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A Trip to the Okanagan 

Sunday, July 9, 2006: Flew to Vancouver with a group of wine writers en route to Penticton for a tour of Vincor properties in the Okanagan. Today is the World Cup soccer final. Air Canada doesn't have a satellite feed and it is only as we are about to disembark that the pilot tells us that Italy has won. I can only imagine what it will be like on St. Clair Avenue tonight in Toronto. I recall the scene in 1982. We are driven in a small bus to the Summerland Waterfront Resort about fifteen minutes away from the airport and have dinner in the adjacent Shaughnessy's Cove Pub. The waitress hands me the wine list with 25 local wines on it and then begins to reel off the wines that are not available – which turns out to be about half the list. I order a bottle of Domaine Combray Chardonnay and Adora Maximus (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Syrah). There are no vintages listed and when the bottles arrive it turns out that the Chardonnay is 1998 (!) and the red 2000. The Adora has obviously been badly stored because it tastes of stewed plums. The table orders a Hawthorne Mountain Riesling 2004 and Jackson-Triggs Viognier 2002 – and then we switch to beer. I order plank-grilled salmon and ask for it to be underdone. It comes well done and dry. The room at the hotel is very comfortable, a suite with cooking facilities and two TVs. My balcony has a gorgeous view of the Lake.

Me on the terrace at Hawthorne Mountain

Monday, July 10: After breakfast a bus takes us to the airport to pick up the Vancouver contingent of wine writers and restaurateurs. The first stop is Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards. This is a beautifully sited winery high up on a mountain slope at 1500 meters, the highest in the Okanagan. The drive up is exciting, with hairpin bends. The site was originally settled by a Major Hugh Fraser, who imported an English bride. After three days, the woman could not take the isolation and returned to England. Legend, according to Harry McWatters, the original owner of HMV, says that the note the wife left was signed, "See ya later," the way the Major signed his letters. Frazer, apparently, spent many years here in the company of his beloved dogs, twelve of whom are buried in his pet cemetery with their own headstones (between 1921 and 1962).

The dog cemetery at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards

Hawthorne Mountain has a line of wines called See Ya Later with a winged dog on the label. Some are actually named after the dogs in the cemetery. The winemaker Dave Carson led us through a tasting of See Ya Later Ranch wines.

  • 2005 Pinot 3 (a blend of the three Pinots): pale straw with a faint pink tint; peach and citrus on the nose; dry with a minerally, dusty note, medium-bodied with fresh acidity (****)
  • 2005 Jimmy My Pal (a blend of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, barrel-fermented): light straw colour; spicy, oaky, apple and vanilla bouquet; full on the palate with a peachy-apple flavour, although oak predominates at the moment (****)
  • 2005 Pinot Gris (50% barrel-fermented): medium straw colour; grassy, white peach nose; full-bodied, peach flavour with a dusty note (***˝)
  • 2005 Chardonnay (barrel-fermented): straw colour; spicy, tropical fruit, oaky nose; full-bodied, spice tangerine and mango flavours laced with oak, nutty finish (****˝)
  • 2004 Pinot Noir: tawny ruby; raspberry, raspberry candy, coffee bean with a floral top note; medium-bodied, firmly structured with dusty tannins and a dry chocolate finish (****)
  • 2004 Ping (the name of the Chow in the graveyard – a Meritage blend, 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc): dense purple-ruby; cedar, blackcurrant, red pepper; full-bodied, creamy mouth feel, fruity and firm with good acidity (****)
  • 2004 Ehrenfelser Icewine: old gold colour; spicy, honey, apricot, tropical fruit; unctuous and perfumed with an exotic orange, honey and Turkish Delight flavour; firm finish but could do with a touch more acidity (****˝)

Next we had a sparkling wine reception on the grass while the caterers set up for lunch.

  • See Ya Later Brut, a sparkling Chardonnay – yeasty, bready, caramel nose; fresh, dry, apple flavour; soft, creamy finish (****)

With lunch, Hawthorne Mountain Riesling 2005, HM Chardonnay 2004 and Pinot Noir 2004.

