Almost 44 years ago – on July 20, 1969, Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. Well on June 5, 2013, this almost 44 year-old had my first landing in Canada! We Americans have all sorts of preconceived notions about Canada — like it’s always snowing and cold just like Alaska, right?!? The days are short, the people talk funny and, most importantly, they certainly don’t drink wine. Okay, how can I break this to you gently?!? Folks, I hate to burst your Fourth of July weekend bubble, but all this stuff about Canada — is CRAZY-wrong!
I experienced days of non-stop sunshine, blue skies and, frankly, I was hard-pressed to find any strong accents. What I did hear was a lot of was very friendly, “No Worries!” And, best of all, they have tons of vineyards and wineries with awesome wines to enjoy. Only downside, Canadian wine production is still very young compared with other regions around the globe. Although, some families have been farming for 100 years, many vineyards just got started within the past twenty to thirty years! 1978 plantings are considered “old vines” in British Columbia!
In addition, biodynamics and organically produced wines are HUGELY supported which means more healthy, environmentally-conscious, but smaller yields. Sadly, right now Canadian wines are only distributed within their own country. There’s just not enough Canadian wine produced to ship and supply the American market. So, for now, if you want to taste it — you gotta travel there! What an excuse for a trip to Canada, right?!? Read on and I’ll share where I visited and would recommend in an instant to fellow wine lovers or anyone looking for a great vacation!
The day prior to the start of this year’s (North American) Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC), my husband and I arrived early in British Columbia to participate in a short pre-WBC excursion in Kelowna. We were fortunate to be two of the 25 or so participants in this brief, but special, first-hand wine experience. As many of my other posts tout, the pre- and post-excursions along with any short, local vineyard day-trips we get to have during the conferences, are in my mind THE BEST parts of the WBC and EWBC. It gives me the chance to get out and see the countryside, small towns/villages, the people, the vineyards and winery architecture first hand. Wine is like anything — to see where it came from, the people who created it, the climate and land that grew it — to know its origins — is truly “the experience.”
I love maps and I think for anyone reading this post, a quick explanation of where the heck Kelowna is in Canada would be helpful, yes?!? Like me, it may have been a few decades since middle school geography class. So, similar to our 50 states, Canada has provinces. Kelowna is located in the most western of Canada’s provinces — British Columbia. We were actually only about a 2-3 hour drive from the US/Canadian border with the State of Washington! Vancouver is BC’s capital. After spending a few personal vacation days in Seattle, we flew from Sea-Tac straight to Kelowna on Alaskan Airlines. Although the flight attendant was clearly having a rough day, I thoroughly enjoyed the short hour (if that) flight — especially having partaken of the free glass of chardonnay and gluten-free, cheddar rice crackers!
The Kelowna Airport is small but very efficient, of course that may have had something to do with our tour bus driver from Distinctly Kelowna Tours. This picture I took of him upon our first meeting does NOT do him any justice. I think I managed to take a picture during the one and only time he was not smiling. He, like everyone we encountered in BC, was so friendly and happy to have us visit their region.
From the Kelowna Airport, we drove through what I’d call suburban Kelowna which with the grocery stores, gas stations and fast food restaurants looked like any American town. We quickly left this behind us as our driver pulled off onto a roadway that followed the shore of Okanagan Lake. He dropped us off at Hotel Eldorado, so we could check into our hotel rooms and freshen-up prior to our first vineyard visit and dinner at Summerhill Pyramid Winery.
The next morning, Tim and I skipped our workouts in order to meet the tour van promptly at 8:30am. It wasn’t too difficult rustling ourselves up and out of the hotel — with visions of what our breakfast at Tantalus Vineyard might be! After four or five years of wine blogger conferences and vineyard excursions, somehow I had never experienced breakfast at a winery! While traveling, breakfast is a big deal for Tim and me. No protein shakes and coffee will do. We’re ready to be gastronomically woo’ed and I was especially excited to see how they “do breakfast” in British Columbia!
Tantalus Vineyards staff greeted us with a sparkling 2010 Old Vines Riesling toast in their beautiful winery building. Constructed in March 2010, the structure was actually the first LEED certified winery building in BC and is part of Tantalus’ commitment to an extensive, sustainable environmental program. They are a single vineyard which means that all the grapes used in their wines are grown on site. This is unique for the Okinawa Valley (region surrounding Okanagan Lake). Currently, there are only a few, single-vineyards in operation. Tantalus’ sustainability focus also includes a conversion to completely biodynamic production. Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic development and inter-relationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. It’s basically returning to the “old way” of farming. Using what’s produced and available on site to enrich the soil and support the vines and grapes to maturity — all organic. Tantalus has constructed nesting boxes to welcome natural bird species to do their part. They also have welcomed staff from Arlo’s Honey Farm to upkeep bee hives right in the vineyard. The bees pollinate flowers, fruits, vegetables and the grape vines themselves supporting the vineyards “circle of life” and producing the most amazing honey. After breakfast, we enjoyed watching as honey was harvested from one of the hives. Did you know bees communicate by dancing? Anyway, this transition to an entirely biodynamic vineyard is a very slow process, but Tantalus owners and staff are committed to this goal and the value sustainability has for their vineyard and quality of the wines themselves.
