Canada's Wild West of wine


BC wine country, and in particular the Okanagan, captured here by Lionel Trudel, has never been so dynamic (see also Alder on the topic and tasting notes in British Columbia – catching up fast). A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

In October 2017 David Saltman, a successful clean tech entrepreneur who describes himself as ‘an early Trump refugee’, tore himself away from his beloved surf in La Jolla, California, to settle in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia in western Canada. 

It may have been the stunning lakeside scenery that lured Saltman to Okanagan but, coincidentally, this is where BC’s fledgling wine industry is based. In the 1970s he happened to live in the Napa Valley during the early days of the wine scene there and told me during a recent visit to London that the Okanagan reminds him very much of that era.

The collaborative and creative spirit that fuelled Napa’s pioneers is certainly very evident in BC today. To outsiders they may seem to be generating new appellations a little faster than world-beating wines, but at least the decisions are being made with the full consultation of everyone involved – and the wines are increasingly impressive. Vancouver restaurant wine lists, once the preserve of imported wines, now proudly focus on local bottlings of wines that are more varied with every vintage.

BC’s leading wine writer, the well-travelled Anthony Gismondi (pictured presenting a range of BC wines at Selfridges in London last month), was rather disillusioned by the stasis of the Okanagan wine scene at the end of the last century, but describes growth and improvement in the last five years as exponential, ‘and in the last two years it’s been off the charts. It’s like a gold rush now, with new, younger people really taking wine seriously. They’re still learning, but they’re way smarter than lots of people I see around the rest of the wine world.’

The Okanagan has been benefiting not just from energy and intelligence but from an injection of cash and ambition from relative newcomers who made a fortune in entirely unrelated fields. A bit like Napa. John Skinner, for instance, retired from stockbroking at 39 and a few years later started researches that would culminate in 2005 in converting the site of the largest apricot orchard in the British Commonwealth to Painted Rock vineyards and winery.

Two years later, having lucratively developed a vaccine, Tony Holler acquired Poplar Grove, one of the first wineries to be established on Okanagan’s Naramata Bench and one of BC’s most popular brands. Tellingly for the region’s varietal mix, it is Poplar Grove’s Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc that are its flagships.

Both of these men, who could well afford to be lounging on a yacht or golf course, spent seven hours the week before last standing behind a table pouring their wines at what has become an annual generic tasting in Canada House on Trafalgar Square. The UK is seen as potentially the most receptive market for Canadian wine, trade with the US being chronically difficult, and pricing being, shall we say, non-aligned. John Skinner was told by his California distributor that his Painted Rock wines, some of the most respected in BC, were too cheap for US wine buyers to take them seriously.

It is presumably the difference in land costs that has encouraged a number of prospectors from the Oregon and California wine communities to investigate the Okanagan recently. But the soils may also a play a part, with the valley’s slate and clay particularly appealing to those planning to plant fashionable Pinot Noir. The most impressive BC Pinot Noir I tasted last month was Mission Hill’s 2017 Reserve, which retails in Canada at CA$27.99, well under £20.

The London tasting may be designed to represent one nation, but outsiders marvel at the apparently impenetrable wall that separates the major wine-producing provinces BC and Ontario. Admittedly, Canada’s provincial liquor monopolies system doesn’t help, but it can be near-impossible to find wines from one of them in the other – even though the Canadian wine market is growing even faster than China’s.

Of the two provinces, Ontario is the more obvious beneficiary of climate change. Among Canada’s wine establishment, the Icewine made from frozen grapes that used to be Canada’s most famous wine export, most of it from Ontario, is now made in much smaller quantities and seen as a slight embarrassment. (Precisely one Icewine out of more than 200 wines was on show at Canada House.) What Canadian wine producers tend to be much more interested in is wine made from conventionally fully ripened grapes.

Ripeness has long been much easier to achieve in BC, where the southern parts of the Okanagan on the US border are semi-desert, although it’s cooler than the vineyards of Washington state hundreds of kilometres further south and the wines tend to be a bit fresher. The Okanagan, with vineyards either side of the lake, is long and narrow, however, and it is almost 200 km (125 m) from the northernmost area, where the dominant wine producer Mission Hill has been investing, to the border. Conditions are very different therefore depending on latitude, whether the vines get the morning or evening sun, and the extent to which frost can be a threat. Those in the north are described as not unlike Tasmania, Australia’s coolest wine region.

Okanagan vineyards produce a particularly wide range of grape varieties, with Cabernet Franc having become more popular than Cabernet Sauvignon because it will ripen reliably before the arrival of the Okanagan’s pretty cold winter – despite the cool nights of autumn and even summer. Bordeaux blends are popular, and have traditionally been priced higher than single varietals, with several high-profile producers advised by Bordeaux consultant Alain Sutre of Ertus Consulting. He commutes between Bordeaux and Canada but is clearly most excited by the Okanagan. ‘In Bordeaux, blends are done with a calculator. “That assemblage won’t make enough wine; let’s try adding that tank.” But in BC I see much more attention being paid than in either France or Ontario.’

Nevertheless, France spells magic in the wine world, and Okanagan producers are clearly excited that France’s first Master of Wine, the highly respected Olivier Humbrecht of Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, has been persuaded to take on his first consultancy with Phantom Creek, an Okanagan winery owned by a Chinese billionaire who has been hiring like mad. Humbrecht will be concentrating on refining their Riesling and Pinot Gris white wines and instituting biodynamic viticultural practices.

The atmosphere in the Okanagan, hundreds of miles from any city, is particularly pristine, and rainfall is so low that most vineyards have to be irrigated, so organic and biodynamic vine growing is relatively easy.

It is now nine years since I visited the Okanagan, and the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the BC contingent that visited London last month left me eager for another visit. And it’s not just wine that is developing. David Saltman’s wife Camille is not just on the board of the local university and opera, but is apparently busy building Okanagan’s little town of Kelowna into a tech hub.

Canadian-owned Selfridge’s in London have a special offer of Okanagan wines this month and next with prices per bottle from £18.99, although apparently only Painted Rock wines are on display this month. These pictures were taken at a presentation of BC wines in the store’s wine department and restaurant.

Cedar Creek, Block 5 Chardonnay 2016

CheckMate, End Game Merlot 2013, Queen Taken Chardonnay 2014, Attack Chardonnay 2015

Culmina Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Unicus Grüner Veltliner 2017

Giant Head, Canyonview Chardonnay 2016

Mission Hill, Perpetua Chardonnay 2017, Reserve Pinot Noir 2017, Vista's Edge Cabernet Franc 2016, Oculus 2014

Okanagan Crush Pad, Free Form Cabernet Franc 2017, Free Form Vin Gris 2017

Osoyoos Larose, Le Grand Vin 2015

Painted Rock, Red Icon 2016 and 2009, Syrah 2016, Cabernet Franc 2014

Phantom Creek Pinot Gris 2017, Becker Vineyard Cuvée 2016, Phantom Creek Vineyard Cuvée 2016, Syrah 2016

Poplar Grove, Legacy 2014 and 2008, Cabernet Franc 2015

Quail's Gate, Dry Riesling 2018

Seven Stones Chardonnay 2013

Le Vieux Pin Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Cuvée Violette Syrah 2016, Cuvée Classique Syrah 2016

Tasting notes in British Columbia – catching up fast. Stockists from