Tony Holler, the owner of Poplar Grove Winery in Penticton, B.C., was quoted in the Washington Post earlier this month about his province’s reputation, or lack thereof, on the international scene. “No one in the world knows the Okanagan,” he told the newspaper’s wine writer, Dave McIntyre, in a feature-length article about British Columbia’s main wine region. It was a candid remark, but also slightly ironic. Can you claim to be undiscovered if the Washington Post has come a-knocking?
For the record, it was not the first foreign feature on the Okanagan Valley. There have been positive articles in the influential Wine Spectator and Financial Times, among others. But, yes, the industry has yet to find its Judgment of Paris moment, which is to say a high-profile international blind tasting such as the one in 1976 that proved California could outshine the best of France.
This harvest season seems like a good time to ponder the province’s progress. By one measure, the modern industry just turned 50, which is a couple of decades older than most articles give it credit for. A few days ago, Hester Creek held a small media gathering and vertical tasting at its winery, built on a slope with an arresting view of the Golden Mile Bench, to celebrate a milestone. It was in 1968 that the estate’s first pinot blanc, trebbiano, merlot and cabernet franc vines were established by original owner Joe Busnardo, an Italian immigrant. Along with Road 13’s old chenin blanc and chardonnay vineyards, they are among the province’s first plantings of Vitis vinifera, the imported grape species responsible for virtually all the world’s fine wine. Until that decade, what few producers existed relied on winter-hardy hybrids and crude native vines mainly to concoct sweet “pop” wines.
If there could be a bona fide Judgment of Paris-style tasting, objectively adjudicated only by foreign experts, I’d have no shortage of B.C. wines to nominate. Here’s one from my recent tastings: Black Hills Nota Bene 2016. A stunning Bordeaux-style red blend, it blows away many Napa Valley cabernets and merlots costing $100 or more.
It’s expensive, for sure. But at $59.90, it can seem like a bargain compared with a Napa equivalent. Hmmm. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that “no one in the world” knows about the Okanagan.
Black Hills Nota Bene 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $59.90
A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc from an outstanding growing season. Black Hills’s flagship red stands as a great expression of the vintage, rich with cassis, espresso, bitter cocoa and a whiff of smoky jalapeno (thank you, cabernet franc). It’s elegantly structured, earthy and firm enough to provide contrast with the supple fruit. Approachable now, it should evolve well for 15 years. Available direct in very limited quantities through blackhillswinery.com, and at select private stores in British Columbia and Alberta.
JoieFarm “En Famille” Gewurztraminer 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $24.26
This is so viscous it’s almost edible. And at 14.6-per-cent alcohol it comes across like an Alsatian grand cru, all right. Technically dry but low in acidity (and thus seemingly a tad sweet), it’s intense with lychee, muscat grape and rose petal aromatics. And gewurztraminer’s classic gingery spice makes a bold appearance, coaxing it all to a clean finish. Sublime for foie gras dishes, cheese plates and Indian curries. Available through joiefarm.com and select private stores in the West.
Blue Mountain Reserve Brut R.D. 2010, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $39.90
Bone-dry, this top-end sparkling wine from B.C.-bubbly pioneer Blue Mountain displays impressive depth and the telltale autolytic character that comes with extended time maturing on lees. Cut with razor acidity, it offers lemon curd, green apple, dough, honey and a lovely sherry-like nutty tang. It should cellar well for another five years, assuming you like your bubbles with some goût anglais. Available direct through bluemountainwinery.com, and at select private stores in British Columbia.
Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $59.90
There’s gold in the Similkameen Valley, perhaps not the literal stuff of the 1860, rush but certainly of the ruby-liquid kind. Here’s a shimmering example, a merlot-led Bordeaux-style blend to be released Oct. 20 at the winery. Opulent in texture and flavour, it’s sweetly ripe and generously oaked yet deftly sculpted, with luscious berry fruit, dark chocolate, aromatic vanilla and cedary tang. The tannins are well-managed and elegant. Available direct through closdusoleil.ca.
Hester Creek Syrah-Viognier 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.95
Medium-full-bodied and gutsy, crafted in a northern Rhône style, with a polished and juicy profile revealing plum, wild berries and black pepper up front along with smoked meat and dark-roast coffee. Mouthwatering, warm and spicy. Available direct through hestercreek.com.
Culmina R&D Red Blend 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23
The name pays tribute to the winery’s penchant for research and development as well as to proprietor Don Triggs and his twin brother Ron. (Could the adorable boys in the childhood photo on the label be Mr. D and Mr. R?) A merlot-led blend, this is full, smooth and succulent, with a creamy texture disciplined by satisfyingly powdery tannins. The flavours suggest plum, blackberry, mocha, vanilla, tobacco and smoky oak. So much wine for the money. Available direct through culmina.ca.
8th Generation Pinot Noir 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23
Jammy and velvety, this is satisfyingly ripe yet dry and lively, offering raspberry-cherry fruit along with cocoa, baking spices and dry underbrush. Great depth of flavour. And, for pinot noir, very attractively priced. Available direct through 8thgeneration.com.
Moraine Pinot Noir 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27
For those who enjoy a figurative dusting of earthiness in their pinots. Medium-bodied, with solid structure from dusty tannins, it’s succulent with dark berries and essences of fall foliage and smoke. Available direct through morainewinery.com at the above price, $31.95 in Ontario Vintages stores.
Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.49
Luscious and concentrated, with smooth blackberry jam, vanilla and dark chocolate flavours set against sticky but supple tannins. Opulent and well-built. Available in British Columbia at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $22.99 in Manitoba, $29.95 in Ontario.
Coolshanagh Chardonnay 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $36.90
This is vinified on behalf of the Coolshanagh brand’s proprietors, Skip and Judy Stothert, by talented winemaker Matt Dumayne at Okanagan Crush Pad. Fermented partly in new oak puncheons and partly in concrete eggs, it comes across with rich, almost sweet pineapple and apple fruit along with brown butter, caramel and fresh, balancing acidity. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. Available direct from coolshanagh.ca for Canada-wide shipping.
Blasted Church Sauvignon Blanc 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24
Medium-bodied, with a welcome fleshy texture owing to partial barrel fermentation as well as to clearly ripe fruit and a splash of sémillon. This is brimming with punchy tropical fruit, peach, lemon and grapefruit, a sauvignon that’s more orchard than front lawn. Available direct through blastedchurch.com.
Summerhill Alive Organic Red 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $22.99
You’ll find the words “organic” and “vegan” proudly displayed on the front label. Don’t let the nod at virtue make you think this is the quinoa-crusted tofu of wine. There’s much to like about the flavour. A blend of syrah, merlot and cabernet franc, it’s medium-full-bodied, smooth and juicy, with notes of black fruit, leather, black pepper and licorice. Gutsy and smartly blended. Available at BC Liquor Stores and direct through summerhill.bc.ca.