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British Columbia Wine: Tip of the Iceberg
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Part One New York, NY - Canada has been making wine since the 1800?s and, today, there are over 400 wineries throughout our northern neighbor. While many are familiar with the ice wines from the Ontario region, just over the border from Niagara Falls, I was genuinely surprised at the blank stares that greeted me when I mentioned that I was going to British Columbia to write a wine story.

British Columbia Map
The region is small, with most of the wineries classified as "boutique" since several American & Australian wineries produce more wine than the entire BC region. The areas I visited are at the northernmost tip of wine making and vine growing (Germany is in the same latitude) where the vines struggle to grow ripe fruit with a shorter growing season. One never encounters tour buses or lines of people at the tasting rooms and, at most, I met the owner or winemaker himself pouring wines for the few visitors in attendance. The summers are hot and most grapes are harvested in a long, cool and sunny autumn; sometimes even in winter. Here, we find the grapes left to freeze on the vine in order to produce Ice wine, the tip of the iceberg. Interesting. Different.

The wines of British Columbia are mainly crisp, fruity white wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling) and late harvest dessert wines, including the ubiquitous Ice wine. More red wines are being grown in the southern end of the Okanagan Valley where the hot, desert climate and long growing season are suitable to the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir. From Vernon in the north through Kelowna to Osoyoos in the south is about 125 miles.

British Columbia, the most westerly province in Canada, has five designated Viticultural Areas (DVA). There were 110 wineries and 5,400 acres of wine grapes located in two wine-growing regions when I visited the region in the winter of 2005. The Okanagan (70 wineries & 95% of the province?s wine) and Similkameen Valleys (four wineries) have hot, dry summers, chilly nights (the only classified desert area in Canada with less than six inches of rain a year; west of the Coastal Mountain Range in Vancouver it rains a lot), low humidity, long hours of sunshine, with the water from Lake Okanagan used for irrigation. Those valleys, dating back to the mid 1800?s, are located in the central southern part of the province along the border of Washington State (part of the Okanagan Valley is located in Washington State) . The coastal regions of the Fraser Valley (10 wineries) and Vancouver Island (25 wineries and an hour?s drive north of Victoria) enjoy warm, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. The Gulf Islands (three wineries) are off the coast of Vancouver Island and formerly were part of that DVA.

The British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI) was established in 1990 to create an internationally competitive wine industry and the strategy included the removal of labrusca (Concord) and hybrid grape varieties (Seyval Blanc) and replanting with vinifera varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon). They have adopted the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) seal of approval to wines that pass a taste test and chemical analysis. Wines must be 100% vinifera and all the grapes must be from BC. 95% of the grapes on a label must be from that variety. If a DVA is named then 95% of the grapes must be from that DVA. There are provincial designations (British Columbia) and geographic designations (Okanagan Valley). If an individual vineyard is named, it must be within a DVA and 100% of the grapes must be from that vineyard.

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Part Two

New York, NY - All throughout my eight days spent in British Columbia recently I kept hearing, "Why are you here in mid-December and not mid-July?" The response was simple - I like to travel when hotels, restaurants and wineries are not busy, allowing me to partake of a greater share of their resources and service. Call it selfish and a desire for comfort, but it works.

Consequently, I arrived in Vancouver and spent two nights at the centrally located art-filled boutique Listel Hotel Vancouver along with its O?Doul?s restaurant (a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner). (Editor's Note - Do not rely on the USA rules about what you can carry aboard your plane. Canada has different regulations and I almost lost my 40-year-old beard trimmer, which cannot be carried in one's hand luggage in Canada. Maybe it is a trend but Air Canada has also become a flying restaurant where food is no longer included but, rather, sold ... even on their transcontinental routes.)

Conde Nast Traveler 2004 voted Vancouver, with its two million inhabitants, the best city in the Americas. It has mild (rainy) climate, breathtaking scenery (skiing just a half-hour away) and great dining (think San Francisco with mountains.(you must try La Terrazza & Nu restaurants). Take the Trolley with its 23 stops to see all the sights, including Granville Island (public market, restaurants & galleries), Yaletown (shops, clubs, restaurants), Stanley Park (second largest urban park to NYC Central Park and its world renowned totem poles), Capilano Suspension Bridge (450 feet of cable suspended over 230 foot gorge and constantly swaying).

