On a recent West Coast swing I sampled wines from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley without ever leaving the city of Vancouver. A bicycle was all I needed to find Salt Tasting Room in Blood Alley. A couple of telephone calls to L’Abattoir and Fable Kitchen quickly and effortlessly landed me in the wine program hands of Robert Herman and Kathy Schleyer/Ron MacGillivray, all ready and willing to introduce me to a thing or two about B.C. wine. The Okanagan Valley’s indelible stamp is now etched upon my wild yeast, fermented brain.
A well-known California wine writer recently lashed out against the city’s wine scene with this soul-searching, pharisaic headline. British Columbia: Okay Wines, Retarded Wine Culture. I feel for the author, who in his own right is possessive of a tremendous palate, for he could not locate a knowledgeable sommelier or a decent glass of B.C. wine anywhere in the city. But I suppose I shouldn’t blame him for never having solicited any advice from Anthony Gismondi, DJ Kearney, Jessica Bryans, Rhys Pender, Treve Ring, Frank Haddad, Kurtis Kolt, Andrea Vescovi, Lindsay Ferguson, Jay Whiteley, Barbara and Iain Phillip, Mark Taylor and Lynn Coulthard. Just a few names for next time. Nor can I hold him accountable for never having made it out to Penticton, or Kelowna. Two weeks later the Wine Blogger’s Conference in Penticton remained surreptitiously out of reach. I too am guilty of not being able to plan a side trip to the Okanagan during my quick western jaunt and yet I had no trouble unearthing several watering holes with more than a willingness to keep me in the B.C. wine loop. “It ain’t no big thing but it’s growin’.”
Unlike Ontario, British Columbia has finally begun to emerge from the dark ages of wine legislation and pre-prohibition rules. Thanks to MP Dan Albas and the #freemygrapes movement, Ontario wineries (and others in Canada) can now ship their bottles to B.C., free from persecution. Private wine shops like Kitsilano Wine Cellar have begun to allot space to Ontario but the choices are few and far between. Blue Note agency’s Patrick Ellis is working towards more free movement of wine from Ontario to B.C. Despite the prevailing tailwinds, shipping wines west to east remains taboo. Christy Clark will be handing out B.C. wines to fellow premiers at this week’s annual meeting. The ball is in your court Kathleen Wynne. People are talking.
The LCBO is so un-flush with B.C. wines the back-up is downright constipating. The monopoly threatens, the wall’s eastern bloc shows few faults and still B.C. wines (privately) flow east. Why? It’s the right thing to do. My table is set and ready for B.C. wine to be written all over it.
Here are notes on eight Okanagan Valley wines tasted at Salt and on a hotel balcony overlooking phantasmagorical English Bay.
Salt Tasting Room, 45 Blood Alley, Gastown, Vancouver, BC V6B 0C4 (604) 633-1912
It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, I’m in unfamiliar territory and Colin greets me with a turntable and Another Side of Bob Dylan. I know I’ve come to the right place. A half hour in I am turned over to Sommelier and General Manager Kyle Gartlan-Close, clearly a pragmatist when it comes to the wines of British Columbia. I sense he’s still waiting for the renaissance to happen and the local wines on his list must adhere to what are clearly his high standards of quality. I tasted 15 wines over a 90-minute stretch at the tasting bar. Not all were hits but Salt was clearly the portal to crawl through and cross over into Vancouver’s wine scene. All prices are B.C. at the winery, unless otherwise noted.
Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Natural Brut 2010 ($35) at 11:00 am on the nose spins effortlessly out of the vinyl gate along with Dylan’s The Girl From North Country. No shrinking violet, this inaugural Brut, méthode Champenoise sparkler. Straining yeast, naphtha and prickling pear go crazy in acerbic pith. No Peggy Day neither, though “she stole my poor heart away.” Score one for Godello’s cellar. 90 @tantaluswine
Thornhaven Tortured Grape 2012 ($17.90) melds a kitchen sink of Okanagan Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat. Slides down the pipe with edacious oomph, in a good way. The label’s eerie graphic might shock but this is no hollow or shallow white, but rather a hallow ode to blending with great floral intensity. But, may I ask, who crop-thins with a scythe? 87 @ThornhavenWines
Pentâge Winery Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011 ($20) is classically styled white Bordeaux divided between 65 per cent SB and 35 Sem, though it’s true to its roots and rocks, speaking uniquely of its place. Glides coolly and reggae rhythmically in cohorts with Bob’s Kaya, is perfumed by humid sea salt and oyster shell. SB imparts near tropical fruit and Sem brings terrific texture. Goes to show you “can’t run away from yourself.” 88 @PentageWinery
Poplar Grove Chardonnay 2011 (338434, $27.95, B.C. 732958, $21.90) from Hot weekend wines and cool Chardonnay sees minimal (15 percent new French) oak influence and while there is a ripe coconut tang, a sense of creamy butter and a spike of citrus, there really isn’t too much of anything at all. Tasted this fresh Okanagan a second time in Vancouver, alongside Another Side of Bob Dylan at Salt Tasting Room, I decided I could drink a barge full of the stuff. “All I really want to do, is, baby, be friends with you.” 90 @poplargrovewine
8th Generation Vineyard Riesling 2012 ($20.90) from Okanagan Falls bolts rapido from the gate with the ripest fruit (pear, plum) and though there is citrus, it’s really quite semi-dry. At 12.9 per cent alcohol and 24gr/L of residual sugar this may as well be Mosel Trocken Spätlese. Fantastic presence and awesome winemaking from Bernd and Stefanie Schales. Got me by the vines and will be on my table. 92 @8th_Generation
Synchromesh Pinot Noir Rosé ’Palo Solara’ 2011 ($18.90) from an east-Kelowna vineyard is made using the traditional saignée method. The result is a cottony texture and clinquant cantaloupe hue. An alkali, dry Provence notion is raised dutifully by bright but savoury fruit notes, like rhubarb and watermelon. Only 150 cases produced and true to serious Rosé everywhere. 90 @SynchromeshWine
Okanagan Crush Pad Gamay (on Tap) rolls melodically around the mouth in fresh fruit flavours so it must be Piano Man time. Solid black cherry core, good extraction, simple structure and no hard lines combine for basic but beneficial keg effect. “La la la, di da da. La la, di da da da dum.” 87 @OKCrushPad
Joie Farm Pinot Blanc 2012 ($23) found at Kitsilano Wine Cellar elevates a yeoman’s grape to mountain heights. Okanagan acidity injects life to do away with “useful” and score a notch for necessary. Like Gamay, Pinot Blanc should receive more planting consideration in B.C. Zesty, invigorating and refreshing. A tumbler of delectation when matched with a view of English Bay. 89 @JoieFarm
Good to go!