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Tyee Bridge revisits the Okanagan of his youth to find out that a lot has changedin a good way.
I had been aware of the Okanagan’s wine growth from afar, without actually comprehending it. I knew, for example, that 25 years ago there were only 17 wineries in all of B.C. Now there are more than 273—a number that includes fruit wineries but not the region’s growing panoply of craft distilleries and breweries. This means many, many bottles worth sampling that neither you nor your friends have ever heard of, and that was my grail as I headed to the area for the first time in a long while. I was going to grasp the challenge and the opportunity the region is presenting these days and get acquainted with its diversity. To steal a phrase from Jesse Harnden of the Hatch winery, those of us who aren’t in the industry tend to get stuck—at the liquor store shelf and on wine-tasting tours—in the “Burrowing Quail of Cedar Hill” rut of established, well-known edifices.
Wine critic John Schreiner recently noted that 80 percent of wine sales in B.C. go to the three largest winemakers. If accurate, and it’s probably close, that leaves the hundreds of other wineries with only a small sliver of the attention they deserve. You can enjoy the newbies and garagistes as well as the big boys with help from Schreiner himself: his user-friendly Okanagan Wine Tour Guide is non-snobby, comprehensive and updated every couple of years. The guide breaks the B.C. interior into 13 regions, including the Similkameen Valley. Here are my highlights in two of those regions: greater Kelowna and the newly designated sub-appellation of the Golden Mile.
If Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate are the grandparents of the Okanagan winery scene, the Hatch is their illegitimate punk-rock progeny—the savant terrible who can solve a Rubik’s cube in 13.4 seconds after quaffing two bottles of gamay in his friend’s basement. Run by cellar rats with attitude, the winery would be worth visiting even if the wine were awful, if only for the tasting room and wine labels. The tasting room is an old tractor drive shed, the renovation of which was apparently inspired by a roadside chicken-n-ribs stand and the student-years library of a degraded existentialist: rusty tin ceiling, antique shovel collection, books like Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay and Bloodlines of the Illuminati strewn among the display bottles.
Grab a bottle and you have Exhibit B, the surrealist wine label by Vancouver artist Paul Morstad. The “Octobubble” sparkling rosé features a watercolour octopus superimposed on a French map of Elba, the island where Napoleon was exiled; another sports a stegosaurus carried aloft by a flock of black swifts.
All this determined eclecticism could be just decorative film for mediocre winemaking. Happily, it’s not. There’s as much theory and care in the wine as in the aesthetics, and the Hatch’s vintages are marked by an attempt to showcase varietals from all over the region. “The Okanagan is so amazingly diverse—that’s really what makes it so great,” says the Hatch’s “archdeacon” Harnden. “Certain grapes do better in certain areas, so rather than focusing on being an estate winery and just working with what we might have in our own block, we wanted to take more of a négociant approach and work with all this tremendous diversity.”
Among the standouts at the Hatch are the affordable Screaming Frenzy merlot/cabernet franc blend and the slightly more spendy Dynasty White, which pulls together chardonnay, pinot gris and viognier.
Wine doesn’t care about architecture. Lake views, iron sculptures and exposed-beam ambiance can make for a memorable lunch, but they don’t always show up in the glass. Thus the moral introduced earlier: enjoy the palatial estates of the big operations, butdon’t overlook lesser-known wineries.
A case in point is C.C. Jentsch—currently piling on the awards after only three years in operation—whose tasting room is part of an old fruit-packing shed. It’s charming but humble, and owners Chris and Betty Jentsch come by the aesthetic honestly. The Jentsch family grew orchard fruit for three generations, dating back to 1929; their main vineyard was planted with apple and cherry trees before they replaced them with 65,000 vine plantings in the mid-2000s. It turned out to be a prescient move: the land halfway between Oliver and Osoyoos, dubbed the Golden Mile Bench, is now some of the most prized wine-growing real estate in the Okanagan. The Golden Mile is home to nine wineries, and its unique terroir was recognized last year when it was granted B.C.’s first official sub-appellation status.
Sip for sip, there’s more going on at C.C. Jentsch than at many more well-appointed estate wineries. The 2012 and 2014 syrahs are co-fermented with a small percentage of aromatic viognier grapes—meaning the grapes are all crushed and fermented together, rather than blended as separate wines—and they are outstanding. The 2013 syrah has no viognier (a result of bad weather that year), but it has nonetheless scooped up multiple awards—most notably winning its category in the blind Judgment of B.C. tasting competition in 2015 that pitted it against syrahs from around the world. (The event was a riff on the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition that vindicated California wines in Europe; it was even judged by Steven Spurrier, the famous wine critic who organized the original.)
Jentsch’s winemaker, Amber Pratt, is a former horticulturist who fell into winemaking after working at the Nk’mip tasting room. She learned her craft at Road 13 and Black Hills Estate wineries and via travels in the Loire region of France. “When it comes to wine, my philosophy is: be clean, be observant and be curious,” she says. Pratt balances her vigilance with improv. “I find fermentation fascinating, and I like to factor in experimental trials large and small each year, whether it’s trying a new yeast strain or a radical new technique. I like to make sure I keep it fun.”
Besides the syrahs, check out their meritage blend, “The Chase,” and their lush Small Lot Series viognier at $36.
Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery
Breweries and distilleries are a nice way to break up a wine tour or satisfy a spouse who isn’t a huge fan of the grape. The excellent selection of locally distilled booze at Okanagan Spirits runs from standards like gin, vodka and fruit liqueurs to more unusual fare like aquavit, grappa-like pomace brandy (called a “marc”) and “Laird of Fintry”—a small-batch single-malt whisky available only by lottery.
Tree Brewing Beer Institute
Stop here for a lovingly made selection of unfiltered “tank-to-tap” brews: the taps are literally connected to the brewing tanks in the back room, not to kegs. Tasting flights are available, and the excellent pizzas are made with a spent-grain crust from the beer-making process. There’s even beer for wine geeks: Red Wood is an IPA aged in French oak barrels that formerly housed Marechal Foch wine.