A tasting at the tower

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery is likely the most highly visited of any winery in the Okanogan. In normal times, the estate’s three-tiered parking lot would be jampacked with cars and the visitor traffic would be augmented by a continual flow of tour buses bringing further enthusiastic wine-tasters to the vineyard. I had previously visited the winery under those conditions, but touring during COVID was a dramatically different experience.

We arrived on a sunny 30-degree C day, fresh from a swim in Okanagan Lake. We were admitted at the gate after being told that, during COVID, only those who held confirmed reservations (which we did) could enter. Parking on the top parking tier (the other two were empty), we strolled through the lot to a shady welcome station where we were checked in and served a refreshing glass of the ice-cold ‘Reserve Brut’ sparkling wine.

The dramatic setting and architecture of Mission Hill Winery reminded me of the spectacular vineyard estates found in Napa, or the Tuscan hill south of Florence. Anthony von Mandl, founder of Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co., bought the vineyard on Mission Hill in 1981. Between 1996 and 2000, he commissioned Olson Kundig Architects and built the stunning $35 million winery, complete with a 12-storey, 80-foot-high bell tower with four bells cast in France. The largest apparently weighs nearly 800 kg.

In normal times, the broad, landscaped courtyard that stretches from the entry gate to the bell tower, pavilion and balustrade overlooking Okanagan Lake would be chock-a-block with visitors, swarming towards the tasting room and gift shop. This afternoon, there were the occasional hushed conversations of groups of four to six visitors.

Wine guides ushered them to their remote and separate corners of the estate, to sit at tables in the shade of a cool stone pavilion, or overlooking the lake. We were ushered into a large, art-filled library, cool and quiet after the hot afternoon sun, and where we were the only occupants for our ‘A Tasting at the Tower’ experience.

Our personable and knowledgeable wine guide wore a face shield, but her enthusiastic smile and welcoming demeanour made us feel like we were the only guests at the vineyard. The multiple wine glasses set on a coffee table between comfortable sofas made our guests and my wife and I feel relaxed and ready to explore.

Mission Hill Estates produces four different tiers of wines. In ascending order of quality (and price), “Five Vineyards” is the entry level (Yukon Liquor Corp. (YLC) $19.95 to $21.95), followed by the “Reserve” wines. The “Terroir” collection is outstanding. At the very top is the “Legacy” series. We tasted from the Reserve line, some of which are available at the YLC (~$25 – $30).

We started with the 2018 Reserve Rosé, crisp and cold and refreshing on a day that, for Yukoners, was almost too hot (though we didn’t complain, given the rainy, cool 2020 Yukon summer that we had escaped). Mission Hill gathers its Merlot, Syrah and a few Pinot Noir grapes for this wine from the almost-desert-like Osoyoos area, about 100 kilometres south of Kelowna. This pale pink summer sipper is aged almost entirely in stainless steel tanks, preserving the apple and citrus crispness of the fruit. Three per cent is aged in French oak barrels, giving it a little more body, just a hint of wood and spice, and a fuller, more three-dimensional taste.

We moved on to the 2018 Reserve Viognier (“Vee-own-yay”), a lesser-known white wine grape that I only began to taste several years ago. Unlike the more familiar Chardonnays (which tend towards apple and pear aromatics), Viognier takes you towards aromas and flavours of rose petals, perfume and tangerines. This lovely treat had both citrus and white fruit notes in both the bouquet (smell) and on the tongue, coupled with peach or faint apricot and a hint of spiciness after I swallowed (called the ‘finish’). I suspect it would be great with halibut.

The 2018 Reserve Pinot Gris grapes come from Naramata, north east of Penticton and was next to taste. Aging 25 per cent of the juice barrel-fermented in French oak, and another five per cent in new wood, gave it intense, rich oak flavours and feel in your mouth. This was coupled with lemon and lime notes in the nose and flavour, and a dry, almost mouth-puckering finish. I’d pair it with pastas with creamy sauces.

We finished the tasting with a red that captures some of the best of the south Okanagan: Mission Hill’s 2018 Reserve Shiraz (YLC $29.95). Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape, though some would say that, stylistically speaking, Shiraz and Syrah wines are not the same. A traditional Shiraz from South Australia will generally be bolder-tasting, with riper and more concentrated fruit, while a Syrah from France’s North Rhone Valley could be described as a more refined and restrained ‘old world’ style of wine. While called a Shiraz by Mission Hill, I would characterize it as being closer to the Rhone-style Syrah. Pair it with game meat, maybe a BBQ’d moose steak if you have some! All in all, a wonderful, less rushed and relaxing tasting experience.

According to past discussions with the What’s Up Yukon publisher, this article, coupled with four plus years of wine articles starting in 2008, makes this my 100th ‘Vino Borealis’ article. It serves to remind me that there is always something new to taste and learn in the world of wine, and the fun is in the exploration. Remember, there is no one ‘right’ wine to drink, pair with food or enjoy. In my next article I’ll continue south through Okanagan towards Naramata and Oliver. Cheers!

Scenes from Mission Hill. PHOTOS: Peter Turner

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