Pinot Noir is the second most widely planted red grape variety in British Columbia, not far behind Merlot and catching up fast. I worked my way from the north end of the valley 180km southwards to where it meets the US border. The section south of the Okanagan Falls is a hot and sandy pocket desert, better suited to big reds, while Pinot Noir is more at home in the northern Okanagan, where the landscape has the epic drama I hoped to find in Canada, with vineyards perched on craggy cliffs overlooking deep lakes.
The production may be small scale but the investment is significant, with multi-million dollar wineries housing striking works of art with the added razzmatazz of smart restaurants, fashion shows and Visa Infinite dinners. Not every winery is like this and some of my favourite wines came from pretty basic cellars, but there’s more than enough cash sloshing around the valley to bring a sense of bling to the wine trade here.
However, it soon became apparent that Okanagan Pinot Noir currently lags behind Ontario in terms of finesse. The style can be slightly robust, which undermines the subtlety of Pinot. Although Pinot Noir is well established here – the Stewart Family at Quails’ Gate Winery were among the first to plant Pinot Noir in 1975 – decades were lost in pursuing a Californian style of rich and oaky wines favoured by the local market.
Wherever I visited, the air was hot with talk of change in the winemaking approach. Everyone claims to have drawn back on extraction and oak. So, where possible, I took the opportunity of tasting vintages over the past 10 years. This indicated a movement in style following the hot 2015 and 2016 vintages. More recent wines, such as the cooler 2019 vintage, show elegance, restraint and a greater sense of place. Many producers, however, are still struggling to nail the delicacy of Pinot Noir’s tannin and texture.
This is not surprising given the truncated season characterised by scorching summers and first frosts in mid-October. It’s a challenge to obtain phenolic ripeness while controlling rising sugar levels. Moreover, the current trend to include stems doesn’t help, as they are unlikely to have lignified and will taste green. The most northerly vineyards of the Okanagan lie on the 50th Parallel. Pioneers here are chancing their arm with Pinot Noir.
Concrete magnate Dennis O’Rourke blasted tonnes of rock to create his state-of-the-art winery, Peak Cellars, equipped with multiple entertaining, concert, and restaurant spaces. The sappy Pinot Noir, which is made from youngish vines, doesn’t match the winery’s megastructure and the £40-50 price tag is more substantial than the wine. Maybe the vineyards need time to catch up with O’Rourke’s grand ambitions.
Moving south to Kelowna, there are well-established plantings of Pinot Noir. The trailblazer here is Martin’s Lane Winery, part of the Anthony von Mandl portfolio. Von Mandl made his billions with ‘Mike’s Hard Lemonade’ and, more recently, ‘White Claw’ but is best known in the wine world for Mission Hill Winery. I feel Mission Hill’s wines are still transitioning from a Californian style but the approach is haute couture at Martin’s Lane, where just 6,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Riesling are produced annually.
The results show that elegant, terroir-driven Pinot Noir is achievable in the Okanagan Valley. My favourite was from the Simes Vineyard. This is located on the east side of Lake Okanagan, where it bends so the vineyard faces north allowing a long, slow maturation. Shane Munn is among the few winemakers in the Okanagan to use whole bunches successfully but he barely touches the grapes. His method of pumping over is a delicate sprinkle of wine over the fruit.
Over on the cooler, east-facing side of Lake Okanagan, Tantalus Vineyard turns out a fruity, foot-trodden Pinot Noir. While at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, I found the most svelte Pinot Noir came from ‘Richard’s Block’, which was planted in the 1990s.
Further south is the sub-GI of ‘Naramata Bench’. The west-facing vineyards are higher and warmer. Although it’s still too cool here for most red varieties, it seems to produce the most reliable Pinot Noir. There is a concentration of good producers above the cliff face, which drops dramatically to the water near Penticton. Foxtrot Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2020, on the slope above the road where the bedrock is granite and the topsoil glacial till, caught my attention.
Marcus Ansems MW set up Daydreamer Wines in 2013, planting a perilously steep and rocky slope on the Naramata Bench with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, beside which he sells the sappy and austere Tay Pinot Noir from a hippy-chic shack. Meanwhile, Aussie winemaker Ben Bryant and his wife Katie, owners of 1 Mill Road, make wine in a storage facility. The Home Block 2020 was one of the most refined Pinot Noirs I tasted in the Okanagan and while this vintage was made by the former owners, it comes from an excellent terroir.
Wherever I visited, the air was hot with talk of change in the winemaking approach
Across the lake, Summerland GI has a cooler climate and Pinot Noir from here is crisp, bright and delicate. Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie, owners of Okanagan Crush Pad and the Haywire brand, are counting on Summerland’s long-term potential, having planted an extensive and ambitious vineyard in Garnet Valley, which will undoubtedly be instrumental in shaping the profile of this region.
To round off the Pinot Noir journey, we have to travel a little further south to Okanagan Falls GI, where the valley narrows. This is where an ice dam burst about 12,000 years ago, flooding the lower Okanagan with sandy wash and dotting the landscape with kettle holes. A brisk wind whistles through the vineyards at 2pm each day. Although my expectations were high, I encountered some over-extraction and the misconceived idea that a ripe vintage can handle more new oak.
Stag’s Hollow Winery makes a very attractive Pinot Noir from their Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard in 2020 but my standout Okanagan Falls Pinot Noir is Meyer Family Vineyard Old Block 2020. From a small parcel in a bowl under Peach Cliff in the gravelly soil of a dried-up creek bed, it illustrates the wider potential of the Okanagan Falls.