Back on the bus to Inniskillin Okanagan. The winery building is not very impressive, basically a cinder block building off Highway 97. Donald Ziraldo welcomed us on a patch of grass above a newly planted vineyard – the site of the proposed Hospitality Centre and retail shop, to be located on the highway that is the main road to the US. We are served ice cream to cool us down, which Ziraldo says is "gelato in honour of the Italian victory." Not the best taste to have in your mouth for a tasting of dry white wines, but refreshing in the heat. We move back to concrete plinth with a tented cover in the vineyard to taste a series of wines from the Discovery Series.

  • Discovery Series Chenin Blanc 2005: medium straw, pear-quince nose; medium-bodied, quite acidic with a bitter almond note and a hot alcoholic finish (***)
  • Discovery Series Viognier 2005: pale straw; peachy, again with a bitter almond note; medium-bodied, dry, aromatic peach pit flavour, crisp finish (***˝)
  • Discover Pinot Grigio 2005: pale straw with a pink tint; banana note on the nose of a newly bottled wine; dry, minerally, white peach; soft mouth feel but again bitter note on the finish (***˝)
  • Malbec 2005 (barrel sample): dense purple; sulphur on the nose, cedar, red pepper nose; well-extracted fruit; blueberry-blackberry flavour, firm finish (****)
  • Pinotage 2005 (barrel sample): dense purple, rose petal, cherry, spicy; medium-bodied, lovely fruit character, very enjoyable (****˝)
  • Inniskillin Vineyards Dark Horse Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: ruby; fine cedar and blackcurrant nose; well integrated oak; medium-bodied, claret style, firm structure (****˝)
  • Discovery Series Zinfandel 2004: deep purple; plum and vanilla oak, chocolate and tobacco leaf; medium-bodied, dry, lively plum flavour with cocoa-like tannins (****)
  • Dark Horse Vineyards Riesling Icewine 2004: old gold; intense, honeyed peach, high toned; unctuous, full-bodied, heavy on the palate with a spicy honeyed peach and tropical fruit flavour (****)

The Nk'Mip Cultural Heritage Centre in Osoyoos

The condo development in the Nk'mip Vineyard with the winery at right

A friendly warning

Back on the bus to drive to the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa, where we are staying the night. 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. When I was last here a year ago only the winery building stood above the vineyard. Now it looks like a thriving community, with the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre next door (where they capture rattlesnakes and insert computer chips to track their movements). A couple of hours rest and then to dinner in the winery. We are greeted at the door with a glass of Riesling 2005. We sit down and winemaker Randy Picton leads us 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 and is known by the staff as Q2). The Pinot Noirs are really very good, very Burgundian in style, well extracted with great balance of fruit and oak. I particularly liked the 2005 barrel sample and the Q2 2004. What struck me was the refreshing acidity in a variety that does not usually perform well in hot growing regions. When I asked Randy Picton if the acidity was due to the dramatic difference between day and night temperatures in this pocket desert, he said quite candidly, "No, I acidify. I want to make the best wine by any means I can." Next came two barrel samples – a 2005 Q2 Syrah from 3-year-old vines that was delicious with a smoky, spicy, blackberry flavour, and a 2005 Q2 Cabernet Sauvignon from 4-year-old vines – redcurrant flavour with a green note suggesting Cabernet Franc, but Picton said it was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The last two wines were different blends of the Qwan Qwmt Chardonnay 2005, not yet bottled. Picton asked the group for their preference. The overwhelming favourite was the second sample, which came from different clones in the vineyard and had a slightly different oak treatment. After the tasting, we went out on the terrace, where a long table had been prepared for dinner overlooking the lake. The menu: Lemon Infused Crab Claws on a bed of Wild & Field Greens (with 2004 Qwan Qwmt Chardonnay); Seared Bison Steak & Organic Caribou Links topped with a roasted Wild Mushroom Sauce, Cranberry Quinoa, Grilled Asparagus (with 2003 Qwam Qwmt Merlot and 2003 Qwam Qwmt Meritage). For dessert, Tiramisu with 2005 Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine. Watched a magnificent sunset and then to bed.

