Every time Sue and I visit the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada we find something new that makes us rethink what we thought we knew about this beautiful (and somewhat still undiscovered) wine region. Here are three perspectives taken from the field notes from our July 2019 visit for the B.C. Wine Grape Council Enology & Viticulture Conference.
#1 Follow the Money
If you drive around the long, narrow valley you cannot avoid the impression that there is a lot of recent investment in the wine sector here. So many pretty vineyards and stylish wineries, many with ambitious restaurants and hospitality venues. Where is the money coming from? And how is it being spent?
There is no simple answer to this question. There are two large players working to build the regional brand and a lot of smaller operations, some well-financed by outside money while others look like classic family wineries.
The big players are Andrew Peller Limited and Arterra Wines Canada. Peller has wineries in both Ontario (including Thirty Bench, Wayne Gretzky Estates) and British Columbia (including Calona Vineyards, Sandhill, Red Rooster). Calona Vineyards was established in 1932 at the end of Canada’s prohibition era.
As you might guess, the early focus was not exactly fine wine, but Peller has moved successfully into the quality era. Sandhill’s founding winemaker Howard Soon built a flagship brand of single-vineyard wines that seems intended to mark Peller’s path into the future.
Arterra has a complicated history, but is headed the same direction. It was already a going business when I first encountered it years ago as Vincor, which owned a collection of wineries in Canada and elsewhere including Hogue Cellars in Washington State and New Zealand’s Kim Crawford.
Vincor was purchased by Constellation Brands, which both developed the wineries and expanded the distribution network to include other Constellation wines. Constellation sold the Vincor operations (retaining Kim Crawford, of course, part of its continuing effort to redefine its business model) to the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan in 2016.
The resulting firm, Arterra, still distributes some of the Constellation wines including Woodbridge by Mondavi, Ruffino, and Kim Crawford, as well as wines from its iconic Canadian wineries including Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge, Inniskillin, Nk’Mip Cellars (in partnership with the Osoyoos Indian Band), and See Ya Later Ranch.
Large wine companies always draw suspicion because of their ability to throw their weight (money) around. But I think they are useful because they can have the breadth and scale to promote the regional brand better than other groups with fewer resources can do.
The Okanagan has benefited from several waves of outside investment in vineyards and wineries over the past 25 years. City money from Vancouver, oil money (now in shorter supply) from Alberta. Chinese-Canadian and mainland Chinese investment, too.
Our group stopped at Le Vieux Pin on the Black Sage Road near Oliver. The winery’s owners are Iranian. Their talented French winemaker, Severine Pinte, crafts wines that are all about elegance and balance and it is easy to fall in love with them, especially over an improvised lunch of gourmet deli-sandwiches. Mary McDermott, one of our hosts and the winemaker at Chinese-owned Township 7, brought her delicious sparkling wine to complete the feast
Perhaps the most exciting new project we saw is Phantom Creek Estates. Bai Jiping and his family are investing C$50 million in vineyards and C$50 million in a showstopper winery on the Black Sage Bench. The vineyard was already well known (it supplied grapes for Sandhill) and now the big facility on the hill, with its 120 seat restaurant and hospitality space, is nearing completion. When it opens in September (by appointment only during the phase-in) it will provide a destination winery in the south of the valley to book-end famous Mission Hill in the north.
#2 Creative Destruction
Climate change is an issue here as it is almost everywhere else in the wine world, and it may provide an interesting “Back to the Future” moment for this region. Hybrid grape varieties dominated here until the 1990s, when increased import competition fueled by the NAFTA trade agreement forced growers to upgrade their plantings.
Not all the hybrids were removed, however, and one of the questions during the Q&A session was whether there was any future for these grapes and the wines that are made from them? The knee jerk answer would be no — not much market value in these vines any more. Better to move on to more consumer-friendly vinifera vines. But this might be a rush to judgement.
The day before we attended a talk by Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, on the impact of climate change on wine around the world and in British Columbia. One of the points he made was that hardy hybrids can be very useful because of their ability to span a range of climate conditions (compared with the more narrow growing windows of some vinifera grape varieties).
That thought was in my mind at lunch the next day when someone said that Sperling Vineyards was pouring their Old Vines Foch Reserve, made from vines planted in the 1960s. We already had the delicious Sperling Old Vines Riesling in our glasses (vines planted int he 1970s in the same vineyard as today’s Tantalus), so we snagged more glasses and tasted the Foch.
It was terrific. Different, as hybrids are, juicy, aromatic. Nothing like the last Maréchal Foch I tasted years ago, benefiting no doubt from improved vineyard and cellar practices. And maybe climate change, too? Dunno.
The Sperling Foch is exceptional and it is dangerous to generalize from exceptional cases, but it made me reconsider the viability of hybrids. Given climate change threats, I said in my reply to the question, maybe we need to change the way we think about hybrids — something that is happening in Europe according to a recent Decanter article.
Are hybrids the bad old days to be forgotten or are they part of our heritage that we need to remember and maybe turn to once again? Hybrids aren’t the answer to climate change– there isn’t any one answer — but maybe they can be part of the adjustment process.
#3 The Undiscovered Country
There is a lot going on in the Okanagan Valley, but it is just one of nine designated wine regions in British Columbia. There are smaller but active wine groups on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley, the Kootenays, Lillocet, Thompson Valley, Shuswap, and the Similkameen Valley.
The Similkameen Valley is next on our list. Rugged, rocky terroir — not much of what you might call dirt in some places for a vine to take root. And it’s warm, too — more heat units than Napa. When Howard Soon retired from Sandhill (and collected the Order of Canada honor) he linked up with Vanessa Vineyards so that he could explore the possibilities of this unusual terroir.
We’ve tasted some of Howard’s Vanessa wines and also those from nearby Clos du Soleil and they are simply fantastic. Similkameen Valley — must be a magical place. Can’t wait to go there.
And for the present visiting these regions is the surest way to find the wines, at least for those of us in the U.S. market. Distribution in the U.S. is limited and very hit-and-miss. I searched the Total Wine website for Romanian wine and found a dozen different wines, many of them available at the nearest store. A search for “Canada wine” turned up three Icewines ranging in price from about $25 to nearly $80 per slender bottle with only one (the most expensive, of course) available locally.
I hope things will change and some of these wines become more available here, but I don’t have to tell you that the politics of international trade are hotly contested these days. For the moment, the best way to taste and acquire these wines involves going to the source.
The good news is that a visit is richly rewarded. There are winter sports venues nearby, but the best times for wine tourism are probably spring through fall when the winery hospitality rooms are geared up for visitors. Sue and I spent a memorable early fall weekend at a lakeside resort in Summerland back in 2010. Here is a report of our wine tourism experience.
The Okanagan Valley is on the move when it comes to wine in more ways than one. It will be interesting to return in a few years to chart the changes … and sample more of these exceptional wines.