Saturday, January 10, 2015

I went looking for a great wine north of the 50th parallel

The popularity of the photographic short about the Okanagan valley up  in British Columbia ( led to this longer piece. One visitor called it "a wonderful secret," and it still is for residents of the lower Forty-eight.                                               

  I once visited British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, tasted some of it wines, and wondered if a really great one beckoned from up there on those steep slopes. Last summer I returned to find out, driving east from Vancouver and dropping over the Cascades into what’s the northernmost extension of the Sonoran desert. I was amazed by towering Ponderosa pines and a view from above of an inland fiord some 40 miles long, formed by an ancient glacier, on its shores orchards bent under the weight of cherries and apricots bending, and deeply green rows of marching vines.away. As I soon learned, I could also get grass-fed sirloin or lambs’ cheeks shipped from bordering Alberta, and Chinook salmon, Dungeness crab and halibut lofted over the Cascades from the yawningly-cold Pacific by a purveyor called the Codfather.

In the heart of the little city of Kelowna I began my search. Sandhill Vineyard’s new winery pays architectural homage to the glacier with a symbolic white slab that juts out above the tasting room. The wines were very good, with a delectable mineral taste from those ancient deposits. The same was true at Tantalus Vineyards in the hills, the winery the first LEEDS-certified one in BC, a minimalist structure that includes a bright, airy tasting room.
      I tried a riesling made from rootstock 40 years old that was bone dry and complex, a teeth-tingling finish. And the Tantalus estate pinot noir also proved that this tricky, profitable red variety does very well in the Okanagan. 
     “We’re a bit perfectionist,” said the manager, Jane Hatch, who took me for a stroll in the vineyard, the lake visible to the west under steep slopes dense with rock and chaparral and, and overhead a limpid blue sky. “We re-cycle all waste water and use only drought-tolerant plantings. No pesticides and herbicides.” She pointed out the blue-and-white hives full of healthy bees. “The sound of their wings frighten off aphids preying on the vines.”
In the 1970s the Canadian government paid Okanagan grape growers to rip out their old hybrid grape varieties and put in Vitis vinifera of proven European provenance. That was the beginning of the Okanagan’s steady rise to a level of quality that can no longer be ignored by the outside world. Today many of the 120-odd wineries use grapes from both ends of the valley, and finding many of those wineries more than once got me pleasantly lost in a lovely rural landscape not all about wine.                                             

The Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm, for instance, reminded me of scene in a 19th-century English novel in which young women wrap bundles of lavender in burlap strips while others squeezing rosettes of lavender butter onto cookie sheets.
  Arlo’s Honey Farm had some of the best wild honey I ever tasted and shipped its  yellow zucchini blossoms, blueberries, honeyberries, sascatoon and golden raspberries ripening on the hillsideto local restaurants. At Carmelis Goat Cheese Farm I was shown great redolent rounds of delicious cheese aging in the cellar.                                                
I followed the fresh produce trail back to Kelowna, where I discovered exceptional restaurants, including RauDZ Regional Table, and The Salted Brick. At the Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar an improvised tasting menu included - hang onto your napkin - scallops with green apple kimichi from local Green City Acres farms; aged prosciutto made in chef Mark Filatow’s own home, liver terrine with pork shoulder from Wild Moon Organics, smoked lardo, fresh salchitta, baby asparagus from Arlo’s, in-house sourdough bread cameos made with wild yeast, roasted garlic and arugula with baby peas in a carbonara-style sauce.
       I sip Quail’s Gate pinot noir with BC steelhead and salsa verde from milkweed and wild sorrel leaves, and a 50th Parallel Estate Winery pinot gris with pan-seared halibut.                                            
Mission Hill, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia, is a hilltop redoubt that looks part Franciscan monastery, part Game of Thrones. The 12-story pinnacle supposedly inspired “tower envy” in the late Robert Mondavi when he visited. The sprawling property includes a kitchen with a full-time staff to meet the demands of what feels like a thriving medieval village (locked up in the gorgeous cellar is a collection of ancient ceramics).
       But it was the wines I had come to taste, like Mission Hill’s Oculus, a well-balanced Bordeaux blend from its vineyards at the south end of the valley, and Quatrain, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc with great body.
The winemaker and vineyard manager, a New Zealander named John Simes, came to the Okanagan 24 years ago, and stayed. “The growing season’s very short,” he explained. “Some years there’s no bud-break before May, but the change is extremely quick. Then you can be harvesting cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc - and making ice wine a few weeks later!” Yet, in summer, temperatures can go up to 100 degrees. “We have a huge lake effect that moderates the temperature, so grapes can hang on the vine two weeks longer.”
In winter, when the vines are dormant, temperature drops to well below zero. Cold air blows straight down from the Arctic, but “the lake takes the edge off the cold.”                                    

