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If there is one thing everyone can agree on here in this land of phantasmagorical beauty it is this: Not one white wine style defines the Okanagan Valley and its sister region the Similkameen Valley. It really is an ever-changing mosaic, born of the free will of those who craft the wines from virtually any grape they choose.
“The interesting thing about the Valley,” says Black Hills Estate winemaker Graham Pierce, “is we haven’t quite nailed down what we do best. I would say the we are trending away from a signature variety.”
Oh, there’s good Chardonnay all right, plenty of it; Pierce makes a dandy, but there’s a particular joie de vivre his Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend called Alibi bring to the party; these are swoon-worthy wines that make you think about the profound diversity in a north-south climate that ticks off all the right boxes: ripeness, acid, balance and variety. It would be silly to fence yourself into a style or “signature” grape when there is so much freedom to roam in this region of endless possibilities.
By sheer numbers, Chardonnay was sent packing from its dominant position as most planted grape in the Valley in 2008. The ubiquitous (I mean that in a loving way) Pinot Gris now leads the onslaught with Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc following behind. Pinot Blanc, once the darling of BC, has spiralled to sixth position with a host of other grapes — Viognier, other white Rhône varieties, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and even a tiny sprinkling of Gruner Veltliner (OK, one Gruner, from Culmina, but it’s a knockout!) — rounding out, and gaining momentum, in what is truly an eclectic and dizzying choice for consumers.
There is no limit to what can be grown in the hot/cool climate of the Okanagan Valley, so winemakers are constantly experimenting with what does best or separating themselves from the pack (more than 250 grape wineries and counting in BC) and creating unique house styles.
But, as in every industry, there are those who take the road less travelled. Going rogue has never been a problem for winemaker Dwight Sick at Stag’s Hollow Winery in Okanagan Falls. Sick has always marched to the beat of his own drum, surprising consumers with quirky varietals, blends and styles that have increasingly become as much a part of the Okanagan and Similkameen Valley winescape as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
“We’re becoming known for not following conformity,” says Sick.
The winery is always “trying to narrow down the focus” and play to the Okanagan’s strengths, which he says are “natural acidity and aromatics for days. That can be an identifier for us. We have that in spades.”
Sick believes three white grapes answer the bell on both counts: Riesling, Vidal and Albarino. Wait, did he just say Albarino? You bet. Sick elected to send Sauvignon Blanc packing and instead turned to the Spanish stalwart Albarino to fill the gap. His initial crop, the first in Canada, produced a mere four cases (with 300 to 400 cases planned for 2015) and it is delicious, with ripe, succulent flavours, lemon oil and hazelnut accents. It’s another arrow in the quiver as Sick tries to stay one step ahead of fickle consumers in a changing climate that is forcing many in the Okanagan to rethink what they have planted and where they’ve planted it.
Rhône varieties, such as Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, are on the uptick and, in the right hands, can be a recipe for gorgeous, complex whites in the warmth and sunshine of the Okanagan.
I was enthralled with Pentage Winery’s 2011 Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier blend with spicy Asian pear, melon and complex exotic spice notes. The Stag’s Hollow Viognier/Marsanne Kiln House Vineyard 2013, made in limited quantities, was also memorable, but undeniably quirky. It’s made in the natural “orange” wine style with skin contact, co-fermentation, low sulphur, wild fermented, unfined and unfiltered. “It’s more about texture; this plays on the oxidative side of things,” explains Sick. “How far can I go?” Well, he went pretty far and I have to agree when he says, “Reductive? Oxidative? Whatever, it’s so interesting and thought provoking, it makes you salivate. People will love it or hate it.” With flavours of marmalade, peach purée, citrus rind, ginger and papaya with tannins and a burnt orange colour, this is a whole new frontier to explore for white wine making in the Okanagan.
Not that a smattering of Rhône varietals and a natural/orange style paint a true picture of what’s going on here in terms of white wines in the Okanagan. It is trending, but in small doses.
The classic white Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon shows real potential as a white wine that can do a lot of the heavy lifting in both the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. It can be viewed it as a solid alternative to Chardonnay with a richness and complexity that can rival the world’s most popular white wine.
In the stunningly beautiful Similkameen Valley, the Clos du Soleil Capella 2013 accentuates what winemaker Michael Clark calls “the strong mineral component and herbality” the region’s rocky soils bring to the wines. The Capella is all about elegance and finesse with pear and apple flavours mingling with profound, stony minerality and fine oak spice. The winery’s entire portfolio is based on the style of both red and white Bordeaux. “It’s exciting to a part of an emerging region,” Clark says.
Time Estate also makes a similarly classically styled blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with pear, melon and gooseberry notes and nicely packaged in elegant oak stylings. It paired perfectly with marinated scallop, panko fried oyster, house cured bacon, foie gras dust and beurre blanc at a dinner at the Local Lounge and Grill in Summerland.
Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are also the foundation for a growing number of proprietary blends for many Okanagan wineries. Tinhorn Creek blends in Viognier, Muscat and Chardonnay for its top white, the Oldfield Series 2Bench 2013, which delivers a showy profile of pear, melon, apple and peach notes. It’s fairly elegant but bolstered by firm acidity through a long finish.
Other varietals that help build the white wine structure of this region include Chenin Blanc, which can be a gorgeous, reliable wine for casual drinking. The Inniskillin Discovery Series Chenin shows classy honeydew and tropical fruits. Pinot Gris is a staple of the Valley and above all is the one constant from winery to winery, and, of course, Gewürztraminer, which provides so much pleasure for the West Coast’s Asian-influence dining scene, has found a home in the Okanagan Valley.
But it is Riesling that has come the furthest in terms of style since I have been coming to the region in the early 1990s.
