Anthony von Mandl, proprietor of British Columbia’s ambitious CheckMate Artisanal Winery in British Columbia, says that climate change has helped transform the Okanagan Valley into the ideal place for chardonnay, the white variety that traditionally has risen to its greatest heights in Burgundy. Like Napa in California, the Okanagan is warm and dry in summer, so grapes achieve full ripeness. On the other hand, Canada’s cold winters paradoxically play to our advantage, killing off bugs and helping to ensure pristine fruit. Moreover, cool nights, particularly in spring and fall, yield grapes with better acidity, so the wines become more vivid and complex.
My bottles of the week today all hail from British Columbia and I believe essentially reflect what von Mandl described so sagely. There is just one chardonnay in my mix (and it’s a remarkable bargain at $20.90), but I would argue there are other grapes increasingly benefiting from the province’s unique climate. For example, pinot noir, Burgundy’s famous red counterpart to chardonnay, of which there are four excellent examples below. And gewurztraminer, a spicy white whose only drawback, at least in my opinion, is that it can sometimes lack sufficient acidity. In the Okanagan, such acidity is rarely elusive.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $54.99
It can’t be easy living up to the name Red Icon. Yet, Painted Rock’s flagship wine has done a compelling job since Day 1. This example from 2016, a good vintage, achieved ideal ripeness, capturing decadent cassis- and plum-like fruit and impressive mid-palate density. The texture is beautifully polished and the oak (just 30-per-cent new) well-handled, contributing spice, cedar and charred notes while the wine glides to a firm finish. A merlot-led Bordeaux blend, it should develop beautifully for up to 20 years, with a likely sweet spot of around 2030. Available direct through paintedrock.ca.
Meyer Family Pinot Noir Old Block 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $43.58
The “Old Block” was planted in 1994 (old for vines and dogs if not for people). It’s one of the boutique estate’s original plantings on the McLean Creek vineyard, now clearly hitting its stride with concentrated, flavourful fruit. A generous, delectable pinot, this is jammy yet crisp and smoky, with an attractively grainy texture and intriguing nuances of baking spices and underbrush. Available only with a Meyer wine-club membership; two-bottle limit. Incidentally, Meyer’s entry-level red simply called Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2017 is very good, too, and well priced at $22.71 (score 90), also available only through the wine club.
Moon Curser Dead of Night 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.99
An uncommon, if not unique, blend of equal parts tannat and syrah. This is Moon Curser’s flagship red, a luscious, velvety cuvée with ripe fruit, cedar, dark chocolate and spice notes supported by tannat’s substantial, astringent tannins. The acidity is well-balanced, and there’s a savoury oak quality reminiscent of gran reserva Rioja. Marvellous for grilled lamb. Available direct through mooncurser.com.
Tantalus Pinot Noir Reserve 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $60.87
This is substantial pinot, on the heavier side of medium-bodied, with dense, succulent, red and blue fruit, caramel, milk chocolate and satisfying spice carried to a long, warm, structured finish. So much going on. Instead of blowing a comparable sum on an overpriced California pinot noir (assuming you’ve got the dough), check this out. You’ll be glad you did. Try it with lamb chops or duck breast. Available direct through tantalus.ca.
Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $20.90
I felt compelled to triple-check the price because, frankly, it seemed low, especially in heavily taxed British Columbia. Blue Mountain has made an admirable habit of underpricing its wines – at least relative to the French competition. Here’s a perfect example, a medium-bodied and smartly oaked white that’s fleshy in the middle and crisp and bright around the edges. Soft tropical fruit combines with zesty citrus, buttered popcorn and roasted nuts. Very Burgundian, yet entirely Okanagan. Available direct through bluemountainwinery.com.
Blasted Church Nectar of the Gods 2016, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $55
The name was probably inevitable. Blasted Church likes to riff on religious themes, as in Holy Moly Petit Verdot, Small Blessings Semillon and (cover your ears, kiddies!) OMFG Sparkling Wine (google the initialization if you’re clueless). “Nectar of the Gods” certainly has the ring of quality about it, which helps to explain the $55 price tag. This is made from 49-per-cent petit verdot, 40-per-cent cabernet sauvignon and 11-per-cent “cot noir,” a.k.a. malbec. Basically, it’s a lopsided Bordeaux blend in which neither cabernet nor merlot are the lead actors. The wine is concentrated, to be sure, with suggestions of dark fruit and firm tannins, delivering a wallop of spice carried on a chalky texture. Pair it with steak. Available direct through blastedchurch.com.
Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $51.99
Not cheap. But fine, cool-climate pinot noir is not easy to produce. This one’s especially earthy and woodsy, with forest berries, underbrush and spices coming together on a dusty frame, supported by solid tannic structure. Ideal for seared duck breast. Available direct through quailsgate.com ($44.19 for wine-club members).
Black Hills Pinot Noir 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.90
Gutsy, with good depth and a jammy fruit quality. Cherry, vanilla, woodsy spice and earth. Good energy and juicy acidity. This is the first release for this wine from Black Hills, which continues to expand its portfolio, building on the legacy of its flagship Bordeaux blend, Nota Bene. Available to wine-club members in limited quantity through blackhillswinery.com.
Fort Berens Pinot Gris 2018, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.99
Medium-full, fleshy and engagingly aromatic in a way that pinot gris should be but often isn’t. Pear, apple and spices, with orange peel and a vaguely stony quality playing in the background. Available direct through fortberens.ca.
Stag’s Hollow Dolcetto 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $22
Light and bright, this ably captures some of the best qualities of a Piedmontese red grape that has struggled under the long shadow of nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. Cherry, raspberry and a light tug of astringency, with a soft bass note of mellow oak. A good red for fish. Available direct through stagshollowwinery.com.
Sumac Ridge Gewurztraminer 2018, British Columbia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.99
Sumac Ridge’s gewurztraminer has long been one of Canada’s greatest white-wine values – certainly for my money and my palate. The 2018 growing season was especially kind to this wine, made from the sumptuous, floral and spicy Alsatian variety. The 2018 spring may have been cool and wet, but no matter. October delivered ample sunshine, which permitted the grapes to continue ripening slowly into fall, yielding excellent fruit. This bargain is dripping with classically plump lychee/peach flavours, complemented by the variety’s signature ginger lift and rose-petal perfume. Often, gewurztraminer can seem sweet because of its characteristically low acidity. That’s not the case here, thanks to the elevated McIntyre Bluff vineyard, which is a few degrees cooler and fresher than the nearby valley floor. Try the wine with Indian curries or other spicy or aromatic dishes. Available at the above price at BC Liquor Stores.