Regular readers know I'm a big fan of ice wine from Canada's Niagara Peninsula. It's a great dessert wine experience, but other Canadian wines have been, for me, underwhelming. I first encountered wines from the Okanagen Valley out west in British Columbia prior to the new millennium on my inaugural trip to Vancouver, when a wine buddy and I treated ourselves to both red and white wine flights to get a sense of what this lesser-known wine region had to offer.
Sadly, at that time, the answer was not much. The wines were thin, acidic — as you might expect from the northern latitude that retards the grapes from ripening — and largely unappealing. Fast forward 19 years, and I'm back in Vancouver with some wine professionals tasting in Langley in the Fraser Valley. We're on a wine tour helmed by the charming Genevieve Rainey of Swallow Tail Culinary Adventures.
Our first stop is Backyard Vineyards, where the star is sparkling wine made exclusively from 100-percent estate-grown, organic pinot noir grapes to produce a "blanc de noir" brut — a pink sparkler due to some minimal skin contact. It's a Pacific Rim Silver Medal winner that carries a VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) designation. The winery also sources grapes from the northern Okanagan Valley, which has, indeed, made great strides since my last trip.
Merlot is red grape No. 1 in BC; it ripens more easily than cabernet sauvignon. Though the Okanagen Valley is technically a desert because of its limited levels of precipitation, when moisture finally arrives, it's often in the form of snow. But Jason Ocenas, the manager of our second stop (Township 7 Vineyards & Winery's Langley operation), jokes that their wine is a "merlittle" instead of a "merlot." Township 7's single-vineyard, Bordeaux-style blend of 85-percent cab with 15-percent merlot comes from the Blue Terrace Vineyard and shows just how far BC wines have come. The winery also hosts an alluring old-fashioned wine stomp every October.
Down the road, Patrick Murphy of Vista D'oro Farms & Winery's approach is to intervene as little as possible. His unfiltered, unfined wines are all-natural with no added yeasts or sugars, a true expression of the terroir of BC wines. Many use odd varietals such as cabernet foch, which we try as a delicious barrel sample that he's bottling next week. To counteract the green hibiscus and green pepper flavors that might otherwise seem off-putting, Murphy has hit upon a nice balance by aging his wines in decommissioned French oak barrels from Francis Ford Coppola's Napa winery. His cooper uses a router to create a fresh surface and then double-toasts the wood. The standout wine of our tour is Murphy's 2007 Vin de Garde, a port-like red wine with walnut-infused brandy that's aged seven years in Hungarian oak.
The wines at our last stop, Blackwood Lane Winery, are largely austere, disappointing and overpriced. The house white, vicuña bianca (made from the little-known siegerrebe grape), is one of the oddest wines I've ever tasted. The literature promises floral aromas and citrus notes, but all I wanted to do was spit it out as soon as possible.
Still, BC wines have come of age and are worth a detour for those who find themselves out Vancouver way. If you're a real adventurer, go by helicopter. And if you can't wait, go to Winebcusa.com, a Sonoma-based retailer that will hook you up.