Every time I visit a new region I arrive with heavy baggage in the form of preconceptions about the way it ticks. My current visit to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia/ Canada was no exception. In global popular imagination Canada is a land of igloos and polar bears, but from my time in the Niagara Peninsula/Ontario I was well aware that there were places where wine growing functions very well here. This and a bunch of photographs I’d seen before leaving had prepared me for a warm and sunny region, but the Rieslings I’d tasted (all light to medium-bodied with intense aromas and high acidity) had convinced that this region must have a cool side and moist side to it. It was therefore a shock to discover that it is actually a semi-desert where much of the precipitation falls as snow in winter. Then there were the beaches, quite possibly Canada’s only reliably warm and sunny beaches, which clearly have something to do with the real estate boom here. As chance would have it as I stepped off the plane unusually strong winds buffeted me and have continued to do so. Then there’s the way the lake looked the first night I was here (see above) which was about as far removed from any photo of the valley I’d seen as I could imagine. I’m still trying to make sense of all of this.
Then there are the wines, by which I mean the Rieslings and others (including the reds), which are all blessed with a generous acidity which ranges from bright to piercing in taste. Alcohol levels in the Rieslings are low to moderate, whereas the high-end reds 14% is as common as it is in many other regions that are officially “cool climate”. I still find that combination pretty confusing and difficult to explain. Even the Rieslings which taste dry to me had some residual sweetness, often qualifying as medium-dry on paper. Indeed, some wines 2.5 to 3% / 25 to 30 grams per liter natural grape sweetness tasted almost dry, perhaps due not only to the remarkable acidity of the region, but also surely because of their low alcoholic content (10% or less) and perhaps other less obvious factors (low tannin content too). This may sound like a recipe for thin and mean wines, but those Bladerunner Wines I’m talking about actually tasted big and bold.
Pictured above is Alan Dickinson of Synchromesh Wines in Okanagan Falls who served me the most extraordinary Bladerunner Riesling I’ve tasted in a long time, his 2012 Storm Haven Vineyard. He gave up just about everything except wife, dog and car (an MG) to found his start up and has already pushed the envelope on this kind of wine a heck of a long way to great effect. However, it’s not only me who thinks that. The 2012 Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling sold out within 5 weeks, although it is definitely not the kind of dry wine which the Big Wide Market would prefer to have. He’s not alone in striking out in this direction as the 2012 ‘Platinum’ Riesling from Cedar Creek shows. The analytical numbers for that wine are even more extreme, that is further from anything which I’m familiar with. And even the striking and extremely consistent wines from the region’s established star producer, Tantalus, are not much closer to any norm I know.
All this adds up to a very remarkable region that is far from having realized its full Riesling potential, although the best wines are already very impressive and like nothing else you’ll taste on Planet Wine. And there’s no time for a detailed discussion of the equally interesting Pinot Noirs and a handful of other wines which seemed to redefine the possibilities of other wine categories. Although this is a playground for Vancouver it’s not easy to reach from Europe, and most of the production goes to Vancouver, so it will be a while before these wines get out of this Canadian province.