Who could guess? For only C$18.99, you can buy a bottle of wine that the Canadian prime minister served President Obama on a state visit in February, and in the same marvelous town whence it came, taste other vintages that are equal to the best of California's Napa Valley.
I had heard of Kelowna, the Okanagan Valley, and the fine wines that come from the grapes that grow there, along with other luscious fruits (think apricots, peaches, and apples, for starters). But I never dreamed I would find a genuine slice of paradise in the town and its nearby vineyards, farms, and lakeside hills. No wonder they say that 45 NHL stars have summer homes here, not to mention other, unspecified, celebrities.
Kelowna is the lead town in the Okanagan Valley, which is Canada's warmest region. (The nation's only desert is here, too, as the area gets less than 13 inches of rain per year, making a great climate for raising grapes.) The valley is located between two mountain ranges and has ample water from nearby lakes, and irrigation is the key to success.
Although officials say there are more than100 wineries in the area, I could visit only three, yet I have decided that the Napa Valley had better watch its step, as Kelowna has wines as good and physical plants that are maybe even better, given the magnificent water views these Canadian establishments have. The annual Fall Okanagan Wine Festival, in which most wineries participate, is from October 1 to 11 this year, a really good time to visit.
On an easel at the entrance to its wine shop and tasting site, the Quails' Gate Estate Winery (3303 Boucherie Rd., Kelowna; tel. 800/420-9463 or 250/769-4451; www.quailsgate.com) proudly displays the menu for the state dinner Canadian Prime Minister Harper gave for President Obama in February this year, on the latter's first visit to our northern neighbor. There were three wines picked, a red wine from Niagara, a dessert wine from Quebec, and Quails' Gate 2007 Chenin Blanc.
Situated on the slope of an extinct volcano, Quails' Gate offers visitors regular tours of its property, tastings that are free or cost only C$3 to 4, a gift shop and the wine store itself. The Stewart family, owners of the winery, have been in the valley for 100 years, having produced fruits in its orchards before turning to grapes in 1956, the winery itself opening in 1989. They are especially proud of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In a short tasting, I gave highest marks to what I now call "the Obama wine" for its quiet finish (C$18.99), and the 2007 Pinot Noir Stewart Family Reserve, comparable, I thought, to the best of Oregon's pinot noirs, the latter at C$45.
I enjoyed lunch in their Old Vines Restaurant, with splendid views of the vineyards and Okanagan Lake below. Try their onion tartlet appetizer (C$10) and beet salad (C$ 12), the latter made with locally grown vegetables. My dining companion loved the chicken orecchiette at C$15. I liked their 2008 house rose wine at C$6 a glass. You could also buy sandwiches and wines in the gift shop here and take them out to the winery's gardens overlooking the lake, where there are picnic tables for you to use.
Although grapes have been grown here since the 1930s, the current Cedar Creek Estate Winery (5445 Lakeshore Rd., Kelowna; tel. 250/764-8866; www.cedarcreek.bc.ca) is owned by a local boy made good, former provincial senator Ross Fitzpatrick, who worked his way through university in the orchards and fruit packing houses in the valley. He bought the site in 1986 and has devoted himself to the wine industry ever since. The property includes a beautiful, almost-California Mission-style wine shop and restaurant, the caves being located in the slopes of the hill behind. They consider their specialties to include pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot, to mention only three.
While here, I had lunch on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, enjoying a special that day of spicy sausage over pasta, wishing I could have it weekly at home. Or you could choose from the menu something like baked goat cheese with chutney and greens for C$13 or pork tenderloin at C$19. With lunch, I had a pleasant Estate Select Syrah at C$6 per glass. The restaurant is open from mid June to mid September. During a short tasting, I liked the figgy 2006 Platinum Reserve Merlot (C$39.90) and, even better, the 2006 Estate Select Pinot Noir, full and luxurious, at C$26.90. At the tasting, ask to see the bottles of earth from plots where the different grapes were grown. The wine shop is open from May to October.
Founded by European Anthony von Mandl and New Zealand winemaker John Simes about 12 years ago, Mission Hill Family Estate (1730 Mission Hill Rd., Kelowna; tel. 250/768-6448; www.missionhillwinery.com) has the most imposing physical plant, featuring a tall carillon tower and splendid views across Lake Okanagan from that body's western slopes They have an extensive tasting program, some with nifty little high-grade bites of food to shift your palate's gears between different sips of wine.
At the tasting I attended (a "Legacy" tour), my favorites were the 2007 Perpetua Chardonnay from some of their oldest vines, smooth and fruity, at C$35, and the 2006 Quatrain, a red blend (41% Syrah, 32% Merlot, etc.), nicely piquant, at C$70. Two of the four food pairings were goat cheese with tomato and goose liver pate with chokeberry, just right for the wines they complemented. On the regular tours, the food is usually shortbread, I was told. There is also a theater for short films and your tour includes the splendid vaults below the center. A highlight of any tour is the large Chagall tapestry in a room of its own. Owner von Mandl's collection of art relating to wine includes a chapel-like locked-up apse in the vaults, where one of the oldest pots is a Middle Eastern ceramic piece said to be more than 2,500 years old.
The restaurant is open for lunch from May to October, and, from mid June to Labour Day, you can also have dinner nightly. Tours available year round.
Info about Kelowna can be had at Tourism Kelowna's excellent site; www.tourismkelowna.com.
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