Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wines of the Okanagan: A Diplomatic Overview Part 1

The Following was sent to Okanagan Daily Special through special diplomatic channels (wouldn't you like to know) from a former British Ambassador.

As with editorials in The Economist, Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956 explains "anonymity keeps the editor not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle."

So with out any further delay...

A Canadian Wine Trip

There’s an old joke that goes, “Once upon a time there were two Chinese. The punch-line is: “Look how many there are now!” I was reminded of this when I looked into the background history of British Colombia’s wine industry.

In 1990 BC had less than 1,500 acres dedicated to vines and just 17 wineries. Twenty years later those figures had risen to over 10,000 acres and 175 wineries. Even more impressive is the fact that the Province has 710 vineyards and grows more than 60 varieties of grape. In those twenty years production has risen from 750,000 litres to over 6.5 million which provides a monetary value of over C$160 million. Figures, perhaps, that do not quite reach the level of the Chinese population, but quite amazing all the same.

Wine production in the Okanagan began some 150 years ago. In 1859 Father Charles Pandosy arrived in the area with a group of missionaries and planted the first grapes in South Kelowna. As with many early Catholic establishments, the original intention was to produce a sacramental wine for use during their services. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have many reasons to thank Father Pandosy for his forsight and dedication. But it was the signing of the Free Trade Agreement by Canada and the USA in 1988 which opened up the way for Canadian businesses to develop.

The idea of a trip through some of BC’s wine-lands arose, strangely enough, during a meal in a Lebanese restaurant in London last summer. Michael and Jo, Canadian friends from Ottawa, were in London and Beryl and I joined them for lunch. Over an excellent bottle of Lebanese red, Mike and Jo mentioned that they knew the winemaker from their days in the Middle East. Talk turned to wines from other countries and it was suggested to us that Canada had much to offer. Never having seen a bottle from Canada in a British shop, and on the one occasion asking for one in New York only to be told they were out of stock, you could say we were less than impressed by our Canadian friends claim. They decided to prove us wrong and, finding a free month in all of our diaries, a trip was set up for May 2010.

Let me take a moment to map out the trip. Beryl and I had flown out of Heathrow - only hours before the airport was closed once again because of the threat of volcanic ash – en route to Vancouver. A week later we took the Greyhound to Kamloops to visit Beryl’s cousin and another bus on to Kelowna where we met up with Mike and Jo. The very first step of the trip took us to a Tim Horton’s for coffee and an enormous box of miniature doughnuts – which lasted us all for over a week.

Given Father Pandosy’s religious involvement in BC’s wine origins, appropriately we began our tour at the St Hubertus Estate, just south of Kelowna. St Hubertus, who was born in the middle of the 7th century, is the patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers. This seemed hugely relevant given that we were hunting bargains, calculating prices, peering at labels and discussing the benefits of oak over stainless steel. The Estate’s vineyards were first planted in 1928 and the Gebert family have produced wines there since 1984. Their 75 acres were extensively damaged by fire in 2003 but the Estate has survived and is producing a nice range of wines, the whites, in our view, outshining the reds. But the star was their 2009 Gamay Noir RosÄ— (12%), a delightful cherry colour, slightly frizzante and crammed full of spicy berries. Mike bought a couple here and more at the Penticton Wine Centre.

Our next call was to the nearby CedarCreek (this is not a typo – there is no space between the two words), a winery bought in 1986 by Senator Ross Fitzpatrick who promptly replaced all the apple trees in a vast orchard with vines. The business is now run by his son, Gordon, and comprises 50 acres on a northerly site consisting of clay, loam and some sand, ideal for Pinot Noir and white aromatics. The Estate was named Canada’s Winery of the Year in 2002 and 2005. We especially enjoyed the 2009 Gewurztraminer (13.5%) and, even more, the 2009 Ehrenfelser (13.8%) which the makers describe as “fruit salad in a glass”. We each bought a bottle. Delicious!

After an abortive attempt to visit a nearby cidery - hours 10 am to 4 pm but closed at 2.15! – we called on a new, small winery called Camelot. In 2006 the owners of an apple orchard found that prices no longer covered their packing costs and so they planted vines. The Estate consists of only six acres and the decision to produce their own wine rather than pass the grapes to a larger winery could not have been an easy one. Fortunately, in 2008, they engaged Ann Spurling as their winemaker. Camelot’s premises - the name derives from that of an earlier family home - is enhanced by various artefacts including a suit of armour. They produce five whites, two reds and a rosÄ—. We thought the wines needed more time although the Chardonnay, a recent prize winner, showed a lot of promise.

That night we ate in and enjoyed a veritable plethora of asparagus on toast covered with creamy cheese sauce. Our accommodation for our first two nights was at Lindsay Drive B & B, a slight misnomer as there was no second ‘B’, though to be fair to the proprietor he did provide a superb platter of fruit for us. The accommodation was a full wing of a house comprising two bedrooms, a lounge and kitchen area and the highest beds we have ever seen – but very comfortable.

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Stay Tuned for Part Two!

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