Tuesday, July 11: After breakfast in the winery we take the bus to Jackson-Triggs's SunRock Vineyard between Oliver and Osoyoos. A huge granite outcrop dominates the 103-acre site, which slopes down towards the lake. At the base of the rock is a gazebo and a white tent, where we sit at tables to taste. We can see the Osoyoos Larose vineyard across the lake. We'll be tasting those wines after lunch. Bruce Nicholson, the head winemaker for Jackson-Triggs, leads us through his wines.

  • Proprietors' Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2005: 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 ****˝
  • SunRock Chardonnay 2004: straw colour; vanilla, apple and spice on the nose; full-bodied, caramel and apple flavour; well balanced with a toasty finish. ****˝
  • Proprietors' Reserve Cabernet Franc Rosé (the first rosé J-T Okanagan has made): deep pink with an orange tint; cranberry and strawberry nose; raspberry candy flavour, a little sweet but finishes well. An attractive rosé ****
  • Proprietors' Reserve Merlot 2004: solid ruby that stains the glass; vanilla, blackberry nose; full-bodied with a sweet damson jam flavour and milk chocolate note; soft, dusty tannins ****˝
  • SunRock Shiraz 2004: dense purple colour; cedar, spicy, smoky note; ripe blackberry flavour, chunky mouth feel, smoky with a firm structure ****
  • Proprietors' Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: purple-ruby colour; cedar, vanilla, pencil shavings, plum and blackcurrant on the nose; medium-bodied, fine blackberry with a licorice note; firm structure with a warm finish ****˝
  • SunRock Meritage 2004: deep ruby; cedar, vanilla, currants; sweet, well extracted fruit, well balanced, medium-bodied with a firm structure. Bordeaux in New World style; a touch green on the finish ****
  • Proprietors' Reserve Riesling Icewine 2005: old gold colour; honey, apricot nose; unctuous, full-bodied, intense and syrupy; enough acidity to give it good length ****˝

The Osoyoos Larose vineyard (upper slopes) as seen from the SunRock Vineyard

Lunch in the sun before driving to the Jackson-Triggs winery for a tasting of Osoyoos Larose with the winemaker, Pascal Madevon. The vineyard, a joint venture with Le Groupe Taillan in Bordeaux (who own Ch. Gruaud Larose, hence the name), has all five Bordeaux varieties planted. In the fermentation and barrel cellar Madevon has lined up four vintages of Osoyoos Larose plus all five component wines for the 2005 vintage in the following order: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon. He has also made an initial blend of the five. They will spend 18 months in oak before bottling. I had tasted the 2001 out of the barrel in 2002 and thought it to be very good. Time has not been as kind to it as I thought it might. It is showing its age now and has some green tannin notes. The 2002 is a real charmer, though, with a violet note in the nose of blackberries and cranberries, fresh, with dusty tannins. ****˝. The 2003 has a roasted note with nicely integrated oak and lively red and black fruit flavours and a chocolate finish – very St. Emilion in style. ****. 2004 is chunky and intense with plum and prune notes on the nose, very dry and tannic at the moment. ****. The 2005 wines are a real revelation, much more concentrated and defined, 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.

