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Column 091707 Dryden

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Sister Wine Regions of Canada and Mexico

"Vino-Tourism" by Steve Dryden

Wine tasting and touring is a wonderful way to expand your knowledge of the wine culture and to develop a diverse understanding of the amazing world of wine and food. I feel that I have a responsibility to my readers to keep in touch with the global wine industry and to provide a fair and balanced perception of Mexican wine and the industry. So, every year I go on the road to expand and challenge my wine tasting skills and to see what’s going on in the international wine culture.

It’s tough job, but someone has to do it. And besides, the wine culture is all about good wine, superb culinary wonders, art, entertainment and good people.

This last June I traveled towards the Pacific northwest and British Columbia, exchanging bottles of premium Mexican wines for wines of the Northwest while visiting unique and remote wine regions in Idaho, Washington and British Columbia. It’s was a fantastic journey into the world of cool climate oenology and viticulture, tasting for the first time the Grand Prix d’Honneur Award winning (Paris, France) ice wine from Inniskillin Winery in Oliver, British Columbia.

Every wine region in the world has a distinctive identity of place. Mexico, for instance, has full bodied and ripe wine while generally most wines from the Pacific Northwest are characteristically higher in acids and highly aromatic. In Mexico we tend to grow Rhone varieties and heat loving vines, while in the Northwest and British Columbia they grow cooler regional varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.

In general, I find Mexican wines to be spicy, ripe, full flavored and slightly salty while wines from the Northwest are generally soft, elegant, fruit forward and very aromatic. So, I call this latest adventure from Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California into British Columbia, Idaho and Washington, a journey of discovery: “BC to BC: From Spice to Ice.”

And that is exactly what it was!  The climate of the Northwest may be cool, but the people in the wine industries of this region are very warm, friendly and generous.

One fun component of traveling with Baja California wine is that everyone is stunned and surprised with the quality and taste of Mexican wine. Most of the individuals I was in contact with were winery owners, winemakers, vineyard managers, winery staff and international promoters of wine and culinary delights. The most common remarks were variations of “What, Mexico makes wine? Wow, this is fantastic. I never knew.”

Few people realize that it was in Mexico, back in 1524, when Spain’s appointed governor ordered every Spaniard with a land grant in Mexico to plant 5,000 European grape vine cuttings. Mexico, in fact, was the birthplace of vineyard management and winemaking in the Americas.

Another interesting twist is that they grow a great deal of Viognier in the Northwest, so knowing this I took Viognier grown in Valle de Guadalupe to compare and discuss. It is certainly an icebreaker among us global wine lovers, and it really shows clearly how the same variety of grape, grown in different climatic zones, in different soil, under different weather conditions, and by unique winemakers can create some amazing and diverse wines.

Another surprise for me was to discover that Canada’s premier wine country of Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia, is actually part of the Sonoran Desert, which starts in Mexico and extends through North America as the Great Basin. In fact, this premier wine growing region gets about the same annual rainfall as Valle de Guadalupe, in Baja California, but they have an abundance of water generated in the high, surrounding mountain ranges of the north.

One striking difference between the Northwest and Mexico is that water is to be found everywhere in streams, rivers, wells, reservoirs and huge lakes. And these large bodies of water form unique ecosystems that create favorable conditions for growing superior grapes and fruit. I have to admit, this region in the beautiful and scenic Northwest is producing some remarkable wine and I plan to go back in the future for a more through and in-depth exploration.

The most stunning discovery was at Lake Osoyoos, British Columbia. Here, in this magical and beautiful wine region, I made contact with some incredible individuals, leaders, governments, corporations and indigenous people who have teamed up to create an entire wine-related industry in the best interests of everyone involved. I researched and investigated (while tasting their world class wine) this project and realized the connection here with the unlimited possibilities for the Kumiai - the native people living in Mexico's premier wine country.

The indigenous people of British Columbia, under the guidance and direction of visionary and dynamic leadership over the past several decades have created an example of native peoples taking a leadership role in sustainable economics and cultural preservation while embracing the wine industry and promoting the wine culture. In fact, they’ve created Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa. This magnificent development includes vineyards, a winery, two gourmet culinary operations, a hotel, condos, villas, golf course, RV/campground, native cultural center and beyond. It is one of the most amazing destinations I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit!

As well, it is interesting to note that people often call this region of southern British Columbia “Napa of the North,” and the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California “Napa of the South.”