So, Tantalus was an amazing place, but I don’t want to leave out the incredible breakfast we had. Staff had laid-out a huge, long table for us right in the middle of the tasting room. The glass doors were open entirely to the veranda and the beautiful views of the vineyard and Okanagan Lake in the distance — breathtaking!
Chef Mark Filatow created a breakfast made entirely from fresh, seasonal food sources grown and produced within the Okinawa Valley. My gluten-free, pescetarian diet prevented me from enjoying the waffle-station, Chef Filatow’s home-made granola, pain au chocolate and bacon — which EVERYONE was raving about and returning for seconds and thirds. However, I was quite satisfied with the whole-fat, homemade yogurt, honey produced from the hives in the vineyard (which we were each given a small jar of honey to savor back home as a farewell gift later on), and a symphony of plum, tayberry and blackberry jams. I had never heard of the tayberry before and it was by far my favorite “topping,” aside from the honey (of course), for the yogurt. Tayberry is a cross between a blackberry and red raspberry. Like a raspberry and blackberry, tayberries can be eaten straight from the vine or cooked for jams and pies. It’s named after the River Tay in Scotland, but the berries can’t be picked easily by hand or machine harvested (due to their softness), so they haven’t become a commercially-grown berry crop. Tayberries, like the ones we enjoyed at Tantalus, are mainly grown as specialty crops by home gardeners and chefs.
After breakfast, we tasted four of Tantalus’ wines. The 2012 Riesling had a sharp, alcohol-strong zing and crisp, tart finish. Then, we tasted the still version of the 2010 Old Vines Riesling (we had the sparkling version upon our arrival). This wine was tart with a bit of a metallic taste. Staff shared that they look for young wines that make you “pucker up.” This one certainly did just that! I’m making it sound as if I didn’t like the Old Vines, but quite the contrary — it was my favorite by far! The third wine was the 2012 Rose-Pinot Meunier/Pinot Noir which smelled great, not too perfumey, but taste was a little bitter. The last wine was the 2010 Pinot Noir which was just not my style.
After Tantalus Vineyards, we drove along the Okanagan Lake shore a short distance past some beautiful homes to find CedarCreek Estate Winery. CedarCreek is owned by retired Senator Ross Fitzpatrick. Winemaker Darryl Brooker greeted us in the rose-terrace garden with a 2012 Ehrenfelser toast which was cool, light and refreshing.
We took a brief tour of the winery building and then took off up the vineyard’s moderately steep hillside. Darryl kept us rallied for the ascent sharing that he had wine tastings and food pairing stations set up along the way. We made the most of these stops — enjoying the refreshments and gorgeous views of Okanagan Lake. Two of the wine/food pairings I enjoyed and remember best were the curried almonds and CedarCreek Riesling and goat cheese balls rolled in almond dust with CedarCreek’s Chardonnay — both were AMAZING!
The route we followed through the vineyard was to open in three weeks as the “Senator’s Trail” – a new, self-guided vineyard tour for CedarCreek visitors to enjoy. A portion of the trail was covered with mulch that they had recycled from old merlot vines they had recently removed from one section of the vineyard. In place of the merlot vines, new seedlings had been planted. Instead of going to the landfill, staff had found misprinted milk cartons and used them to protect the young, vulnerable seedlings. In Kelowna, vines weren’t grafted to existing older, mature vines because it gets too cold in the winter. Once the seedlings are established, staff will remove the cartoons and recycle them — how very “green” of them! It was a constant theme we heard from vineyards in Kelowna — much more common in BC than other places around the globe.
After our vineyard tour, we relaxed and enjoyed the view. Okanagan Lake was beckoning us, but we were told it was too early in the summer season to swim comfortably — water a tad too chilly! Still boats were on the water and the sunshine and blue skies made it a gorgeous spot to vacation. Before any time at all, our Kelowna visit came to an end and we had to board the bus for Penticton in order to arrive with time to check into our hotel there and attend the WBC’s opening reception. More great Canadian wine awaited us — in another gorgeous BC location…but that’ll have to be another post!
Disclosure: I tasted the wines of Kelowna as a part of a sponsored blogger excursion of the region, organized by Tourism Kelowna (www.tourismkelowna.com – 1.800.663.4345). Local transportation was provided by Distinctly Kelowna Tours (www.distinctlykelownatours.ca). My hotel accommodations at the Hotel Eldorado were provided by the sponsor. Winery tours, tastings and food pairings were provided by the sponsor in conjunction with Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Tantalus Vineyards, and CedarCreek Estate Winery.