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Beautiful British Columbia (July 10, 2008)

Grape harvesting in British Columbia can be an extreme sport. When Don Triggs, the former CEO of Vincor, first set foot in the vineyard that would become Osoyoos Larose (arguably Canada's best Bordeaux-style blend) he nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. The vineyard is located at the southern end of the Okanagan Valley, not far from the Washington State border. Summer temperatures here can rise to 41° Celsius and drop 25° at night because this is desert country, Canada's only desert.

Unlike Ontario, which is virtually a horizontal east-west region from Prince Edward County to Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island, BC is a vertical north-south region with a much more dramatic range of temperatures and soil conditions. There is a cluster of some 14 wineries in the southern Okanagan – what they call "The Golden Mile" between the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver – that take advantage of a climate that can ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah as nowhere else in the country. Yet 200 kilometres north at Salmon Arm, wineries like Recline Ridge, Granite Creek Estate and Larch Hills struggle to ripen such winter-hardy white varieties as Madeleine Angevine, Siegerrebe and Ortega.

If you visit the Okanagan Valley (a five-hour drive from Vancouver) you will discover the most beautiful winescape in Canada, particularly the view of Naramata and across the lake from the deck at La Frenz and the drive up to Blue Mountain Vineyards through the McIntyre Bluff. If I sound like a tour guide, I can't help it. Every time I visit the Okanagan I'm struck by the beauty of rolling carpets of vineyards on cliffs that fall steeply into the lake against a mountain backdrop.

If you go, be sure to visit the Osoyoos Indian band winery Nk'Mip Cellars in its Santa Fe–style facility – next door is the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, where they actually trap rattlers and insert micro-chips in them so that they can track their habits. Not to be missed either is Burrowing Owl, set in its own vineyard with a terrific restaurant. And don't miss Mission Hill, perched above the town of Westbank. Anthony von Mandl (the guy who brought you Mike's Hard Lemonade and Corona beer) spent $35 million to create a destination winery that looks like a cross between Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley and a Greek temple. Dionysus, the god of wine, might just come down off his cloud to claim it as his own.

If you're looking for something out-of-this-world in the Twilight Zone sense, you have to see Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where owner Stephen Cipes ages his wines in a scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Apart from the pyramid, on the patio overlooking the lake is a huge bottle that seems to float in the air as it pours a glass of sparkling wine, advertising what Summerhill does best.

The Okanagan isn't BC's only wine region, however. As land prices soared in the Okanagan, vintners began to look elsewhere to plant vineyards. Similkameen, the adjacent valley, is hot, arid and wind-swept but already four wineries and a fruit winery have opened up here. (Try Orofino Vineyards, the only winery in Canada to be built from straw bales, and The Seven Stones Winery.) And Vancouver Island and the smaller islands within a short ferry ride from the mainland are now bristling with boutique wineries. (Don't miss Alderlea and Venturi-Schulze on Vancouver Island, Saltspring Island Vineyards and Saturna Island Vineyards.) The Fraser Valley, within an easy drive of Vancouver, and the interior of BC are also grape-growing areas.

Unlike Ontario, the BC consumer is enthusiastically behind its local wine industry. They buy BC to drink at home and ensure that restaurant wine lists carry a wide selection of the home-grown product. But although we have free trade with the US and Mexico, Ontario doesn't yet have free trade between the provinces, which means we see little of BC wines in the LCBO apart from the occasional release at Vintages.

In terms of grape varieties, what BC does best is Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernets and Syrah. And they make some fine bubblies as well, Blue Mountain and Sumac Ridge especially.




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