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The Okanagan's challenging harvest

When growers hope to reap more than what they sow

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I've just returned from a week in the Okanagan with stops in East Kelowna, Summerland and the Naramata Bench. The smoke has cleared, just in time to prevent any damage to the red grapes as they hang through a final four to six weeks in search of final maturity before harvest.

The 2017 growing season has been a challenge for grapes and growers across the Okanagan. The season started with too much water, both rain and spring run-off that led to widespread flooding. That was followed by no rain and drought conditions most of the summer which fuelled a large number of wildfires in B.C., creating long periods of smoke in the Okanagan. Through it all, the grapes did what they always do — adapt, and as the first few days of fall arrive, the harvest looks promising.

The canes are hardening off, turning a copper colour while inside, the grape's seeds are heading for complete phenolic ripeness, where the tannin residing in the skins turns them silky and soft and the seeds themselves change colour from green to brown. The fruit is busy producing acid and sugar and ripening to perfection.

At the winery, most of the energy goes into tuning the presses and all related harvest equipment, along with constant cleaning of tanks, hoses and winery floors in anticipation of a month or two of 24-hour days known affectionately as "crush."

While we wait for a final verdict on the 2017 harvest, I've been thinking about some of my favourite fall reds, a new breed of flagship labels that are quickly becoming B.C. stars. The list of wines that are making big strides in the province is growing and will likely continue to do so should temperatures continue to warm north of the 49th parallel during the growing season.

While we await the results for 2017, I wanted to offer you something to keep you warm and happy as the days shorten and the weather cools down. Here's a case of B.C. red wines that are turning heads locally and elsewhere in the international wine world from a trio of recent and highly rated B.C. harvests: 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Alphabetically, we begin with Bartier Bros. Merlot Cerqueira Vineyard 2014 ($21.99) that treads the stony/silky line with a pure, fresh savoury, black cherry, salty fruit flavour, while assimilating the oak. Impressive and steak worthy.

The Clos du Soleil Signature 2013 ($44.90) has the manner to cause the Bordelais to one day describe their wines as "Okanagan blends" in the way some say "Bordeaux blends." A reduced percentage of cabernet sauvignon and reduced oak aging (now 17 months) are setting this wine free.

CheckMate Artisanal Winery Opening Gambit Merlot 2013 ($85) is all Osoyoos East Bench. The entry is dry with a mix of red and black fruit; denser, richer fine-grained tannins; and some bright acidity. More savoury Bolgheri style, you should be able to age this five to seven years.

Culmina Family Estate Hypothesis 2013 ($46) has shed its rusticity in 2013 and is projecting some early elegance despite a wealth of dense but sweet tannins in the back end.

Hillside Merlot Dickinson Vineyard 2012 ($30) sits above the road at the southern end of Naramata Bench. Black cherries, dark chocolate and savoury/cedar notes flecked with brown spice. Love the balance, weight and finesse here.

The Howling Bluff Pinot Noir Century Block 2014 ($75) is an homage to the site that was home to over 100 different apple varieties back in the 1980s. Soft, warm and silky, it is on track to become a Naramata terroir wine.

LaStella Maestoso Solo Merlot 2014 ($89.99) is 100-per-cent merlot and the flagship red at La Stella. A blend of two vineyards, one in Osoyoos and one on the Golden Mile Bench, it yields a dense, structure brimming with blueberries and Bing cherry fruit.

Another red blend we think is first rate is the Laughing Stock Vineyards Portfolio +06/10 2014 ($45) Ripe, mouth-filling, savoury, long, dense and silky, this is an amazing effort from David and Cynthia Enns.

Mission Hill Oculus 2013 ($135) is magic. It's the first time this wine has offered real balance from start to finish. The oak has finally disappeared into the background and the terroir is poking through.

Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Micro Cuvée 2015 ($60) is winemaker Chris Carson's personal selection of his best barrels, what he terms the "most harmonious blend" of McLean Creek Road Vineyard. And it is. This is full-blown New World pinot, a bit reminiscent of the New Zealand, Central Otago style.

Osoyoos Larose 2014 ($44.99) is the original single vineyard B.C. red, and the 2014 is the friendliest mix we have tasted since its launch. This wine has shown a propensity to age effortlessly, and 2014 will be no exception.

Painted Rock Red Icon 2014 ($47.79), like Oculus, it is the best, most hedonistic release yet. The tannins are Pomerol-like but the explosive savoury, black/boysenberry fruit are all Skaha Bench Okanagan.

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.

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