Just in time for the summer holidays, we recap the beginning of the 2017 vintage in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys and point you toward some winery stops and must-buy wines if you are going to be travelling to the Interior this year.
As I write this, I've spent a week in the Okanagan encountering smoke only two out of five days, but it all depends on the wind. Wildfires are burning in many parts of the B.C. Interior, but before you decide to stay home, consider calling wineries or hotels in the region you hope to visit and you may find there are no issues with smoke or fires.
After a cold, wet start, the heat's been turned up across B.C. wine country. Vineyards that were as much as three to four weeks behind in the spring have now caught up and are sporting a healthy sized crop. For the moment, smoke taint remains the biggest danger, but there are still at least two full months of weather to navigate before the 2017 harvest begins. There's no denying it — farming is an adventure.
Whether you decide to stay home or travel to wine country, here are some wines that have turned our heads in the first part of 2017. Many are from 2016, possibly the single best vintage for B.C. white wines ever.
We begin on the Naramata Bench where the Terravista Albariño 2016 ($24.90) is simply a showstopper. Albariño is perhaps the best-known white wine in Galicia, Spain, but this Okanagan rendition may be better than anything coming out of the Iberian Peninsula today.
This is the third vintage of what is a 70/30 blend of fruit from the Terravista home vineyard, Lone Hand Ranch on the Naramata Bench, and the Gravelbourg Vineyard on Black Sage Bench. The nose is a riot of fruit reminiscent of nectarine, tangerine and apricots with a touch of anise. Despite an alcohol level of 14 per cent, the wine carries itself well, finishing fresh with flecks of ginger. Think seafood.
Equally beguiling but totally different is the Hillside Un-oaked 2016 Pinot Gris ($19.99). It's more like uncomplicated fun wrapped in a sophisticated jacket of pale pink. This Naramata gris comes from around the village. Fresh and juicy, almost gulpable, it is awash in citrus-coated orchard fruit packed full of summer fun. Think grilled chicken, mussels, clams, cracked crab.
Next up is Vivace, a pinot gris turned grigio. LaStella Vivace Pinot Grigio 2016 ($22.99) is as lively and as bright as its name suggests, and in 2016 it's back to its tighter, leaner form. Picked early, the fruit is sourced from vineyards 16 to 30 years old along the Golden Mile, Naramata Bench and as far north as Peachland. It spends five months on its lees building mouthfeel under a bone-dry frame. Asian pear, green melon, yellow apple and mandarin blossom with a fine, zesty spicing preview and a snappy, bitter lemon finish. An ideal counterpart to simply steamed clams or grilled halibut, it has summer, and sophisticated, written all over it.
A B.C. star at this year's WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, grabbing several medals was East Kelowna's Tantalus Vineyards. One of its best value labels is the Tantalus Vineyards Riesling 2016 ($19.91). The 2016 vintage started out like gangbusters before cooling off through the summer, allowing the whites to retain a much better level of acidity.
At Tantalus, it hailed a return to an earlier, tighter, streamlined form for its flagship Riesling and one of B.C.'s cult wines. This comes from various estate blocks, including the inaugural 1978 plantings. The fruit is harvested over a two-month period, fermented in stainless and then blended and bottled the following spring. Joyously off-dry, with ample pulpy lime, pear, tangerine blossom and a stony mineral cut, all with a stream of juicy acidity. Just about anything you can think of to eat goes with this wine.
Pinot noir continues to ascend the quality ladder in B.C. but a long-time favourite leads the 2014 field. The Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 ($39.90) is as ripe as I can ever remember.
The wine spills from the glass with beautiful, perfumed black cherry and ripe damson plum fruit. The tannins are dense and soft, adding some flesh to the mid-palate and finish. The fruit is all-estate, a blend of five French clones, all pressed into French oak barrels for 10 months. More Russian River than Burgundy this year, but it's so delicious and drinking well right now. Salmon is the perfect match.
Merlot doesn't get a lot of local love but if you're planning on barbecuing steak we suggest you check out the Mission Hill Reserve Merlot 2013 ($26). The style is hedonistic; packed full of rich, black peppery plums, dense cassis and espresso notes sourced from Mission Hill's Osoyoos and Black Sage Bench vineyards that spend 13 months in French and American barrels.
Tannins are plush and grainy, enough to support the richness of sun-ripened fruit to the warm finish. A wave of savoury dried desert herbs helps tie this to place. It's ready to drink but will be best enjoyed with lamb or beef shank.
You will find most of these wines in VQA wine stores and private wine shops as well as direct online from the individual wineries. Hurry up and get some before summer is gone.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.