Rupert Parker visits some of the northernmost wineries in the world and discovers that growers in the Okanagan Valley don’t just have to contend with the climate, they also have problems with wild animals.
“Bears ate my grapes” sounds like a lame excuse for an unproductive harvest, but in this part of British Columbia, it’s true. I’m in Recline Ridge Winery, in the heart of the Shuswap Lake area, one of over 130 vineyards in the Okanagan Valley. This is the second largest most productive region in Canada after Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and Recline Ridge is in the northern end. Graydon and Maureen Ratzlaff have been here since 2010, but the vineyard was started in 1999. Gray tells me he’s having a bear problem, probably always the same animal, who gets through the fence and gorges on the grapes until he’s sick – he can easily get through 200lbs in a session and always creates a huge mess.
Recline Ridge has around 6 acres of vines and produces what are known as “Cool Climate Wines”, mainly German Style whites. The varietals include Ortega, Kerner, Bacchus, Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner. I find their award winning Ortega surprisingly fruity with hints of Apricot, Peach, Apple, Pear, and Gooseberry and it pairs well with Asian food. Gray also grows red grapes including Maréchal Foch, Blaufrankisch and a tiny bit of Pinot Noir. Just Being Frank is his most recent red product, made from 100% Blaufrankisch and it’s named because it’s a refreshingly straightforward easy-quaffing tipple.
It’s a short growing season here and harvest is over by the end of September When I visit, it’s raining hard and indeed there’s lots of moisture here and they don’t have to irrigate the clay soils. It’s a different story further south. After my time in Shuswap, I travel the length of the Okanagan valley, around 130 miles through a chain of lakes that reaches to the US border. Kelowna, in the middle, is the site of the first vineyard, planted by Catholic priests at the Oblate mission in 1859. Wine production continued for the next hundred years, with a gap during prohibition but it was poor quality, mainly hybrid French-American grapes. Things changed in the late 1980’s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) abolished the tariff on US wines so the growers had to up their game. The Canadian government encouraged them to pull up the old French hybrid and Labrusca vines and replant with European vinifera varieties
I arrive at the 650 acre Covert Farms around 20 miles north of the US border. This is an organic farm, vineyard, and winery. 60% of the acreage here is red but they also grow Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon. Unlike the north, this is really desert, with a yearly rainfall of less than 25cm. As a result, they have to irrigate, but there’s a plentiful supply of water from the nearby river. They also get their fertiliser from there as Sockeye salmon come up the Columbia River to spawn and die and the bones make excellent organic fertiliser.
Winemaker Gene Covert’s grandfather came here in 1959, cleared the land and planted tomatoes, onions and grapes. They still have 100 acres of organic vegetables but, in 2005, Gene planted Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne. It’s the largest organic farm in the Okanagan and he now has 30 acres of grapes along with fruit, vegetables and more than 15 varieties of tomatoes. He also follows the biodynamic calendar, and although he can’t explain why, tells me that the wine seems to taste better this way.
I take a one hour farm tour in a vintage 1952 Mercury truck which includes organic fruit tasting and a visit to the vineyard. It’s a magnificent site, overlooked by the chunk of rock known as McIntyre Bluff which is well worth climbing for the glorious view. From there, I can see that the farmland covers a low hill, known as a Kame terrace, formed by deposits of sand and gravel from glacier meltwater, making the land particularly fertile. Their 2012 Amicitia, a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec and 12% Merlot won bronze in the 2015 Decanter Awards, and I taste why. It oozes a spicy bouquet of black pepper and liquorice and there are lashings of blackberry flavour.
British Columbia wine has grown from just 17 grape wineries in 1990 to more than 248 in 2015 and there are now more than 4,130 hectares of vines under cultivation. Ironically, in Canada, a relic of prohibition law means that BC wines can’t be sold to other provinces, apart from Nova Scotia and Manitoba, which means that Ontario and Quebec are missing out. That might mean good news for UK consumers as BC wineries are now looking to ship further afield. They’re already doing business with China, so go to your local friendly wine merchant and get him to order a case of Okanagan. You won’t regret it.
Okanagan Valley has information about the region.
Super, Natural British Columbia has information about the province.
Destination Canada has information about the country.