In Canada’s Okanagan Valley Ivana McConnellfinds openness, inquisitiveness, a pioneering spirit and an unexpected sense of humour in a wine industry still forging its identity.
There are five bottles of wine ready for tasting at Little Straw Winery in West Kelowna, the first stop in a whirlwind Canadian winery tour. Different grapes, different colours, different histories, different tastes, and I have no idea where to start.
“Which one’s your favourite?”
I ask the man across from me. Peter Slamka, the resident winemaker, matter-of-factly replies, “Whichever kind you like the best.”
Now probably isn’t the time to tell him that I know little about wine, and that my only preparation has been a bottle of Merlot (shared) and a viewing of wine documentary Somm. I enjoy wine, but am not a connoisseur in the way some may feel pressured to be in these environments, faced with five open bottles, expected to discern their nuances in a way that respects the winemaker’s effort. Wine carries with it a weight, a sophistication and a specific vocabulary, forged by years of tradition – I don’t want to get it wrong.
I take a deep breath, and Slamka’s eyebrows rise, anticipating a response to the implicit question. Which wine do I like best? I don’t even know where to start. This is where I find myself, though: in the midst of a road trip through Canada’s famed Okanagan wine region, notebook and pen in hand, returning home after a few years in Europe, in search of some answers.
Before we continue, a brief diversion into history would likely help. The Okanagan Valley region is in south-central British Columbia, Canada, between the Columbia and Cascade mountain ranges. It’s beautiful. In the rain shadow of the Cascades, the majority of the valley has a climate that allows it to produce a wide variety of wine. The 9,900 acres of vineyards planted in the Okanagan account for more than 90 per cent of all wine produced in BC.
The very first grape vines were planted in the region in 1859, and the oldest operating winery, Calona, was opened in 1935. Back then, winemakers used labrusca, a North American grape variety, and made dessert and fortified wines. Wine production truly gathered steam in the 1960s, punctuated in 1966 with the opening of the now internationally recognised Mission Hill Winery.
Eventually, the winemakers began using vinifera vines, native to Europe and Asia. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had allowed US wine to enter Canadian markets, and Okanagan winemakers stepped up. Nowadays, there are over 60 grape varieties – these include traditional varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also the French- American Maréchal Foch, German Gewurztraminer, as well as the atypical Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
Since then, the Okanagan has been going from strength to strength.
This began in 1994, with Mission Hill winning the Best Chardonnay award at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) were served a selection of Quail’s Gate Wineiy vintages in 2011, as was Barack Obama in 2009. Even the Queen herself partook in Canadian wine during a 2005 royal visit, tasting La Frenz Wineiy’s Chardonnay and Merlot.
What about now, in 2018?
Returning to Canada from the UK, I wanted to remember what it means to ‘be’ Canadian – or perhaps even find out for the first time. A road trip through the Okanagan was part of that exploration; it’s a region that has become essential to the image of British Columbia, and Canada at large.
The region has seen a meteoric rise, and is always adapting, but it’s instructive to stop and look back for a moment. Where does the industry find itself right now? What is its identity? What does this wine mean to those who make and consume it? What does its future hold? That’s what I wanted to find out, taste some delicious wine in the process, and hopefully get to know Canada a little bit better.
Each visit began the same way. In each winery, there were always wines open for tasting. Pay a small fee (five Canadian dollars, usually), and get a small tasting of each. My alternative is to order wine online, something I don’t want to.
Why not simply buy the wine online?
We visited six wineries: Rollingdale, Little Straw, Mt. Boucherie, Volcanic, Quail’s Gate and Mission Hill. They ranged from local establishment to global behemoth, but in each case, a knowledgeable person would be on the other side of the counter, willing to answer questions about the winery, the wines themselves and the history of the region. In the case of the smaller, family-owned and -run wineries such as Little Straw or Rollingdale, this might actually be the winemaker.
Tasting the wines was an exercise in vocabulary, a challenge of expression that I hadn’t encountered before. This pressure is strongest in the small wineries, when the winemaker is standing before you.
It’s not difficult to identify that each i wine is different, but finding the words to articulate those differences is an entirely different matter.
Taking the first steps of this journey is unwieldy and awkward; wanting to i sound knowledgeable but failing to.
However, in Mt. Boucherie, Volcanic, Little Straw and Rollingdale especially, we found smaller operations where we had time to spend on those details. Embarrassment was mitigated by time and willingness to educate. We learned about local weather and its whims, the timing of winemaking, and 1 why that timing matters. We learned what identifies a proper ice wine, and the effects of temperature on taste – among many things. This knowledge helped to influence and build that missing vocabulary, slowly but surely. Throughout the years, my Vivino app has helped me – But this time I had to go with my gut.
It helps that these smaller, younger wineries often find themselves on those first steps, too, and were able to take us along for the ride. Larger operations were busier, more crowded, and understandably had less time to spend contextualising the personal story. In the case of Mission Hill, especially, that had long since faded into history, replaced with the earnest professionalism that comes with age. But that is not to disparage them; after all, William Blake said that “without contraries is no progression.” Each winery challenged us in a different way, making richer the story of Okanagan winemaking and in some ways serving up even more questions.
