Okanagan wines thrive in B.C.'s hot summer

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      My wife and I and a couple of friends have just returned from a few days of visiting other friends and colleagues in British Columbian wine country, checking in on how vintage 2018 is coming along, and tucking into our local bounty of food and wine between swims and wanderings.

      As we headed away from Vancouver on the Crowsnest Highway, smoke from wildfires was increasingly noticeable as we neared Cawston in the Similkameen Valley. As we pulled up to Little Farm Winery, the mountainous backdrop to its Chardonnay and Riesling Mulberry Tree Vineyard was dotted with plumes of smoke from fires, with flames clearly visible from time to time.

      Although the town was on evacuation alert, it was business as usual for the moment, as the fires were fairly high up in the mountains and the winds were pushing them away from populated areas. Though there was a haze in the air, it was by no means heavy enough to create concerns regarding smoke taint on the grapes and, consequently, future wines.

      We tasted some current releases alongside winemaker and coproprietor Alishan Driediger, with the Little Farm Winery “New-ish Oak” Chardonnay 2016 ($39.04) becoming a fast favourite. In past Chardonnay releases, Little Farm has only employed neutral oak barrels, ones that offer solid structure and backbone to the wine without imparting flavour. That “new-ish oak” used this time around does lend a little oaky character, just enough to lift some lovely Granny Smith apple, lemon, and peachy notes and provide a little nutty element in the process.

      Dominion Cider Co.

      The Penticton Farmer’s Market was busy on the weekend and there I bumped into Robin Cairns, one of the proprietors of Summerland’s Dominion Cider Co. He was pouring samples, and he was a very popular guy that hot and sunny afternoon. While I’ve long been a fan of the cidery’s Traditional Dry and Collab Ginger bottlings, this was my first time enjoying a splash of their newer Lost Garden Rhubarb apple cider. Fresh, juicy, and dry, it has just enough rhubarb character to provide a lovely tartness while steering away from too much intensity. It’s increasingly available in Vancouver restaurants and retail outlets.



      On the apple front, we also enjoyed visiting Elephant Island Orchard Wines on the Naramata Bench, where sit-down tastings in the leafy courtyard offer visitors a nice retreat from blazing sun and hectic tasting rooms. Hitting the spot that day was Pink Elephant Méthode Traditionelle Sparkling Wine 2015 ($25.29). This is a quite-dry bottle of bubble that winemaker Del Halladay crafts from Granny Smith apples, with a small dose of house-made cassis. That zippy tartness and bright character of the apple wine is well served by those currants rounding things out. Think of it as almost a kir royale in a bottle, and think of it next time a decadent brunch is in order.

      Farther up Naramata Road, winemaker Jay Drysdale at Bella Wines’ sparkling house has already closed the tasting room for the season and can’t accommodate new by-appointment tastings, as he’s pretty much sold out of his current releases. Fortunately, we can still hop online to nab the last few bottled gems available, my current pick being Bella’s King Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($28), an ultradry fizz gleaming with citrus and stone fruit.

      In the same Naramata neighbourhood is Nichol Vineyard, a pioneering winery in the area, where we came upon a very buzzy tasting room where Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah flowed at a fast and furious pace. Year after year, the Nichol Vineyard “Old Vines” Syrah ($40) is a top pour of the region, notable for being made from the first Syrah vines planted in Canada, way back in 1990. The current 2014 vintage is opulent and meaty, with plenty of stewed blueberries, bacon fat, espresso, and pepper; some really cool umami notes are exhibited by this wine.



      Everyone I spoke to was happy with how the current vintage is rolling along—when it comes to ripening time, we don’t seem to be too far ahead or behind, a good place to be—and it doesn’t seem like smoke damage will be a factor from any recent fires. A hot, dry summer of late has kept disease pressure at bay, and aside from occasional mildew issues here and there, it’s steady as she goes, and we’re keeping fingers crossed that things will continue well through harvest.

      The last winery tour I had was at Kelowna’s Tantalus Vineyards, where I found the perfect wine to toast a good vintage in progress. Tantalus Riesling Lab 2017 ($17.39) is made from hard pressings of Riesling, allowing more texture and phenolics to come from the skins. Although typical citrus and apple notes come from that Riesling, the hard pressing brings a little Muscat- or Gewürztraminer-style exoticness, a little litchi and elderflower here and there. Cool stuff, and perfect for raising a glass to the season.