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Where is the Okanagen Valley, and can they make good wine?

The simple answer is YES, otherwise I would not have taken the time to write this. Wines of British Columbia, Tourism Calgary and the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance came to New York for lunch at James Beard House with seven British Columbia wines and six  Canadian women chefs. Lunch featured a collaborative menu showcasing Calgary’s “Women of the Wild West” as they presented a multi-course meal of BC VQA Wines paired with Canadian Agri-Foods.

 

Vancouver based sommelier, writer and wine judge Kurtis Kolt organized the menu with pairings and acted as the MC. There was a consumer dinner of the same menu and wines in the evening.

 

Internationally, it surprises many people that British Columbia even produces wine. Being so far north, above 49° latitude, the logical thought is that it must be too cold. Even those who accept that wine is made here expect it to be a marginal cool climate region, but British Columbia has the unique combination of extreme heat and cold that results in intense fruit-driven, fresh and structured wines.

 

The Okanagan Valley, comprising, 84% of all BC’s vineyards, have a unique climate best described as a short, hot growing season with desert-like conditions. Because of the large size of the Okanagan Valley, there are moves being made to divide the region into sub-zones to reflect the varying climate and grape varieties that are successful in the different parts of the valley. Annual precipitation (combined rainfall and snow) levels range between 12 inches in Osoyoos on the USA border and 16 inches in Kelowna, 62 miles to the north.

 

The dry desert region of the south Okanagan Valley is the northern point of the network of deserts that stretch right through the USA and into Mexico. Low rainfall, due to mountains to the west, and lots of sunshine make it easy to farm sustainably and help produce pure, clean fruit. The diurnal temperature swing between day and night can be as much as 86°F or more. Even with the low rainfall and desert-like conditions, water plays an important part in the terroir.

 

A string of lakes runs from the USA border north through the Okanagan and acts as giant temperature moderators, helping to avoid excessive extremes in summer and, particularly, potentially damaging cold in the winter. The vineyards are mostly planted on the low slopes of the sometimes-steep valley walls. The north-south direction of the Okanagan Valley results in vineyards on both the east and west sides of the valley. The east side is much warmer than the west side of the valley as it receives the hot afternoon sun long into the evening. There can be ripening differences of as much as two weeks for the same variety at the same latitude depending on which side of the valley it is planted.

 

The dry conditions have benefits and challenges. Because of low rainfall and snowfall, irrigation is essential. Pest and disease pressure is low due to the low levels of humidity resulting in organic viticulture becoming increasingly popular. The big challenge is when the dry conditions combine with clear nights, losing the effect of clouds holding in heat, and cold arctic air flows in from the north that can send temperatures plunging and kill buds or even entire vines.

 

The first five wines listed, below, are from the Okanagen, but the last, is produced southeast of Vancouver, just north of the US border. This is a dessert wine, based on Foche and Merlot grapes, fortified with brandy that had been infused with unripe walnuts. A unique taste from an old French recipe, I was told.

 

 

 

 

Nk’Mip Cellars Winemaker’s Series Chardonnay, 2012. Very nice wine, clean fruit and the barest of oak; about $15. Served with mixed canapés.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Gewurztraminer, 2013. Characteristic rose nose and palate, well balanced and delightful; about $15. Served with trout, prepared by Chef Robberecht.

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery Perpetua, 2012. A big, oaky chardonnay, in California style; about $55. Served with mortadella prepared by Chef DeSousa.

Quails’ Gate Winery Pinot Noir, 2013. A light Pinot, cherry nose and bright acidity; about $29. Served with walleye, prepared by Chef Gomes.

Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Syrah, 2009. Could be from the Rhone, dense and powerful, my favorite pouring; about $30. Served with Tortelloni prepared by Chef Bieber.

Laughing Stock Vineyards Portfolio, 2011. Bordeaux blend, heaviest on Merlot, a little light for my taste, but soundly made, about $45. Served with Bison short rib prepared by Chef Ly.

Vista D’oro Farms & Winery D’oro, 2007. Not overly sweet, crisp balancing acidity and a lovely "what is that flavor?", which are the green walnuts; about $35 (500ml). Served with berries.

 

Everything mentioned up to this point mainly concerns the wine, but please understand that the food and pairings were also noteworthy. I especially liked Chef Beiber’s dish and how it paired with the Qwam Qwmt Syrah. If you are wondering about the name of the wine, it is aboriginal, as is the winery ownership. Close runner-ups were chef DeSousa and Chef Grimes, followed by Chef Ly and Chef Robberecht. Not knowing who was responsible for the sausages, bison tartare or pirogue served as canapés, I don’t know who to commend.

 

The chefs flew in with ingredients in their luggage, much of the mise-en-place done at home, then getting to work in the Beard House kitchen the morning of the event. The event was massive effort and great results, all around.

For the James Beard Foundation's coverage, see: http://www.jamesbeard.org/events/women-wild-west

 

For details on BC VQA and the Wines of British Columbia, go to www.WineBC.com

 

There is a good chance that I will visit the area August, 2015 for a closer look.

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