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Fine wine and sunshine in British Columbia

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Given the world-class vino in Australia, people might think you were crazy to go to Canada for the wine. But then most people outside Australia wouldn’t dream of coming here for the skiing – and that seems to work out pretty well.

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Gazing at cloudless azure skies as I sip the award-winning sparkling Chardonnay from Summerhill Pyramid Winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan, I reckon this could catch on.

But I should probably try the Pinot Noir just to be sure. And then maybe the ice wine. But only after I’m done savouring these bubbles, of course.

The biggest reason most Australians won’t have tasted Canadian wine, aside from the riches on our own doorstep, is that almost all of it stays at home.

The majority of British Columbia’s wine doesn’t even make it out of the province so, if you want to try some, you’re probably going to have to visit.

We went during the Australian winter, when it’s summer in the Okanagan Valley and temperatures can hover in the mid to high 30s.

It can feel a little like the Napa and, while some steep slopes mean casual cyclists might want to think carefully before exploring by bike, it’s easy to navigate the short drive between wineries for casual or booked tastings.

And the feeling of California cool extends to the winery owners, many of whom would look just as at home on Venice Beach as they do among the vines on the shores of Okanagan Lake.

Owner Jeff Harder strides into the tasting room of Ex Nihilo wearing shorts and a T-shirt, his sun-bleached hair blown every direction but down.

Jeff’s boutique winery – named for the Latin phrase for “out of nothing” – also functions as an exhibition space for local artists and produces a stellar wild mushroom pizza that is just perfect should you find yourself nearby at lunchtime.

Among its notable drops are a sparkling pinot noir rose boasting a deliciously tart rhubarb aftertaste and Cab Sav/Merlot/Cab Franc blend that Jeff simply calls “Night” that this writer’s (untutored) palate could easily have mistaken for a quality Burgundy.

The vines on a south-western facing slope overlooking Lake Okanagan also give up the fruit for wonderful dry Riesling and a mouth-filling Pinot Noir.

Another excellent Pinot can be found just up the road at 50th Parallel Estate, where Curtis and Sheri-Lee Krouzel grow, pick and make wine on the south-west slope, helped by reflected light from the lake and minerals imparted by the red granite sand in the soil.

“It’s glamour farming,” says former fitness guru Sheri-Lee from behind her Monaco-style, white-rimmed shades.

“We’re doing it in our glasses, sparkly nails and sometimes even our heels – and it works.”

Summerhill Winery uses a building shaped like a pyramid to age its stored wines.

What works for Summerhill a little further up the shore is an even more off-the-wall process in which all its wines are aged in a four-storey pyramid that is a perfect 1:16 replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, all constructed according to the tenets of sacred geometry.

It’s easy to scoff, but there’s an undeniable feeling of peace in the barrel-filled space and the 100 per cent certified organic and biodynamic wines speak for themselves.

The star turn is a 2014 Chardonnay ice wine that comes in at $A150 per half bottle. Especially popular with Chinese tourists, the wine is less cloying than Sauternes with a satisfying rather than overpowering sweetness.

Chickens provide natural weed control around the vines, while lavender, buckwheat, basil, lentils and other produce for the adjacent Sunset Organic Bistro grow between them so you can feel particularly wholesome as you devour the tasty Arctic char and admire the view.

Gray Monk Winery. Photo: Marcia O’Connor / flickr

A more traditional experience – albeit with a restaurant and view – can be found at nearby Gray Monk Winery, which can lay claim to starting the local wine scene when George Heiss planted Canada’s first Pinot Gris there in 1976.

Forty years later, Gray Monk is still turning out the wine in a dry Alsatian style, Pinot Gris is the No.1 most planted varietal in British Columbia, and the Heiss family operate the oldest family-owned and operated winery in the province.

Those little sips can catch up with you, especially when the sun is beating down, so go easy if you’re driving and ask for a spit bucket if you don’t see one – everywhere we visited was more than happy to bring one out.

For an alcohol-free day, swing by the Planet Bee Honey Farm in nearby Vernon for an eye-opening look at the sweet stuff, before heading to the next field where the almost impossibly friendly Davison Orchards grows apples, melons, apricots, peaches on around 30 hectares.

Tamra Davison fed us with the peach, cherry and apple pies so beloved by locals, while the farm store was chock full of pickles, jams, chutneys, produce and other baked treats.

Rusted-out utes lay buried sill-deep in sandpits guaranteed to fire any youngster’s imagination, and a train-drawn carriage ride around the fields gives kids and adults alike a great lesson that food doesn’t actually grow on the supermarket shelves.

The only concern is that all that fun in the sun is damn thirsty work.

Getting there: Kelowna is a 35-minute flight or four-hour drive from Vancouver.

Staying there: Manteo Resort is a family-friendly hotel on the shore of Lake Okanagan just outside the centre of Kelowna. It features the waterfront Smack DAB restaurant, which serves guests and non-guests from breakfast through to dinner. Prices start at $A150 per night (including breakfast) for a king-size room.

Playing there: Summerhill, Ex Nihilo, 50th Parallel and Gray Monk run guided tours and tastings from May to October. For tour bookings and food options, visit summerhill.bc.ca, exnihilovinyards.com, 50thparallel.com and graymonk.com

Kelowna’s 6800-seat Prospera Place arena has hosted bands including the Beach Boys and, as enjoyed by this writer, Bob Dylan.

For other activities in the Okanagan, visit Thompson Okanagan Tourist Association at totabc.org.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Canada, Destination British Columbia and Tourism Kelowna.

-AAP

 

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