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band is a visionary and dynamic leader among his people, and as an international business consultant. Under the leadership of Chief Louis and Chief Louie Louie (his father) they’ve led their Osoyoos Indian Band down the path of ecological, cultural and economic diversity.

According to Chief Louie, “Over the past 200 years it has been challenging for us to adapt to changing circumstances while preserving our values, culture, language, and land with all of its inhabitants. We have responded by integrating into our culture a spirit of enterprise paired with partnership which has made us one of the most potent economic drivers in the region. We are acutely aware that business must strike a voluntary balance between development and stewardship, and that flourishing economies depend on healthy communities. Healthy communities thrive on cultural, economic and ecological diversity.”

The Osoyoos Indian Band and their business partners have teamed up to combine an astonishing blend of native culture, preservation, conservation, land development, entertainment and recreation into an incredible, dynamic economic force of eco-tourism, wine-tourism (we all it vino-tourism), hospitality, lodging, dining, golf, real estate, viticulture and winemaking.

Their NK’MIP Cellars is North America’s first aboriginal winery! This world class facility is a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band and Vincor International, North America’s fourth largest producer and marketer of wines.

It is interesting to note that the Osoyoos Band have been instrumental in the early development of the grape growing industry, and this winery is the realization of a 30 year long dream of turning their grapes into premium wines. Their state of the art winery has the capacity to produce 18,000 cases, or 162,000 liters, of wine yearly. Their talented winemaker, Randy Picton, is training Band members in winemaking techniques and has earned many prestigious international awards. Their wines are excellent and some of my favorites were the 2004 Chardonnay, 2004 Pinot Noir, 2004 Meritage, and the 2005 Riesling ice wine.  

I just about killed myself upon entering the world renowned “Golden Mile” wine region near Oliver, British Columbia. When I saw the sign for “The Golden Beaver” I crossed the double yellow line (against oncoming traffic) to pay a visit, thinking it was something like the Bada Bing in Rosarito Beach.

Well, boys will be boys especially after a few glasses of wine, but it turned out to be a wonderful artisan winery and I was greeted by a beautiful and charming young Canadian woman. Their 2005 Gerwurztraminer was excellent, with bright zippy citrus fruit, honeydew melon and kiwi fruit balanced by a refreshing acidity.

And those amazing Canadian Pinot Noirs! Their 2005 Pinot Noir is “unoaked” with bright cherry and black raspberry fruit and a touch of spice backed by good tannin and acidity.  Their new releases include Viognier 2006, a very full bodied wine with great fruit, highlighting apricot, guava & tangerine, with hints of butter; Riesling 2006, full bodied (off-dry) wine with loads of pear & apricot flavors; Gewürztraminer 2006, a dry wine with plenty of fruit, peach & mango backed by lots of spice; Pinot Noir Dry Rosé (no oak) 2006, a totally (dry) Rosé left on the skins only 2-3/4 days, with a lovely light amber color, but plenty of tasty cherry & raspberry with good complexity of spice.

About lunch time I discovered a wonderful venue called The Toasted Oak Wine Bar and Grill. It’s located inside the Wine Country Welcome Center in the village of Oliver. They carry more than 300 BC Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) wines, offer free daily wine tastings, provide wine education classes, and sell locally crafted gifts and artwork, wine magazines, books, and wine related accessories. But the food, we must talk about the food and the chef, Jeffrey Brandt.

Jeffrey is dedicated to providing culinary delights based on food products purchased from sustainable food growers. He was kind enough to provide me with detailed information about his outstanding culinary delights, and he guided me to some great local wines. Most of the ingredients in his gourmet creations are fresh, locally grown, in-season herbs, cheese, fruits and vegetables.

I paired up a superb BC Pinot Grigio with his fresh cream of carrot soup for an incredible palate pleasing starter to my midday meal. Their menu features contemporary regional wine country cuisine, along with generous selections of lighter fares — offered for luncheon and/or dinner in a bistro style.  The culinary wizards here take great pleasure in preparing the menu with the diverse selection of British Columbia wines in mind. They have teamed up their talented staff to assemble a great wine program that represents a collection of over 280 distinct nouveau and vintage BC wines, all cradled in the facility’s own environment controlled vintage wine cellar. The Toasted Oak restaurant's award-winning wine list features many wines in flights and by-the-glass. A fitting tribute to a job well done by the BC wine industry, its growers and winemakers! The Toasted Oak offers all of their 350-plus cellared wines in the popular by-the-glass format.

