When we could still travel, a trip to wine country boosted spirits
Almost a year into this pandemic, we’re all dreaming about travelling again. Last summer, during the B.C. bubble, my wife and I took a road trip to explore Okanagan vineyards. Normally, when we travel to B.C., we try out restaurants with exciting menus and wine lists. This trip was a very different experience, but revealed some surprising benefits to wine tasting during a pandemic.
Approaching the Okanagan from the northwest, we had the opportunity to see the entire range of climates the valley contains. Coming through Vernon, the surrounding hills were dry, brown and relatively desert-like, a perception heightened by sunny weather and temperatures of 35 degrees C. Mid-point between Vernon and Kelowna, appropriately referred to as ‘Lake County,’ the temperature is moderated by Okanagan Lake to the west, and Kalamalka and Wood Lakes to the east. There, it becomes greener and vine-covered. We passed (and the next day visited) 50th Parallel Estate Winery. Known for its Pinot Noirs, it is effectively the gateway to wine country.
We overnighted at an Airbnb above O’Rourke’s Peak Cellars and wandered down to taste their Pinot Gris, Rosé, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir. These four wines, along with German varietals including Gewürztraminer and Riesling, are go-to wines of the north Okanagan. I particularly enjoyed the Grüner Veltliner, originally an Austria grape. This wine is a lovely white for a hot day. Chilled down, it had notes of citrus and gooseberry, with an herbal bouquet and clean mineral finish (a finish is the taste in your mouth after you swallow). O’Rourke’s Peak is not sold in the Yukon, but the Yukon Liquor Corp. (YLC) has carried Austrian Grüner Veltliners in the past. Keep your eyes peeled for these summer patio sippers, priced around $20.
As wine enthusiasts, it was a thrill to arrive at Gray Monk Estate Winery just as it opened. It was a cloudless summer morning, with spectacular views over their vineyards down to the lake. We had the tasting room all to ourselves. With COVID, perhaps a third of Okanagan vineyards were not open for tasting, another third only with advanced reservations. If you were lucky, you could walk into the remainder. Gray Monk fell into the third category, but staff were asking all the screening questions, observing social distancing, and our pourers wearing masks.
We started with a refreshing Estate Rosé, with fun notes of rhubarb, grapefruit, and bright red fruit. Throughout the Okanagan, vineyards are making increasingly interesting Rosé wines, ranging from bone dry to off-sweet, but are really becoming exciting! Don’t be put off by their pink (or even towards orange) colouring. They are a world away from Mateus and pink Zinfandels that were on the shelves 15 years ago! I want to pair one with halibut this coming summer.
Gray Monk, with its north Okanagan location, has historically focused on whites. Its Pinot Auxerrois (YLC $20.95), was next to taste. This lovely yellow-hued white wine is a specialty of the vineyard, with a clear apple bouquet (bouquet is the smell) to it, no doubt influenced by the neighbouring orchards. The taste, however, takes you into the citrus range, with hints of honeydew and cantaloupe. Imagine this being served with a chicken alfredo, scallops or shrimp. It would go great with rich, creamy sauces.
We moved on to the high-end Odyssey Pinot Gris, a stand-out example of a grape that the whole Okanagan is excelling in. Gray Monk uses hand-picked grapes from its Block 8 Estate Vineyard, where the 40-year-old vines are some of the oldest in British Columbia. Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are my two B.C. white wine grapes. This wine, though not currently carried at the YLC, is worth looking out for. It has a light copper hue from the grape skins, a red apple bouquet, and a solid, but not too sharp, taste with some spice, melon and pear. I’ll serve it with either salmon or a mushroom dish in the months ahead.
We also tasted both the Odyssey champagne-style Brut (YLC $27.65) and the Odyssey Merlot (YLC $25.20). The bubbly was great fun at 10:30 in the morning, with a fresh green apple nose, a combination of nuttiness (think toasted hazelnuts), hints of lime and even a bit of honey. The Merlot, which is made from grapes grown down by Oliver, to the south, is a good expression of a B.C. Merlot, with dark fruit (black cherries), a spiciness and hints of licorice on the palate. I will confess that it was outshone later in the week by a Merlot we tried at Nk’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos, albeit for $5 more per bottle.
After tasting Pinot Noir at 50th Parallel Estate Winery and a people-watching, alfresco lunch at Block One Restaurant, it was off for a cooling dip in Okanagan Lake, and then on to a remarkable tasting experience at Mission Hill Winery, which I’ll tell you about in a coming article.