Ute Junker savours an ice wine with rock-star connections in the Okanagan Valley.
Over a glass of rose cabernet franc, heady with the scent of strawberries, Australian Andrew Moon tells me he has found the promised land of winemaking. Surprisingly, it's in an unexpectedly sunny pocket of British Columbia.
"Aromatic grapes grow superbly here," says Moon, the viticulturist at Tinhorn Creek Winery in the Okanagan Valley.
He knows grapes - in Australia, he worked with Rosemount, Seppelt, Penfolds and Hanging Rock - and is emphatic about the Okanagan's produce. "We grow world-class gewurztraminer and the best cabernet franc in the world. The Loire has nothing on this place."
In appearance at least, the Okanagan Valley couldn't be less like the Loire.
There are no ornate chateaux or ancient villages, just towns separated by orchards and vineyards. And, of course, there's Okanagan Lake - all 135 kilometres of it, stretching placidly between two mountain ranges.
For decades, Canadians have come to the Okanagan to enjoy lazy summer holidays; the valley retains its laid-back charm - here, you can still satisfy a parking metre with a 20¢ deposit. For the past 15 years winemakers from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Europe have joined a clutch of locals, winning awards at international shows and quietly proving that Canada makes world-class wines.
Yet apart from connoisseurs, few outside Canada are familiar with Okanagan wines, probably because so few people get to try them. The valley's 50-plus boutique wineries produce about 10 million litres a year - a drop in the ocean compared with Australia's 1.4 billion litres. If you want to try the Okanagan's wines for yourself, you should visit.
The first thing to decide, however, is north or south. Flights from Vancouver land at Kelowna, close to the valley's centre. The southern wineries, near the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver, are considered by some to be the best in the area, so that's where I head.
While Kelowna has lush vegetation, further south the desert takes over. Hills become bare and dusty and signs warn you to beware of rattlesnakes. These dry conditions are credited with producing smaller grapes with intense flavour.
Tinhorn Creek is an elegant operation. An impressive birch-lined drive leads to its cellar door and restaurant, where I enjoy Spanish-influenced seafood and panoramic valley views.
Next I head to Stoneboat Vineyards, a newcomer that's getting attention for its pinots. One of the owners of this family-run company, Julie Martiniuk, is staffing the simple tasting room. Before I know it, I'm seated on the verandah with her sons, Jay, the winemaker, and Tim, the marketing manager, sampling Stoneboat wines.
Their aromatic pinot gris is both fruity and crisp, with pear and honeysuckle notes dissolving to a clean finish. The pinot noir has an earthy aroma, with hints of cherry, berries and a smoky vanilla.
It's an impressive result for a small winery with fewer than 20 hectares under cultivation.
Not all small Okanagan wineries are as homespun as Stoneboat. Black Hills winery offers a sit-down food- and wine-tasting option three times a day. In an area where pinots flourish, Black Hills specialises in cabernet sauvignon. We taste several, including its signature, Nota Bene, its fruity top notes dancing across a darker base.
Later, I graze my way north to Kelowna via small-scale artisan producers, including the Okanagan Lavender Farm, Arlo's Honey Farm and Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan, where Ofri Barmor makes delicious goat's cheese ice-cream. By the time I turn up at the Okanagan's biggest vineyard, Mission Hill, I'm not sure if I have room for lunch.
Most of the Okanagan has a low-key feel but Mission Hill is out to impress. Everything about the winery is imposing, from its pin oak tree-lined road to the parking lot planted with about 4000 trees and shrubs. That's before you've even seen the heavy keystone arch, a 12-storey bell tower or the amphitheatre. From the crisp pinot gris to the smooth signature red, Oculus, Mission Hill's wines show restraint and maturity. The winery's restaurant overlooks the lake where I'm served lobster crepes and slow-cooked short ribs marinated in maple syrup.
The best meal I have in Kelowna, however, is at a gem of a downtown restaurant called RauDZ, a buzzy place with booths, friendly service and a blackboard filled with inspirational sayings. I take a seat at the bar where chatty bartenders mix one elegant cocktail after another. These aren't your standard cocktails; RauDZ staff make their own purees and syrups using local produce to create drinks such as the Source (artisan sake, cherry reduction, lychee, honey and lemon) and a smoked margarita, which combines cherry wood and pepper-smoked tequila, blackberry reduction and lime. I opt for a delicious concoction of plum and coronation citrus with rhubarb soda, served with a dusting of lavender sugar on the rim.
The amuse-bouche of celery root and apple soup, made with dried apricot, pear and peach, whets my appetite. I'm tempted to follow it with a crab cappuccino but plump for the heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, basil crunch and wild garlic salt, a gorgeous concoction of greens, purples, oranges and yellows. My main is just as irresistible: an oat-crusted Arctic char with spinach and potato saute, rolled bacon and maple syrup.
The next day I head further north, to what is perhaps the prettiest part of the valley, to Gray Monk, one of the valley's oldest vineyards with a dazzling selection of unusual wines; the pinot auxerrois is beautifully balanced.
At the neighbouring Ex Nihilo winery, however, I'm surprised by a touch of rock-star glamour - the famous tongue emblem of the Rolling Stones. It turns out the Ex Nihilo owners have a deal with the band and have named their premium ice wine Sympathy for the Devil. It's intense, and tastes like honeyed apricots. It's also more than $C125 a bottle. Final proof, perhaps, that the Okanagan Valley is growing up.
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada has a fare to Kelowna from Sydney for about $1890 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Vancouver (about 14hr), then to Kelowna (49min). Melbourne passengers pay a little more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see aircanada.com.
Sparkling Hill Resort has a European-style spa. Rooms cost from $C210 ($209) a night, which includes access to steam rooms and pools. See sparklinghillresort.com.
When to go
Summer is when the Okanagan Valley is at its most glorious, with temperatures in the high 20s, fabulous fresh produce in the restaurants and inviting beaches.