Under the "do as I did and not as I say" dictum, take the float plane (pontoons) on a 45-minute flight to Vancouver Island and the city of Victoria. Crush Wine Tours is perfect for a visit to several wineries and to Merridale Estate Cidery (none are sold outside British Columbia), then lunch at the Aerie Resort (30 minutes outside Victoria), which is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group followed by staying overnight at the 5 Star Hotel Grand Pacific overlooking the Inner Harbor. Also worth seeing is Olde Town (shops & restaurants) and the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Vancouver has an enormous Asian community.

Another 45-minute flight and I reached Kelowna to start my Okanagan wine adventure. A rental car is really the only way to see the area. The Manteo Resort is a half hour from the airport on Okanagan Lake and it includes indoor and outdoor pools, fitness center, banquet facilities, townhouse family rentals and water sports. I can only imagine how packed it is during the summer. Kelowna is a town of 103,000 with a six block cultural district of galleries, restaurants, art galleries, museums, antique shops, bookstores and a wine museum & VQA wine shop (see Part One above). The promenade along the lake has an area where outdoor summer concerts are held.

Many of the wineries I visited sell out their entire production on-site and through restaurants, independent wine stores and province operated stores (the system is far too complicated to explain but taxes and fees are high - think 30-50% above US prices). The province just to the east Alberta is completely private with lower prices.

My first visit was Summerhill Pyramid Winery, just 10 minutes from my hotel and owned by transplanted New Yorker, Steve Cipes. The winery is in the shape of a pyramid, is certified organic and quite a tourist attraction, where dinner at Cipes' restaurant is a worthwhile break at day's end. His Cipes sparkling wine won accolades from the New York Times & Wall Street Journal, he pulled out of the New York market 10 years ago (not enough supply) and is planning on returning this year. Mission Hill Family Estate Winery is probably the Okanagan?s most widely recognized label. Its new building reminded me of the Robert Mondavi Winery and is geared for tourists, with catering facilities and a restaurant. The 150,000 case winery is on a bluff overlooking Kelowna and is available in New York.

Out toward the Kelowna airport is Gray Monk Estate Winery with availability in parts of the U.S. with New York distribution scheduled for some time in 2006. Its Siegerrebe won Best White Wine at the 2004 Eastern Wine Competition and there are about 77 miles between Kelowna and Osoyoos (10 minutes from the Washington State border) where all my winery visits were located. Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, where I enjoyed lunch, is one hour south of Kelowna in Summerland and is part of the Vincor group. Outside Canada Vincor includes: Hogue in Washington State, RH Phillips in California & Kim Crawford in New Zealand. Inside British Columbia their holdings are: Inniskillin Niagara (available in US) and Inniskillin Okanagan (not in NY); Jackson-Triggs Niagara & Okanagan, both sold in New York; Nk?Mip Cellars (pronounced Inkemeep) not sold in NY; Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards in Okanagan Falls (also unavailable in NY).

The BC Wine Information Center is in Penticton (15 minutes south of Summerland). Heading south from Penticton, along the scenic waterfront route of Skaha Lake, I stopped at two small wineries Pentage and Blasted Church, both in Okanagan Falls. Lunch was at Toasted Oak Bar & Grill (great wine list & a VQA wine shop) in Oliver, which touts itself as The Wine Capital of Canada. The Nk?Mip Cellars Winery in Osoyoos is the first Native American operated winery. The tribe (called band in Canada) owns thousands of acres of land, a new hotel property, a golf course and cement company.

What I discovered in my four days in the Okanagan were serious winemakers, vineyards - many terraced almost straight up (think Germany) - that get lots of sugar and fruit during the summer and very little rain (but lots of snow melt from the mountains) and a feeling I have discovered the "next great wine region." From 100 degrees in the summer to 30 degrees in the winter (ice wine) many of the wineries have restaurants, gift shops, catering facilities and most sell out their production through mailing lists and on-premise sales. You cannot ship wine from Canada to the U.S. through UPS or FedEx without paying huge sums for duty, customs, brokers etc. Look for Okanagan wines that are available in the U.S.

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Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.