Exploring The Okanagan Valley's Wine Region

One might not expect to find a region that's been described as a hybrid of Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe more than 1,000 miles north of either of those destinations, but that's exactly where British Columbia's Okanagan Valley is. Winemaking in the Okanagan Valley has blossomed in recent years, and the region's vintners have been taking advantage of the area's many favorable characteristics. A surprisingly warm, dry climate, diverse soil, and sunlight hours that extend from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. in midsummer have all provided a solid foundation for the area to become British Columbia's leading wine-producing region as well as the second-leading in Canada.

Ingo Grady, director of wine education at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, refers to the Okanagan Valley as terra incognita; the bountiful, rich region has much to offer, yet remains undiscovered by far too many. This is in spite of a great deal of critical acclaim: Mission Hill alone has amassed a number of awards.

The West Kelowna winery won the Best Chardonnay in the World award in 1994 at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London and has not stopped bringing in accolades. It was named "Winery of the Year" at the 2011 InterVin International Wine Awards Competition, and also collected a total of 20 medals in nearly every category of competition for its wines. In addition, Mission Hill was honored with the prestigious title of Canadian Wine Producer of the Year at the 2011 International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Mission Hill's wine portfolio has something for everyone, from deep, oaked reds to lively, crisp whites. Of note is Oculus, the estate's flagship Bordeaux-style red blend. The sophisticated wine offers impeccable balance between bold red fruit, warm chocolate notes, a tannic body, and toasty oak. All of the grapes used for Oculus are harvested, sorted, and de-stemmed by hand, and with the aid of infrared aerial photographs and GIS mapping, only the most suitable blocks from the vineyards of Oliver and Osoyoos are selected.

The quality of the wine is "directly proportional to the love invested into it," said Grady. Oculus serves as proof.

Carrying on with this notion, Grady persuaded Mission Hill Winery's winemaker, John Simes, that "the moment [they] start treating riesling vineyards like the Oculus vineyards, [they're] going to have something special."

Grady has a special reverence for riesling and compares it to music that's unplugged — no oak, no winemaking magic, just pure, minimalist balance between acid and fruit. Mission Hill Winery's is an exceptional example, with its vibrant citrus and stone fruits, distinct mineral character, and elegant acidity.

Another bonus of Okanagan Valley's location between the 49th and 50th parallels is winter temperatures cool enough to make ice wine from grapes frozen right on the vine and hand-harvested at temperatures of -8°Celcius or colder. Though Germany and Ontario account for most of the world's ice wine production, Mission Hill ice wines earned top honors last year. Their intensely sweet dessert wines are made with riesling and vidal grapes at Mission Hill. The riesling variety is intensely fruity and sweet, with its syrupy peach, apricot, and tropical fruit flavors tamed by citrus and mineral. Meanwhile, vidal grapes produce a version spearheaded by succulent honey, mango, and candied orange peel, rounded out with just enough acidity.

Innovation is a mainstay in the Okanagan Valley and Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, a facility intended to be a collaborative space for winemakers and home to the Haywire and Bartier Scholefield labels, demonstrates the work of the area's up-and-coming winemakers. Recently open to the public, it is the first facility of its kind in Okanagan Valley, and the first to use 2,000-liter egg-shaped concrete fermenters; the shape allows continuous stirring, which leads to more body and depth, while the concrete leads to more minerality and a fuller mouthfeel.

Such collaboration between veterans and newcomers alike will surely mean that Okanagan Valley won't stay terra incognita for too long. The fine wines produced here are limited in their availability in the States, so the catch is, you'll just have to come visit and taste for yourself.

Hospitality was provided to the author by Mission Hill Winery.