With the trade wars jacking up prices on imported goods, I am again reminded of the wisdom of thinking globally, but drinking locally.
Alberta is blessed with world-class malting barley and a vigorous craft brewing industry, so it is hard for me to recall the last time I enjoyed a beer that came from outside our fair province.
Finding local wine is a little more difficult, as the Alberta climate is not conducive to growing grapes, so the bulk of Canadian wine production is concentrated around the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
BC wines have long been my favourite domestics, and I have made countless pilgrimages to the Okanagan Valley to taste my way through all the vineyard sampling rooms.
My most recent visit was just last week, when a business trip to Kelowna presented itself, which meant only a 45 minute flight from Calgary was standing between me and an all-out bacchanalia of visiting wineries and sampling their wares directly at the source.
Naturally, I seized the opportunity, and extended my stay in order to devote the entire Saturday to winery touring.
Not being my first rodeo, I knew the secret to successful winery touring is to have a designated driver. In decades past, during the days of my squandered youth, my small circle of drinking companions would draw straws to pick the designated driver of the day, which meant someone was always disappointed.
As wine tourism has become more popular in BC, many private driver services have popped up, and I now avoid the heartbreak of drawing the short straw by springing for the private driver on every visit.
There are over 250 wineries in the Okanagan Valley, most of them located between Kelowna in the north and Osoyoos in the south, very close to the border with Washington.
It had been a few years since I concentrated on the northern portion of the Okanagan Valley, so I spent the day visting the wineries in the immediate vicinity of Kelowna. There are two dozen wineries just minutes from downtown Kelowna, and it took me the entire weekend to visit just half of them.
Gray Monk is located just north of the city, and holds a special place in my heart for planting the first Pinot Gris vines in Canada.
It was back in the swinging 70’s, when the Gray Monk winery was started by the Heiss family, who had recently emigrated to Canada from Austria, where the Pinot Gris grape is called Grauar Mönch, which translates into English as Gray Monk.
The Heiss family were familiar with the grape from their native Austria, and recognized that the terroir of the Okanagan Valley was well suited for this noble grape, so they gambled on planting a small number of vines that they imported from Europe at great expense.
Those first vines were planted by hand in 1976, and are recognized as the first Pinot Gris plantings in Canada. More than four decades later, the Gray Monk Winery is run by the second generation of the Heiss family, and those Pinot Gris vineyards are more popular than ever!
The Gray Monk Pinot Gris is made in the classic style, with plenty of spicy herbal flavours, and a lingering finish reminiscent of apples and peaches. Found at well-stocked Alberta liquor stores for under $20, this wine is a steal.
A short jaunt across the floating bridge to the other side of the lake took me to the Volcanic Hills winery, so named due to its location on the slope of Boucherie Mountain, a 60 million year old dormant volcano.
Volcanic Hills is another family-owned winery, and follows the oft-repeated story of hardworking famers toiling on the land for many years, eventually moving up in the value chain by making wine from their own grapes, instead of selling their crop to another winery.
The Gidda family started out as apple farmers in 1963, switched to grapes in 1978, and finally opened their own winery in 2010. I can always find the Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir at my friendly neighbourhood booze merchant here in Alberta, but many of the Bordeaux-style reds are so popular that they are available only at the winery door, and sell out too quickly to be exported to Alberta. Don’t worry – I made sure to bring home a case to tide me over until my next visit!
So, instead of picking that same old California red at your local bottle shop, get to know our domestic wine industry by bringing home a bottle of BC wine today!