The second day of this trip was spent immersed in the beauty of the northern and central Okanagan. As a wine region, the Okanagan is simply too diverse to make all that much sense of. The lake is very long, and climate shifts quite a bit from the cooler north to the pretty warm south. Add on the differences between being on the east side and the west side. Then factor in the changing soil types, and you have a matrix that logically results in about 15 sub-appellations, which are sorely needed as the wine scene here matures. As long as conjunctive labelling is adopted (whereby the sub-appellation name can only be used on a label along with Okanagan), and I can’t see a problem, because these sub-appellations aren’t just vanity projects or ego trips – they are based on terroir. But there are a few big wineries in the valley who are resisting because of vested interests.
We rolled up to the imposing gates of Mission Hill winery, to be greeted by two security guards who checked us over thoroughly but in a friendly way. The gates pull back and we enter a remarkable world. It’s one of the planet’s grandest wineries, and it’s here in the Okanagan. Mission Hill may not be to everyone’s taste, with its immaculate, manicured grandeur, but it is a real asset to the valley, because it satisfies the needs of a lot of tourists every year. It also provides a massive validation to the Okanagan as a globally important wine region, not just a regional curiousity: that someone should build something like this, here, is a bold statement of belief.
We were hosted by Ingo Grady and winemaker Darryl Brooker. Darryl is an Aussie who was previously in charge of Cedar Creek, a boutique winery on the opposite shore of the lake that joined the Mission Hill portfolio a couple of years ago. Proprietor Anthony von Mandl now has four properties in the valley, each with a particular talent. There’s Mission Hill, a Bordeaux blend specialist, Cedar Creek (aromatic whites and Pinot Noir), Martin’s Lane (a new Pinot Noir specialist, wines not yet released, located next to Cedar Creek) and Checkmate (Chardonnay). ‘We’re starting to mature as a company,’ says Darryl.
We tasted a range of Cedar Creek and Mission Hill wines. I particularly liked two of the wines. The Cedar Creek Platinum Riesling Block 3 2014 was aromatic, lively and assertive with just enough sugar to balance the sky high but well integrated acidity. And the Cedar Creek Platinum Pinot Noir Block 2 2014 was beautifully floral and textured with nice detail and freshness. I asked Darryl about Pinot in the region. ‘I think it’s really exciting,’ he replied. His view is that it only works north of Okanagan Falls, but from here up, it really shows the terroir well and is the variety that could be used to base the appellations on. ‘The potential is still relatively untapped. One of the main reasons for me moving here is Pinot Noir.’
We also tried the Cedar Creek Desert Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2013. This was made by placing whole berries in and amphora, sealing it, and coming back 8 months later. It was pressed and then bottled with no additions. It’s close to 15% alcohol, but the wine is really interesting, and not at all funky. There’s an interesting texture here.
From Mission we headed over to Gray Monk, where we were hosted by the incredibly jovial Trudy and George Heiss (above). They were pioneers here, in Lake Country, at the north end of the appellation, and were responsible for importing Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Gewurztraminer into Canada back in 1976. There was hardly any vinifera here then, and Trudy’s father managed to get some from the research station in Colmar, Alsace. It was late in the season and there was very little material left, but they got budwood and rootstock and had to do the grafting themselves. All the Pinot Gris in the valley (it’s the most widely planted variety) comes from their imports.
They farm 75 acres with their three sons, and also have 250 acres under contract. The wines are cleanly made and pleasant, and they’re also affordable. Along with Pinot Gris and Blanc, there’s Ehrenfelser, Siegerrebe, Auxerrois and Gewurztraminer. They are all pretty wines with crisp acidity, helped with a little sugar. The reds are solid but less successful.
The third visit was at Tantalus, which has a reputation as a Riesling specialist, with winemaker David Paterson. He’s doing a great job here, and all the wines are worth taking a good look at. We scooted round the vineyards in an ATV (all terrain vehicle) and had a peep at the 1978 Clone 21B Riesling plantings that were established here by Dr Helmut Becker as part of his famous experimental trials. Becker, then the head of Germany’s famous Geisenheim research institute, visited the valley in 1976. He was blown away by the potential of the Okanagan, particularly for white wine production. Yet at the time it was all hybrid vines. In what became known as the ‘Becker Project’, he oversaw the importation and planting of some 27 different vinifera varieties, including this Riesling clone, which has done very well.
As well as making excellent still and sparkling Riesling, Tantalus also do really well with Pinot Noir. ‘North of the Okanagan Falls, it’s the only red grape variety that should be grown,’ says Paterson.