Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Metric System be Damned, Exploring Canadian Wine...

Until relatively recently, if you had asked me what pairs best with Canadian Pinot Noir, I would have said, "crow."

Allow me to explain.

I had more or less dismissed Canadian wine based on one bad experience, a Bordeaux varietal that escapes me now. A fool's conclusion, to be sure. My foolishness and a trip to McMinnville, Oregon, for IPNC led to a conversation with Cole Danehower in which I shared with him my assumptions about Canadian wine. While we talked, he mentioned some of the British Columbia wines that he favored. Later that afternoon, I found myself tracking down Cole, tail between my legs, after I had tried Pinot Noir made by Tantalus and Tawse. In the shade of the McMinnville oak trees alongside some of the best Pinot Noir in the world - from France, Oregon, California and New Zealand - Canadian Pinot Noir stood up to be counted, and I had to pay attention.

In large part, that experience is what led me to formally include BC wines, particularly those from the Okanogan in the Northwest Wine Anthem. For those of us in the States, part of the mystery surrounding Okanogan wines stems from the reality of tariffs and customs limitations. The Canadian wine industry in the Okanogan Valley is booming with nearly 130 wineries as of 2011. Despite the proximity to the rest of the Northwest wine regions, national borders tend to keep Canadian wines in and Washington and Oregon wines out or vice versa depending upon which side of the border you sit (BC imposes a 135% tax on wine imported from the US; there's a great read here on the Washington Wine Report). Given this international dynamic, most of us down here aren't as knowledgeable about the Okanogan, the varietals produced there, or the growing conditions. Further muddying the waters is the whole metric system thing that they have going on up there. Yeah, I don't get it either. Rest assured, however, that there's plenty of wine being made in the Okanogan and you'll find nearly every varietal being produced there.

A quick perusal of Okanogan winery websites lets you know it's a region that sees a lot of variance in what's being grown there, but what kind of wine region is the Okanogan? It's certainly further north than any other Northwest growing region, and while it has ample viticultural history there is still much to be learned by growers, vintners and enthusiasts. Some of the realities that face the growers and viticulturalists there include a season that is short, shorter even than the cool climate seasons seen in the Willamette Valley. As the world's northernmost serious wine region, the Okanogan benefits from intense sun late in the summer and early in the fall but that brilliance ends almost immediately with winter hot on its tail. The wines that set up really well are those that benefit from brilliant acidity; aromatic white wines are right at home in the Okanogan. Creating complex, multi-layered red varietals is a challenge but can be pulled off. For Canadian red wine drinkers, when it comes to the Okanogan, Pinot Noir is the sweet spot. Particularly exciting about the wine being made in the Okanogan is that those who are doing it really well are handling a growing region and season that is unique to the Northwest and really the winemaking world. To explore these wines is an opportunity to sample skilled winemakers' willingness to take on and in many cases demonstrate a mastery of these conditions.

I'm excited about what they're doing up north in the Okanogan, but there are a few hang ups, particularly with tariffs resulting in price points that are a bit tougher for us to swallow on this side of the border. I was recently tasting through some aromatic white wines from Joie Farm that I would put at the top of a list of Northwest wines in a heartbeat, particularly the Noble Blend and the Riesling. However, they're being sold at retail price points that would give many stateside Northwesterners pause, firmly in the low $20 range. This is a product of the Canadian government's penchant for taxing the fun out of alcohol.

As part of our mission here, the Northwest Wine Anthem will explore not only the wines coming out of the Okanogan, but some of the other wines being made throughout British Columbia and the wine scene in and around Vancouver, as well. Stay tuned.


I haven't really tried any of they're wines. I think I should probably try them sometime. Thanks.

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