Harry McWatters sabring a bottle of Pinnacles Brut 2000 to celebrate Sumac Ridge's 25th anniversary

After this tasting we gathered outside the winery for the ribbon cutting for Jackson-Triggs's new Tasting Gallery and wine shop. We toasted the moment with Jackson-Triggs Sparkling Icewine as Jay Wright, the new president and CEO of Vincor, cut the ribbon with Ron Hovanes, the mayor of Oliver. It was a good thing that I didn't get to meet the mayor, since I had written satirically about his town's self-declared title of "Wine Capital of Canada" ("Wine Capital of Canada," October 14, 2004). Back to the hotel to change for a visit to Sumac Ridge, BC's oldest estate winery, which opened its wine shop 25 years ago today. Harry McWatters, the winery's founder, was in good form in spite of having celebrated with his staff into the small hours the night before. He 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. Food stations were set up in different areas of the winery with wines to match. There was dancing to a rock band and a heroic consumption of Sumac Ridge wines. Back at the hotel, I went for a cleansing ale at Shaughnessy's Cove Pub with three VQA wine store operators. I had a local beer called Thirsty Beaver; two of the others ordered a Nut Brown Ale. The waitress came by later and asked how we are enjoying "the beaver and two nuts." It was that kind of evening.

Wednesday, July 12: Misread my watch and jumped out of bed thinking it was 7:10 am and I had to be down for breakfast for 7:30 am. Turned out I was an hour early and the doors to the breakfast room were not even open. Flew to Vancouver (where it is raining) and got a lift to the Metropolitan Hotel, where I'm spending the night in order to have dinner with my daughter Annabel and to see her newly purchased condo. Had lunch in Diva with my old fried Jeremy Roncaroni, the GM of the Metropolitan – a glass of Mission Hill 5 Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2004 with a plate of Linguine Puttanesca. Took a taxi over to my daughter Annabel's new condo. She has a bottle of Rosemount Diamond Label Shiraz 2004 decanted. We have a couple of glasses and then take a cab to C Restaurant for dinner. The sommelier Tom Doughty tells me he has started his own label – Montagu Merlot and Chardonnay – made at Poplar Grove in Naramata. Montagu is part of his hyphenated surname that he doesn't use. Tom shows me the wax-dipped bottle of his 2004 Merlot. Too late, unfortunately, to have included it in my Wine Atlas of Canada (which comes out on October 28th). C has a very interesting seafood menu. The list is divided into Amusant, Appetizer and Main. The amusants are El Bulli-inspired creations. I ordered Cured Trout, sweet peas, whey – which turned out to be shreds of smoked trout on a bed of sweet peas that supported a frozen ball of ice flavoured with peas, inside of which was pea soup. The whole thing was toped by a disc of whey. Annabel's dish was even more exotic: Smoked Scallop, cedar, matcha: a grilled scallop skewered on the "chimney" of a glass cup inside of which were cedar chips that gave off smoke. The entire restaurant smelled like a fire in a cooperage. My appetizer was Grilled Scallop, crisp pork terrine, organic peas and black truffle. Annabel's, Lobster Bisque. My main: Albacore Tuna ultra rare, confit fennel risotto, house-made bacon and salsa verde. Annabel's: Roasted Sablefish, Seville orange, bread, sablefish chorizo, green bean. The wine: a bottle of La Frenz Viognier 2004. A delicious meal altogether, passing food back and forth. No room for dessert, so we headed next door to NU, owned by C, for a glass of Mission Hill Shiraz (couldn't see the vintage).

Thursday, July 13: Up at 6:45 am to get to Vancouver Airport for an 8 am breakfast with Nick Bevan, who represents Kendall-Jackson in western Canada. We talked about his trip into the Okanagan and Similkameen. I suspect there might be some commercial interest there. On the full flight back to Toronto I am kicked up to Business Class. I have to get back home as soon as I can since Mike Mandel and his wife, Heather, are coming to dinner. But first I have to have some quality face time with Pinot the Wonder Dog. And, of course, with Deborah. The dinner: we start with a bottle of the Sumac Ridge Pinnacles Brut 2000 (we were all given a bottle at the event on Tuesday) with tapenade and a cream cheese and pepper dip; spicy shrimps on a bed of arugala with Mountain Road Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2002 (an unsung wine in the Ontario portfolio); BBQ steak with BC's Burrowing Owl Merlot 1998 (forgotten in my cellar), and with the cheeses, Arrowood Grand Archer Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 from Sonoma.




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