Okanagan Valley champions evolution of Canadian wine industry

When I wander into the downtown Vancouver bottle-shop, or liquor store as they call it, I remark to the Canadian shop assistant behind the counter that, as an Australian, I am impressed by the sizeable number of Australian wines on display on a table in the middle of the store.

He looks back at me a little morosely, expressing his regret that Canada does not boast a wine industry that could possibly match the size or quality of the equivalent Down Under. Then again, some perspective: it was not that long ago that Monty Python was satirising Australian wines as "Chateau Chunder" (though, roughly at the same time, they were also sending up cross-dressing Canadian lumberjacks).

That was actually two decades ago, and I have not returned to Canada since (not that I have not longed to). Like most wine fanciers, let alone wine connoisseurs, I had not given the notion of Canadian wine, aside perhaps from the somewhat novelty-based ice wines from the province of Ontario, a passing thought.

But, here I am, back in Canada – British Columbia, to be precise – 20 years on and the Canadian wine industry has emerged in a way that these days can well and truly populate multiple bottle-shop shelves. Today, Canadian wine-drinkers embrace their own home-grown drops with the same near blind loyalty associated with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts.

Australian and New Zealander winemakers have played an important role in fostering the Canadian industry. One of them is Jeff Martin, originally from the Riverina area of NSW, who started working at the Quails Gate Winery in the Okanagan Valley, a one hour or so flight south-east from Vancouver. Here he helped develop award-winning pinot noir and then went on to open his own Winery La Frenz, which has consistently attracted international plaudits.

To gain a proper sense of the evolution of Canadian wine the visitor needs to venture beyond the big city bottle shops to the booming Okanagan Valley itself. One of the world's up and coming wine regions, the Okanagan extends, from top to bottom, a whopping 212 kilometres.

One section to its far south and closer to the US border is actually classed as semi-desert. It is something hard to reconcile in a country known for its prodigious snow and frigid temperatures during winter.

"Part of the unique aspect of the Okanagan wine region is that within this beautiful valley we have several climatic zones," says Mary-Jo O'Keefe, owner of Mojo Tours, which offers guided tours of the region's scores of wineries. "And, more importantly for the local wine industry, there are dramatically different terroirs throughout the valley."

Yet after tasting a positively ghastly and unconvincing Canadian white during a visit to Vancouver Island (more or less British Columbia's equivalent of Tasmania) some days before visiting the Okanagan, it is with some trepidation that I venture there.

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But, on arrival, I am somewhat reassured by the sun-kissed and beautiful countryside, where, even though it is autumn, the weather is relatively mild. There is a 135-kilometre-long eponymous lake flowing through the middle of the Okanagan, above which sit dry, corn-coloured, denuded hills and peaks punctuated by legacy apple and apricot orchards.

All in all, it reminds me more of parts of New Zealand's Central Otago, itself a leading wine region, rather than anywhere in Australia. Certainly, a visit to this part of Canada provides an opportunity for an Australian like me to experience a less known and less visited part of Canada.

During my visit, I take a guided tour by car with O'Keefe around the lake country wine region of the Okanagan, with lunch at Gray Monk Estate Winery, British Columbia's oldest family winery. It dates to 1976 when its founders, George and Trudy Heiss, brought a selection of vines to British Columbia from Alsace, including pinot auxerrois, gewurtztraminer and the first pinot gris planted in Canada.

It is a Sunday and the restaurant is packed with all manner of Canadian wine enthusiasts on the sort of peripatetic cellar door visits their Australian counterparts are beginning to eschew. Such is the relatively new demand for Canadian wines, along with the still small scale of the industry, the industry has little left to export. It was, after all, only 20 years or so ago that the industry really took off, due to incentives provided to growers to plant more viable and desirable European grape varieties in order to provide the industry with a better economic foundation.

Nonetheless, Canadian winemakers are confronted with climatic challenges not faced by their Antipodean brethren. But, as it eventuates, I discover the Okanagan Valley is in the same latitude as regions such as Germany's Rhine and France's Champagne.

After lunch at the more traditional Gray Monk Estate, I resume the tour with O'Keefe, visiting the more contemporary Intrigue Wines, Arrowleaf, Ex Nihilo, and 50th Parallel Estate.

The wines I sample, albeit at the lower end of the retail price scale, range from agreeable to impressive. I ask O'Keefe to nominate her favourites among the wines of the Okanagan, a task she finds difficult. "I love the sangiovese from Sandhill Wines and the trebianno from Hester Creek – both great wines that showcase their variety – but we also have great malbecs for the lovers of malbec and some simply great cabernet sauvignon."

The interest in wines in the Okanagan mirrors that of other regions around the world, fuelling the development of luxury resorts such as the modern Sparkling Hill, perched atop a granite bluff overlooking Lake Okanagan with stunning views from the guest rooms.

"It took a long time for Canadians to start embracing their own wines. I would say they've only really done so in the past 10 years," says O'Keefe. "So we still are a very young industry with lots of great potential ahead of us."

That is good news indeed. I certainly do not intend to allow another 20 years to elapse before I again visit Canada, or the Okanagan. And who knows? By then even more of that upstart Chateau Chunder may have been shoved aside in favour of the up-and-coming Lumberjack Liquor in that bottle-o back in Vancouver.

Anthony Dennis travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination British Columbia, Mojo Tours and Sparkling Hill Resort. Air New Zealand operates regular flights from Australian capitals to Vancouver, via Auckland, with domestic connections to Kelowna, the main city in the Okanagan Valley. See hellobc.com.au; mojotours.com; sparklinghill.com; airnewzealand.com.au

This article Okanagan Valley champions evolution of Canadian wine industry was originally published in Good Food.

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