The lone Rhone in the Canadian wine profile seems to be Syrah, and yet this is the first grape planted to the Desert Hills Estate Three Boys Vineyard along the Black Sage Bench. Here, due to glacial retreat, the land is made up of gravelly limestone soils — perfect for a grape that enjoys a bit of forced rigor, like Syrah. The Toor family purchased their Three Boys Vineyard back in 1988, planted their first grapes in 1994, and is today the 25-acre home vineyard site for Desert Hills.
When Anthony Buchanan decided to embark on his winemaking career, he decided to return to his native British Columbia roots. Indeed, it is in the heart of BC that Canada’s wine scene seems to truly flourish. The sprawling Okanagan Valley, with its diverse microclimates and soil types, is home to over 60 wine grape varieties. But, undoubtedly, the cool-climate-loving Pinot Noir is the red wine king. The delicate fruit presents a crispness and acidity unknown to many New World regions, and Buchanan’s expression truly exemplifies what Canadian Pinot Noir is all about.
Desert Hills Estate is a family owned and operated winery, brought to us by brothers Randy, Jessie, and Dave Toor. Farmers and grape-growers first, they have, as they say, learned the wine business literally “from the ground up.” Though the trio has been making wine for over 16 vintages now, they maintain their hands-on attention to detail in every step of the winemaking process: from Jessie as vineyard manager, to Randy as business lead, and Dave as product manager — and introducing Rajen Toor, Randy’s son and second generation to join the Desert Hills family team as lead cellar hand. So not only does this Okanagan winery have the unique touch of Canadian terroir, it has the unique touch of a boutique family affair.
Tasting Canadian wine is already an adventure for me. Tasting Canadian wine from a hairdresser-turned-winemaker, well that just makes the experience all that more exciting. Anthony Buchanan left the world of hair design to study for his WSET levels 1 and 2 in the hopes of becoming a professionally certified sommelier. Through the course of these studies, he found his true passion was in the art of the winemaking science. So, Buchanan moved on to complete an oenology degree from Washington State, after which he returned home to BC, Canada to start his winemaking career. Today he is the head winemaker for Desert Hills Winery — also of BC, Canada — as well as owner and head winemaker of his eponymous label.
It may have taken awhile, but Canadian wine is on the rise. Yet many wine consumers — including those inside Canada — are unfamiliar with what’s being produced. Undoubtedly, when one thinks of Canadian wine, one can’t help but think of the sweet icewines the country is known for. But I’m here to tell you that modern Canada is much more than icewines. Indeed, just within the past fifteen to twenty years, the production of dry still wines has increased, and today many of these wines can stand up amongst the best New World producers.
The history of Canadian wine starts out as many of North America’s wine regions do — with missionaries planting grapes to create sacramental wine. But there were many economical, social, and political barriers that prevented the success of any kind of wine industry. So it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the country saw a modern wine movement. And it wasn’t until about 2003 to 2013 that the country saw an increase in grapes planted and wineries established, creating a real name for Canadian wine.
And so it is that Canada is probably the newest of the New World of wine — and still quite small. According to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, as of 2012 there were only 29,000 acres of vines planted in the entirety of the Canadian country — that’s less than a third of what’s planted in California’s Napa Valley alone. Part of the reason may be the unique — undeniably cold — climate known to Canada’s main wine regions.
To reference Karen MacNeil again, she describes Canadian wine regions as “refrigerated sunlight:” cool, sunny, and mostly dry. This makes it a thriving environment for white wines: Gewurtraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Viognier, and even Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. When it comes to red wines, Pinot Noir is the reigning king — although I would make the argument for Gamay as prince to that throne — with scattered plantings of Bordeaux varieties, and the lone Rhone, Syrah.
Grape growing in Canada is most common in British Columbia, southern Ontario, and Nova Scotia. But the three largest wine regions are inside British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Okanagan boasts about 82% of the province’s total wine production and is Canada’s second largest wine-producing region. For that reason, I’m going to focus on this area for the time being.
East of Vancouver, Okanagan stretches from about 100 miles north of the Canadiana–American border from Washington state. A point of pride for the up-and-coming wine region is that its exact location is between the 49th and 50th parallel north — meaning it’s within the same latitude as such major wine region players as Champagne and Rheingau. (See the above map.)
Here the climate is mostly continental, but temperatures are kept low due to the Okanagan Lake and its connected bodies of water. Additionally, the Cascade and Coast Mountains shield the area from excessive rain. So, as Karen MacNeil said: it’s dry, sunny, but considerably (and to the benefit of the grapes consistently) cool.
Of course, like with any other valley, Okanagan vineyards will experience diverse microclimates depending where along the valley floor or valley walls they grow. Thus, the region is home to over 60 grape varieties. And styles span the whole spectrum: sweet, sparkling, still, fortified, dessert and — yes — icewines.
For this Canadian experiment I’m sticking to varieties that I am most familiar with from a winemaker from BC’s Okanagan Valley.(Links will become live as the reviews are published.)
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