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B.C. bounty

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Life has been nothing less than a nuts for me so far this summer. After my two-week stay in Australia, I was home for a fortnight before turning around and heading to judge at the International Value Wine Awards in Calgary. I returned home from that competition, then headed to the Okanagan Valley last Friday. I got back from easily my best visit to the Valley yet on Thursday, and have been processing everything I saw, heard and (especially) tasted while I was there. As I mentioned in my column, it was easily my best visit yet.

This most recent trip to the Okanagan Valley was the first where I was able to visit multiple wineries over the course of a week - the last two times I've been in the area has been as a judge for the Canadian Wine Awards, which doesn't allow much time to visit any wineries. I was on my own this time, driving myself from winery to winery, which was actually a lot of fun (save for the one time the GPS on my iPhone lead me to a real estate office in Oliver rather than to Gehringer Brothers winery).

What this trip clarified for me was the differences in the regions throughout the Okanagan Valley in terms of the styles of wines they produce and the grapes that they use. Wineries in and around Kelowna fare better with lighter, cooler-climate varieties like Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and so forth, while moving progressively south in the valley leads to wineries making bigger reds and fuller, more lush whites. Yes, there are exceptions (as well as those wineries in between the two ends of the valley that dabble in it all), but for the most part I found the best lighter wines were from further north and the finest bigger wines from the south.

One of my favourite things about this trip was the diversity of experiences I had at wineries. I'm talking besides traveling by kayak from Penticton to Howling Bluff winery - while it was a memorable experience, it's not my preferred method of travel while in the Okanagan Valley. Or anywhere. But I digress.

My visit to Road 13 winery (which, sadly, is next to impossible to find in Manitoba) consisted of my hanging out with winemaker JM Bouchard and focusing on Chenin Blanc. With vines dating back to 1968, Road 13 has some of the oldest Chenin Blanc plants in the Okanagan, and make a killer still white with the grape (as well as one of my favourite Canadian sparkling wines). We got up close with the vines, talked about the sparkling winemaking process (and more), and tasted the still and sparkling incarnations of the Road 13 Chenin Blanc side by side (both were stunning).

A similar experience happened on my last day in the Okanagan Valley while at Quails' Gate, a Kelowna-area winery we're lucky to get in Manitoba in pretty decent quantity. Instead of tasting through their entire portfolio (most of which I have tasted and will taste again at the Canadian Wine Awards), we focused on Pinot Noir, a grape for which they're very well-known.

We tasted barrel samples of various clones of their 2010 Pinot Noirs, which they'll eventually blend together to make their basic Quails' Gate and Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noirs. We then tasted through the already-bottled stuff form 2008 and 2009, including a limited-run 2008 Dijon Clone Selection made from just a handful of barrels. Their Pinot shows great complexity, and tasting up through the lineup demonstrated the finesse they manage to bring in the bottle.

(Side note: Quails' Gate have managed some pretty great PR as of late - a selection of their wines were recently served to the Duke and Duchess of Cambirdge on their visit to the Yukon, and President Obama tasted their 2007 Chenin Blanc when he visited with Prime Minister Harper in early 2009.)

Many winemakers, export managers, etc. seem excited about is the 2012 Winnipeg Wine Festival. This year's festival focuses on Canadian wine from both BC and Ontario, and those I spoke with were hoping to get here both to expand their offerings in our market and to get to tate some Ontario wine. yes, there's a bit of Ontario wine available in BC (and vice versa), but on the whole our market is lucky in that we get a bit from both regions. I chalk this up to the fact that we're located relatively close to the halfway point between the two provinces.

More on my Okanagan journey as the summer unfolds - and probably some hints on how you might be able to get to the Okanagan Valley this fall for a visit of your own! In the meantime, visit www.winebc.com for more information on the Okanagan Valley and some of the gems hidden within...

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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