So, then, what makes the wine Canadian? I haven’t written about the taste of the wines, and for good reason. Logically, the place to begin is by asking how the wine compares with that of Europe. These comparisons are expected. Points of reference are needed to understand the unknown.
I asked the same initial questions at each winery – how many cases of wine they produce, what kind of grapes they use, how long they’ve been there, and so on – and allowed the conversation to flow from there. Each winery finds itself in a different niche, with a different story and a different experience for its visitor. As the conversations flowed, particularly in smaller wineries, it was at their fringes that I learned the most, and where the comparison with European wine was made more complex.
There is no sense in trying to replicate the wines of France or Italy, but it does make sense to use them as a starting point, and apply that knowledge to the Okanagan landscape.
Okanagan wineries forge an identity by standing on the shoulders of those who came before them, while asserting independence. There is no tradition here – the industry is too young. But that missing albatross is a strength, not a weakness. While tradition often gives credibility to European wine, the Okanagan’s lack of it is an excuse to experiment, to not be constrained.
It is in this context that Slamka’s response to me makes sense. “Whichever kind you like the best,” he said. I hadn’t realised yet that finding out should be part of the fun.
It is this realisation that makes the Okanagan wine industry what it is – it invites us along for the journey as participants, rather than spectators after the fact. That is why I haven’t spoken about the tastes of the wines themselves. I can tell you that a wine tastes like strawberries, but what’s the point? If you taste blueberries or cloves instead, this doesn’t mean you’re tasting it wrong. The enjoyment of it is far more important, and what you taste is subjective, secondary and personal. Sure, each wine has dominant flavours, but it’s the intangibles, the quirks, that we enjoy and remember. It is in encouraging these interactions, these moments of discovery, that Okanagan wine finds its niche, in the same way craft beer is doing else where. That industry encourages mavericks, encourages using history as a foundation, not a restriction.
In every winery, the winemaker has licence to create wine blends which are greater than the sum of their parts and defy orthodox vocabulary. Quite often, they’re succeeding, and winning international awards for their efforts. We’re invited along for the ride, to embrace the learning and experiment along with them. European wine, with its rich history and tradition, doesn’t have that manoeuvrability.
In many ways, the Okanagan’s identity was encompassed in Rollingdale’s apprentice winemaker, Brendan. When I ask him what his day-to-day life is like, his response is to take us out to the vines and show us. He demonstrates cleaning up the vines and describes some of Rollingdale’s future plans – and some of his ambitions as an apprentice.
A winery’s plans are always in the order of years, looking at what has been but also at what will be. Brendan explains how they plan to grow fruit trees on the property, and why there’s a small plot of land set aside for animals (they help keep the vineyard clean and create a self-sustaining cycle). He describes how their methods are French traditional, but adapted for the climate and the soil of West Kelowna, influenced further by ambition. He wants to make Champagne, but the weather isn’t cooperating. He wants to do a lot of things here. In the meantime, though, he is kept busy by the ice wine they do produce, and in every facet of its creation.
Brendan’s passion, excitement and openness are infectious. Willing to answer our questions, he also asks some in return, to understand where we come from and how the story of Rollingdale can be better told.
This is what sits at the heart of Okanagan wine. Its identity may still be growing and evolving, but the passion and fervour of those who make it will ensure that it remains distinct. It’s not about getting it right, but about being unafraid to try. It will keep asking questions not only of itself, but of those who come to try it, and what wine means to them – without pretence.
Back at Little Straw, after tasting,
I ask my last question. What differentiates Canadian wine from the powerhouses in Europe? Slamka responds with a deadpan, “We don’t have dead people in the soil.”
This humour was present almost everywhere we went, a levity that isn’t often associated with wine. And that’s the point – the door is open, and wine becomes more accessible as a result, as we are invited to partake in the process. That image of Canada that I had come looking for, and the Okanagan’s contribution to it, is still being created – and that intrepid youth is part of its appeal. Its own vocabulary is still growing. They are unafraid, as we should be in experiencing wine.
No, they don’t have dead people in the soil. But they’re forging ahead anyway.
In case you’re wondering, the wine was excellent. The expectation of expertise soon fell away. No, my vocabulary wasn’t there at first, but it started to build as I asked questions, trying wine after wine. There’s no reason to fear getting it right or wrong; the five wines on the counter aren’t a test. There’s no need to scan it using Vivino. There is no expectation of sophistication or implicit understanding- the only expectation is that of openness, humour and a willingness to step outside the bounds of tradition.
So go to the shadow of the Cascades, if you can, and try some of the wine. Ask plenty of questions, but be prepared to be asked them in return. Prepare to laugh and to be challenged. You will see local operations with vines nestled into the sides of local hills, making a few thousand cases. You will also see internationally recognised giants, vines reaching across hundreds of Okanagan acres and beyond. It is in these contrasts that the Canadian image finds its richness, its strength. This is what visitors fall in love with.
Most importantly, regardless of where you go, the door is open – trust me.