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Off the Vine

Napa north
The scenery is spectacular, but so is the wine. B.C.'s Okanagan Valley vintages are winning awards and charming the palates of oenophiles from London to Taiwan. Too bad it's so hard to come by in Canada
By ALEXANDRA GILL, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 20, 2001

They say you never forget your first. Mmm. Mine was a velvety 1998 Tinhorn Creek Merlot that rolled across my tongue on a perfectly round vanilla nose then burst into rich cherry notes. The experience ignited a passion for British Columbia wines and left me salivating for more.

As a recent arrival from Ontario, I had no clue about the delights in store. The wines of B.C. are more readily available in Taiwan than they are east of the Rockies, so I bet my oenophile friends back East have never wrapped their lips around Stag's Hollow 1998 Merlot, a smooth young buck that delivers full berry intensity and kicks of caramel.

And while I admit I'm a tart for fat reds and opulent dessert wines just like everyone else, I'm discovering that there are lesser-known varieties - lean pinot noirs, muscular cabernet francs, fruity pinot blancs and spicy gewurztraminers - that this province does even better. The oft-overlooked pinot gris is touted as a showcase wine for the province ever since Calona Vineyard's 1999 Artist Series vintage (which retails for $10.95 a bottle) was awarded the gold medal, the best-of-class award and then named the best white wine - period - at the prestigious Los Angeles County Fair in 2000. "Ephemeral and lovely, like a yellow rose," one of the judges swooned in the Wall Street Journal.

So off I went last month to the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival to explore the hidden treasures of this valley, which many have begun calling the Napa of the North. What I found was a spectacular tourist destination and an ambitious community of vintners determined to conquer the world.

"It's so beyond Napa," Anthony von Mandl exclaims as stares down at the shimmering blue lake from his newly completed $35-million Mission Hill Family Estate 15 minutes south of Kelowna. "People laugh," he says, about the ambition he himself describes as "audacious" to build one of the world's top 10 wineries. But he's well on his way.

Mission Hill has been creating world-class wines since 1992, when von Mandl lured John Simes, the viniculturalist who put New Zealand's Montana wines on the map, to the little fruit-fly infested cellar he had purchased for a pittance in 1981. Simes's first vintage, the 1992 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Barrel Select, captured the Avery Trophy as the best in the world at London's International Wine and Spirit Competition in 1994. The judges were so shocked at what they had picked, they insisted on a second blind tasting. The results were the same.

Mission Hill, which is backed by the profits of Mike's Hard Lemonade and a low-priced plonk named Rotting Grape, continues to win prizes (the 1999 Estate Chardonnay won the only North American gold medal given out during the 2001 Chardonnay du Monde Competition) and accolades (the 1999 Pinot Blanc has shown up on the wine list of the Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar in London and was recently featured by renowned critic Jancis Robinson as her wine of the week). Impressive? Yes. But the B.C. wine industry is small. With 68 wineries accounting for 5,000 harvested acres last year, it's about half the size of Oregon's wine region. Still, quality has shot forward dramatically in one short decade, largely because free trade with the United States forced the makers of screw-top plonk to rip out their inferior hybrid vines and replace them with classic European vinifera.

Quantity, however, is limited because B.C.'s wine heartland, the Okanagan Valley, has almost reached full capacity. The region is bounded by its natural setting, a dry sunny cradle sheltered from rain by the Coastal Mountain Range on one side and the 100-kilometre stretch of Lake Okanagan. Intensely hot summer days and a long warm fall help the grapes ripen to their full potential, while cool crisp nights preserve acid and fruit flavour. This microclimate, which stretches from Kelowna and Vernon in the north to the vineyards around Oliver in the south, receives more sunlight than any other wine-growing region in the world.

Small volumes, further limited by careful pruning to concentrate the intensity of the grapes, partly explains why the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the largest wine buyer in the world, has had a difficult time securing quantities of B.C. wines large enough to stock its 600-plus stores. It also means that stand-outs such as the 98 Tinhorn Merlot are allocated only in tiny batches to wine merchants in Vancouver. And when they do hit the store shelves, the occasion has been known to create long lineups. Obviously I'm not the only one falling for B.C. wines. My second tryst was with a big blackberry 1998 cabernet sauvignon from Burrowing Owl. It has apparently developed a cult following in Ontario, where such top restaurants as Toronto's Canoe are pouring it for $19 a glass. (An entire bottle can be had for about $50 in select Vancouver restaurants). Last month, the Los Angeles-based arbiter of all things trendy, In Style magazine, gave Mission Hill's 1998 Reserve Vidal Icewine a big plug.

Demand for B.C. wines is only going to heat up now that the rest of the world is turning on to this remote corner on the wine-growing map which lapped up more than 700 medals at international competitions last year alone. In the summer issue of the LCBO's in-house Food & Drink magazine, James Chatto grudgingly admitted that the wines he sampled on a recent trip to B.C. were "as good as any made in Ontario."

Tell that to von Mandl, whose new winery - designed by Tom Kundig of Seattle, inspired by Roman architecture, adorned with Grecian urns, a 10-metre Marc Chagall tapestry, an amphitheatre and a 12-storey bell tower - stands like a fortress overlooking the valley. "We are not competing against Niagara," von Mandl declares. "We are up against the world."

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