot Noir sparkler). McWatters has been an industry leader in BC, having made the first sparkling wine (Steller's Jay in 1989), opened the first winery restaurant, made the first wine from the Black Sage vineyard and produced the first Meritage in Canada in 1993. A consistent favourite of mine from Sumac Ridge is the white Meritage 2003, a Sauvignon/Semillon blend: medium straw in colour, it has a nose of gooseberries and grapefruit with a lift of vanilla oak; medium-bodied, it has a lovely fresh, tangy flavour of gooseberries, citrus fruit, freshly cut grass and vanilla oak.

But don't look for these wines at the LCBO. You'll have to go to visit the Okanagan to finds them or badger the LCBO to bring them in. They deserve to be here.




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