Extreme Wine Trip: Okanagan Valley BC Canada Part 1

Stuck at home? Grab a glass of something nice. Since we can’t travel, stray with me to the edge of wine-making.

With so many “important” wine regions out there, I had set aside Canada’s Okanagan Valley. It was too far, too obscure, and too young to merit a trip. A drive would be nine hours. NINE HOURS. Trapped in a car with a two and half year old. Nine hours.

(Fearing just nine hours isolated with a kid seems quaint during the Covid-19 pandemic).

But slowly, the itch to take the WSET Diploma Level 4 has taken over. Seven years have passed since the WEST 3. Now that I am decently settled (rutted) into work and my daughter lets us sleep most nights, maybe, just maybe, I could finally memorize, say, the deductive effects of Carboxymethycellulose on calcium and potassium bitartrate levels. Or not.

However, we live in the embryonic Northwest: neither Oregon nor Washington offer the course, but Napa and Vancouver, BC do. Not to be blasé, but I visit Napa every couple years. Napa is out. But my awkward love for all things Canadian (it’s like a cold, quirky, polite Europe), and fact that Fine Vintage Ltd would tour the Okanagan for the WSET 4, decided it. Pack the kido and car!


At the Northern limit of grape-growing, the Okanagan Lake and Valley stretches from the US border at the 45th Parallel 83 miles (three times Napa) right through British Columbia, up to and through the 50th Parallel. Vitis vinifera grapes should not grow here. But they do.

Now, we have visited vineyards almost this far North: Vancouver Island (read here), Luxembourg (read here), Champagne (read here), Dresden (read here), Prince Edward Island (read here), we even lived near the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. All their wines share enamel-blasting acidity, light body, low alcohol, few recognizable vinifera grapes (Riesling, Chardonnay, even Pinot Noir), and a whole lot of unrecognizable grapes (Scheurebe, Vidal Blanc, Marechal Foch, Sauvignette, Frontenac…anybody?). So is the Okanagan any different? Yes and no.


The Okanagan climate is land locked and continental (hot, dry, short summers, cold winters): akin to NY Finger Lakes, Columbia Valley WA, Alsace, and German wine regions. Like those land lubbers, their lakes or rivers play a key roll in moderating temperatures, stretching the season to ripen grapes. However, Lake Okanagan is just bigger, way bigger. It goes 761 feet deep and 83 miles long (over 100 feet deeper than Seneca Lake and almost three times as long). Add long sunny summer days (setting at 9pm) to his huge heat sink and the protection from Pacific rains by the Cascade Mountain rain shield, the Okanagan can ripen not only Pinots, Riesling, and Chardonnay, but Merlot, Syrah, even Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet the daily diurnal (hot to cold) range slows ripening and freezing early winters allow for Icewine.

Bags packed we head North. We stay the night in Seattle with friends for sanity, then head for the border.

Once we turn East, the flat farmland, grey marshes, and silver river vistas fade into riots of shattered mountains.

We climb. It cools. Forests and farms turn into into scrub and rock. At the summit we stop, like landing on a moonscape of thin air and rock. I get vertigo just looking at it.

Now this is a rain shadow. Of course nary a Pacific cloud makes it East of these massive mountains. It reminds me of the Cascades or Vosges but far more extreme.

After a rapid descent, our world flattens into arid high desert. The temperature rises as we cruise for hours East.

Finally, civilization emerges as we near our hotel on Okanagan Lake. Billboards for real estate, tasting rooms, and boat rentals pop up like weeds above the road. We tuck into a great Japanese meal, stock up on essentials, and crash at our hotel.

My class and winery tours start tomorrow. Check back for my whirlwind tour of Canada’s most extreme wine region.

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Time For Champagne: WSET 4 Diploma Blind Wine Tasting

We could all use some Champagne about now.

I am deep into my WSET 4 Diploma course by Fine Vintage Ltd. Once no longer sequestered at home from dawn to dusk trying to tame a whirlwind toddler, I will write more about it. But for now, I could not resist sharing this one.

We started blind-tasting three sparkling wines. With no leads on what they might be, cost, or consist of, here is my 10 minute note on the one that shone:

“The wine looks a brilliant, medium intense gold color with fine mousse.

Pronounced, complex aromas smell of strawberry, yellow grapefruit, lemon, chalk, toasted bread, almond paste, and vanilla.