One of my “missions” was to explore ice wine, and British Columbia is well-known for producing some of the best in the world. In fact, the greatest of international accolades for Canadian ice wine, or Icewine, was bestowed on Inniskillin (1989) Icewine at Vinexpo, Bordeaux, in June 1991. This wine, judged by an international panel, was accorded the fair's highest award, Le Grand Prix d'Honneur. Icewine was originally developed in the cool wine regions of Germany in the mid-1700s, and it is ideally suited to the Niagara peninsula and the Okanagan Valley's climatic conditions. Grapes are left on the vine well into the winter months. The resulting freezing and thawing of the grapes dehydrates the fruit, and concentrates the sugars, acids, and extracts in the berries, thereby intensifying the flavors and adding complexity to the wine made from it.

Genuine ice wine must follow VQA regulations that prohibit any artificial freezing of grapes. The grapes are painstakingly picked by hand in their natural frozen state, ideally at temperatures of minus ten to minus13 degrees centigrade — sometimes the picking must be done at night to take advantage of the temperature. Yields are very low, often as little as five to ten percent of normal. The frozen grapes are pressed in the extreme cold. The water in the juice remains frozen as ice crystals, and only a few drops of sweet concentrated juice is obtained. This juice is then fermented very slowly for several months, stopping naturally. The finished ice wine is intensely sweet and flavorful in the initial mouth sensation. The balance is achieved by the acidity, which gives a clean, dry finish. The nose of ice wine recalls lychee nuts. The wine tastes of tropical fruits, with shadings of peach nectar and mango. Ice wine is winter's gift to the wine lover, one of the best-kept secrets of the wine world that garners gold medals in virtually every competition in which it is entered.

I was fortunate to catch a winery owner after hours at Le Vieux Pin Winery.  Le Vieux Pin is situated on the East Bench in Oliver, BC. The winery takes its design cues from both an old French barn and an old French railway station. It's Provence in our province. Their vineyard strategy is an acknowledgment of the Old World with a gust of New World.

History has demonstrated that the best wines ultimately come from the best vineyard sites. More and more, new sites are being developed on newly discovered grape-growing gold mines all over the world. Fortunately, the Okanagan Valley happens to be a world class wine region with its unique climate and variety of latitudes and soils. Low rainfall, high heat units and a dry environment allows growers to farm in a sustainable manner with all the respect the land deserves. There is a perceptible difference in temperature and greenery, from the lushness of the north to the sage ridden desert in the south. All the vineyards have either spray irrigation or drip irrigation due to a lack of rainfall. Grapes from the Bordeaux region, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot thrive in this climate.

The main focus at Le Vieux Pin is to make wine representative of its terroir, and low-input viticulture is the method used to get there. Dry farming, minimal fertilizer addition, high-density plantings (six feet x three feet) and low yield will allow vines to show who they really are deep down to the roots. Passionate people, a plant-by-plant approach, and serious everyday monitoring are the pillars to a solid knowledge of each site. The underpinning of all this work towards achieving the ultimate goal is full communication between all at Le Vieux Pin. Passion, friendship, dedication and commitment has been the recipe for success. I highly suggest the following superb wines: 2006 Aurore Sauvignon Blanc; 2006 Vaïla Pinot Noir Rosé; 2005 Époque Merlot; 2005 Apogée Merlot; 2006 Belle Pinot Noir; 2006 Céleste Chardonnay; and their 2006 Déjà Chardonnay.

I love to camp in the wine regions of the world, drinking quality wine and feasting on gourmet food to the crackle of a campfire, while relaxing under the natural light of the stars and planets. I found an incredible campsite on the sandy beach of a small lake in Oliver, B.C., at The Lakeside Resort. You have to love camping when you are within walking distance of a coffee shop, gourmet food and excellent wine.

Overall, the quality of British Columbia wine is great, the people are very friendly, and the scenery is spectacular. Give wine from British Columbia an opportunity to explore your palate senses and you’ll be amazed at the diversity and quality of their cooler climate wines.

And here in Mexico, what better way could there be to enjoy the winter season in Baja California, yet maybe dreaming of a white Christmas, while enjoying the sun and warm Mediterranean temperatures of this BC.

Let’s drink to that!

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Steve Dryden, a MexiData.info guest columnist, is a wine, travel and history writer for the Baja Times.  Mr. Dryden also manages a new wine bar, Destino del Vino, at Km 88 on Highway 1 just south of Baja Mar. He can be reached at sbdryden@hotmail.com.