The Okanagan’s a neighborly place. Mission Hill sent me to Painted Rock Estate, named for aboriginal art found nearby, that produces high quality reds and whites and illustrates the versatility of the lake effect. The owner, John Skinner, a former Vancouver investment banker, said, “I was looking for something more soulful to do, and I heard about the vinifera being grown in BC. I came over to take a look, tasted Burrowing Owl, and thought, ‘This has ripe fruit, it’s very good.’”
       The next thing he knew he was buying “dirt” here, preparing a vineyard and and “jumping the cue” to buy the best grape clones in Bordeaux, to be shipped to the Okanagan. Sunlight reflected from the lake helped ripens those grape varieties, and his inky syrah.
At Skinner’s urging I dropped by neighboring God’s Mountain, a delightful bit of Greece improvised from plywood and white stucco by an eccentric German half a century earlier. The greeting committee was a muddle of friendly labs and blue-heelers; the sign on the door of the tiny office read “Department of Various Things.” The owner, a transplanted Brit named Sarah Allen, who uses interns to help run this eclectic B&B with famous breakfast caneles, conducted me through the great hall crammed with mismatched furniture and points to one of several little rooms overlooking the lake. “We don’t bother with keys,” she says happily. “Dinner’s at seven.”                            
It was being prepared in an outdoor kitchen with French-blue shutters open to the view by Joy Road Catering’s staff that also laid outdoor tables end-to-end, spread with white cloths. Soon enough charcuterie was being served on planks, followed by freshly-shelled English pea soup with mint, basil and creme fraiche, cider-brined ham, haricot vert with purple potatoes, and fruit tarts. Hotel and visiting guests talked freely. My seat mates were a charming couple from Montreal cycling to Big Sur, all of  us overlooking mountains, vineyards and dark, distant water while little electric lights blinked on in the trees. A woman from Houston said, “This valley’s a wonderful secret.” So don’t tell a soul.

Outside Penticton, on what’s called the Naramata bench, I found a concentration of wineries and some memorable wines, including La Frenz and Laughing Stock. Then, near the end of that road, I almost stumbled upon what I had been looking for: an undeniably “world-class” wine. No sign, though, just a modest bungalow set amidst vineyards with a little winery behind. A tall man came out - shock of white hair, a big smile - and said, in a Swedish accent, “Welcome to Foxtrot.”
He was Torsten Allender, the founder. Since there was no tasting room we sat at a table out back, with a view of the lake, where he tipped up bottles with Foxtrot’s curious label - a maiden dancing in the vineyard with a bear. The award-winning pinot noir was dark but translucent, with explosive red fruit on the nose and palate, and a surprisingly long finish. I learned that Torsten had been a consulting engineer for a paper manufacturer when he and his wife, Kiki, bought the property in 2002. “We were interested in the fruit trees,” he said, “and only later discovered the 40-year-old grapevines later.”                                                                     
They were about to tear the vines out when their son, Gustav, stopped them. Torsten turned his attention instead to vinicultural, having decided “that if I could make facial tissue out of a tree, I could make wine.” 
      Clusters of grapes are dropped at every harvest, quality control that increases concentration of the wine, which is aged in Burgundy barrels. Today Gustav is the winemaker, and Foxtrot’s pinot noir is in such demand that it sells for more than $50 a bottle. Torsten, too, credits Lake Okanagan for keeping his vines cool enough in summer and for laying down soil deposits important to the taste of Foxtrot.  “This land was all underwater once,” he said. “Everything goes back to the lake.”                                               

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