The Okanagan is O.K.!
I couldn't resist that corny title. Please forgive me, it was the wine speaking! Okanagan is an up-and-coming wine region, a long meandering valley in British Columbia that flanks the Okanagan Lake. The presence of the lake helps smooth out chilly winter temperatures somewhat, making it quite possible and even fruitful to grow grapes there.
Who or what, you ask, is Cabernet Franc?
No, Cabernet Franc is not a tipsy ski bum I met at an apres-ski party. It's the grape mainstay of the Okanagan valley, and is bottled by itself or combined with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a blend. The Cab Franc grape ripens earlier than the Cab Sauvignon, so industrious Canadian vintners can yank them out of the ground before it freezes. Because winter starts so early, Canadian red wines don't do as well as whites, which require less time on the vine. You might wonder why I decided to sample the reds exclusively ... I'll tell you why, because it gets cold in Canada at night, darn it!
Speaking of Cold Weather
Then there's icewine, a Canadian specialty that's all about the cold. The winter frosts that most vintners have nightmares about are not a problem for icewine producers, who hope that their grapes will undergo several cycles of freezing and thawing over the course of the winter while still clinging to their vines. All this activity dehydrates the grapes and concentrates their flavor, resulting an intensely sweet and tropical taste to the wine. Canada's best-known producer of icewine is Iniskillin – is it any surprise that it rhymes with chillin'?
What to Drink
If you want to taste a Cabernet Franc, try Tinhorn vineyard's 1999 vintage, which is aged for a mere nine months in an oak barrel, and offers a fruity, vanilla-scented body with a hint of pepper and spice.
On this trip, I sampled several inexpensive Canadian reds from Okanagan, mostly Cabernet Francs. Although Wine Spectator magazine isn't going to be calling any time soon asking for an interview, everything I tried was quite good. Wine snobs would say that the Cabernet Franc and Okanagan combination produces a weak tasting wine that would be nothing without the oak barrel it is aged in - but for under $20 CAD per bottle I'm not sure I care!
One local wine bargain worth trying is Mission Hill's award-winning 1999 Cabernet Merlot, a robust blend with strong currant and plum flavors spiked with red pepper. Toronto wine critic Cy Jamison calls it "a classic food wine with considerable tannic grip". Not bad for less than $10 CAD a bottle, although you can expect to pay 2-3 times that in restaurants. Did I mention what that award was for? Best V-A-L-U-E!
Where to get your Oenophilic Groove On
I was surprised at how many restaurants offered numerous wines by the glass, especially the Pacific Northwest varietals of which the British Columbians are so very proud. Araxi at Whistler Village is by far the best place to try them out, but La Bocca (also in the Village) and Thai One On in Blackcomb Village also have impressive wine lists considering their modest sizes.
If you're not planning a trip to B.C. any time soon, Esquin Wine Merchants have a great selection of Okanagan wines for sale online.