The palate feels dry, with high acidity, medium alcohol, a medium body, and rounded yet crisp texture and supremely fine mousse.

Pronounced intensity flavors taste of strawberry, lemon, toasted bread, green apple, chalk, and clove that last a long length.

This is outstanding quality Champagne with age on it, given the high intensity and complexity both of flavors and aromas, the brilliance of color, the autolysis from extended lees aging and miles of length.

Suitable for aging as the combination of perservative acidity and top quality core fruit will evolve beautifully another five years or more.”

It turned out to be a Blanc de Blancs. All Chardonnay. Not strawberries. Bad taster! Bad! No biscuit!

I had fallen down a rabbit hole of assumptions: I could tell it was Champagne, I thought the class might pick a non-vintage to stay on budget, so of course I found “underripe strawberry” (Pinot Noir and/or Meunier) that was never there. At least Jancis Robinson’s review might have agreed, “I don’t think I would immediately take it for a Blanc de Blancs blind”. It was so ripe and biscuity. Blind tasting is such a mind-muddling affair.

The course proctor admitted they splurged (around $150). Pol Roger was the producer. The mellow, ripe 2009 vintage (declared only in 2008 and 2012) was top class: sourced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards of Cramant, Les Mesnil, Oger, Avize and Oiry in the Côte des Blancs (fancy name of Champagne’s Chardonnay heartland). It went through full malolactic conversion and then aged in bottle for seven whole years, riddled by hand by the few remeures left in Champagne.

What a treat and what a challenge.

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Balkan Merlot Wine Review: VukojE, Galerija, Bosnia-Herzegovina 2016

Wow. Hi internet, I missed you. Toddler distractions notwithstanding, let us turn our sails back toward the wine dark sea. Many leagues ago, I started to review Balkan wines my mother-in-law smuggled back with her. The tannic, native grape, Vranak made for some puckered and challenged palates (read here). But, how does Bosnia-Herzegovina handle the stereotyped grape of plush pleasure and ease: Merlot?

Winery VukojE has a vineyard dedicated to Merlot, called Zasad polje. With me? Feel like your mouth is full of cotton yet? Me too. Zasad polje or as I like to call it, Zsa Zsa, is tucked in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s southern corner, a 40 minute drive inland, into Bosnia from coastal Croatia’s Dubrovnic. So a nice mix of coastal Adriatic mediterranean warmth and moisture but inland with diurnal range.

Welp, VukoJE’s Galerija is 100% Merlot. It uses whole cluster fermentation, then cools the grape for 8 months in barrels. Let us try it.

The APPEARANCE looks a clear, medium plus ruby, with medium clear rim: safe Merlot territory.

Its AROMAS roll with medium plus intense prune, orange peel, violet, and dried wood. Interesting…

The PALATE feels dry, with medium plus acidity, touching on volatile acidity (ruh roh), while tannins feel soft but reedy like balsa wood, alcohol and body are there in moderate presence.

The FLAVORS medium intense twangy orange juice, pruned plum, flint, with medium vanilla finish.


VukoJE’s 2016 Merlot is bright yet dark-fruited and rough-edged, a bit of a jangly mix that yet manages to resolve itself into a pleasant friend for fatty, salty foods: tomato-based pastas, rare cooked meats, mushroom, young but hard cheeses, even rich fish dishes.

It is good (3 of 5), likely tastes better beside a lake in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but stateside comes off a bit pruned yet wild and twangy.

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Rock’In Bottle

Want more minerality in your wine? Somehow this bottle of bright, chalky, organic white Burgundy also trapped a piece of gravel in its glass base:

It looks like the wine should be fine…we’ll see.

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Graham Beck Brut Rosé 2011

APPEARANCE: Clear, light peach color with silver highlights, fine small bubble.

AROMAS: Delicate medium intense fig, red pear, vanilla powder, cardamon, whipping creme, crême fraiche, light cinnamon, slight bandaid.

PALATE: Dry, crisp medium plus acidity, seamless warm alcohol, medium minus alcohol, gentle, fine crisp pearl.

FLAVORS: intense, coating, yet sprightly red grapefruit, fig, fresh red pear, vanilla powder, cardamon, whipping creme, crême fraiche, a long light cinnamon and bitter almond finish.

VERDICT: Over eight years past harvest, Graham Beck’s 2011 rosé remains delightful, light on its feet, steely, yet delicate, complex, and dry. I could nit pick the bandaid, the oxidation, the fact it is best now.

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