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.