What was once an overly sweet, flabby, unbalanced style is emerging as a serious wine that is embracing the natural acidity and minerality that both the Okanagan and Similkameen have to offer.
Tantalus Vineyards, Stag’s Hollow, Sperling Vineyards, St Hubertus Estate Winery and Orofino Winery are at the forefront of a BC Riesling revolution.
One of the finest examples of the new Rieslings emerging I tried on a recent trip was the Summerhill Vineyard Riesling 2013, made from old vines planted to the Weis 21 clone based on biodynamic principals using ambient yeasts from the vineyard.
This wine absolutely stole the show on the Riesling front, with succulent grapefruit, vivacious lemon-lime, alfalfa honey, brilliant and defined minerality that works magnificently with a slight reductive note. Does this wine benefit from 30 days of aging in the winery’s curious pyramid?
That is one of the mysteries of the Okanagan.
What isn’t a mystery is how so many styles of white wines not only thrive in the remarkable climate of the Okanagan Valley, but also have the power to thrill. Here, and in the emerging Similkameen Valley, it’s a multi-dimensional mecca of goodness where Chardonnay is but a cog in a giant wheel of varietal bliss.
93 Summerhill Vineyard Riesling 2013, Okanagan ($30)
This is a brilliant Riesling from fruit grown using biodynamic principles and fermented wild in the vineyard from ambient yeasts. The nose shows an explosion of succulent grapefruit, lemon-lime, quince, alfalfa honey and a slight reductive note. It shows brilliant minerality on the palate with zesty lime, citrus rind, lemon tart and honeycomb.
92 Stag’s Hollow Viognier/Marsanne Kiln House Vineyard 2013, Okanagan ($25)
This is made in the “orange” wine style with skin contact, co-fermentation, low sulphur, wild fermentation, unfined and unfiltered. Such a powerful nose of lemon, peach, citrus, spice and marmalade. The look of the wine might throw you for a loop with its burnt orange colour and slight cloudy appearance but it’s a knockout on the palate with peach puree, lemon rind, ginger, papaya and evident tannins. Wow.
92 Clos du Soleil Capella 2013, Similkameen Valley ($28)
The Capella is a 91% Sauvignon Blanc/9% Semillon blend that draws from the rocky soils of the Similkameen Valley. It’s pure elegance on the nose with pear, apple, grapefruit, cream and spice. On the palate it is all about finesse and balance with pear and apple flavours mingling with profound and stony minerality and fine oak spice.
91 Black Hills Viognier 2013, Okanagan ($25)
A fresh-style Vio that sees no oak. Beautiful aromas of peach, apple, mango and fragrant while flowers. It’s round and rich on the palate and shows a range of ripe fruit flavours that build in intensity through the finish.
91 Culmina Unicus 2014, Okanagan ($30)
This is Culmina’s second vintage of Gruner Veltliner, the first planting of this Austrian grape in BC. It’s highly aromatic with floral notes, citrus, melon, grapefruit, ginger and even a white pepper accent. The flavours range from lime, lemon peel and grapefruit to rounder notes of pear and peach with some minerals and spice.
90 Inniskillin Discovery Series Chenin Blanc 2014, Okanagan ($17)
Lovely melon, pear and apple aromas on the nose. It’s round, delicious and juicy on the palate with rich pear, apricot and mango flavours.
90 Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2Bench White 2013, Okanagan ($20)
A blend of Semillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Muscat that shows pear, melon, apple and peach notes on the nose. It’s fairly elegant on the palate with a cacophony of flavours that are layered and lush, but lifted by firm acidity through a fairly long finish.
90 Black Hills Alibi 2013, Okanagan ($25)
A classic blend of 75% Sauvignon Blanc and the rest barrel-fermented Semillon. It has an elegant nose of grapefruit, grilled pineapple, citrus and baked apple with lightly toasted spices. It has wonderful mouthfeel with rich flavours on the palate that are bolstered by oak-derived spice notes.
90 Pentage Winery Viognier/Roussanne/Marsanne 2011, Okanagan ($27)
A lovely Rhône-inspired white blend with a nose of spicy Asian pear, apricot, melon and peach. Shows some elegance on the palate with fully integrated and exotic apricot, peach and pear fruit with intriguing spice notes.
90 Clos du Soleil Saturn 2013, Similkameen Valley ($29/375 ml)
The Saturn is a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc with 10% of the fruit botrytised. Such a classy nose of sweet Meyer lemon, lime peel, grapefruit and crème brûlée. It’s rich and creamy on the palate, with sweet fruit notes, roasted hazelnuts and complexity all balanced by fresh acidity.
90 Stag’s Hollow Albarino 2014, Okanagan (NA)
This first vintage of Stag’s Hollow’s Albarino is not available to the public because so little was made. It’s an interesting wine, made with a touch of oak and a little reductive. It’s quite ripe and full throttle with notes of peach, apricot, hazelnuts, lemon oil and minerals.
89 See Ya Later Ranch Gewürztraminer 2014, Okanagan ($15)
Highly aromatic Gew with aromas of honey-dipped grapefruit, lychee, tropical fruit and exotic spices. It’s nicely balanced on the palate with grapefruit, spice and balancing acidity.
89 Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2014, Okanagan ($17)
Tinhorn always does a nice job with this Okanagan staple. The nose shows honeysuckle, melon, tropical fruits and a smidge of citrus. All that lovely fruit is balanced nicely by racy acidity through the finish.
88 The View Riesling 2012, Okanagan ($19)
Packed with citrus, pear, apple, ginger and interesting mineral notes on the nose. It’s crisp and fresh on the palate with green apple and lemon-lime flavours that play well with the subtle minerals through the finish.