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Wednesday, April 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt

Okanagan's top red wines rival the best of Northwest

Some of the most beautiful and interesting wine country in the Pacific Northwest lies just across the border, in Canada's Okanagan Valley.

Wine country, you say? Isn't the Okanagan all about peaches and beaches? Unless you have spent time there very recently, you probably know as little as I did about the sweeping changes to what was, until recently, a fairly moribund wine industry. You may have seen the occasional ice wine, or tasted a tart white wine from Gray Monk or Sumac Ridge while dining in a Vancouver restaurant. But the idea that the Okanagan could ever produce seriously good red wines would have been laughable even a few years ago.

Laugh no more. It can, it does, and if it continues on its present (fast) track, it may soon challenge Oregon as North America's best answer to French Burgundy.

A growing region

The quick study on the Okanagan is this: There are more than 220 vineyards, 5,500 acres of grapes and 60 wineries, arrayed in a narrow strip of land which begins at the Oroville/Osoyoos border and continues north for about 100 miles. The vineyards are clustered around several distinct sub-regions, planted on small plateaus set high enough to escape the frost, yet still flat enough to plant.

Viticulturally, the valley splits roughly in half. From the border north to the little town of Okanagan Falls is Canada's only desert, the last 40 miles or so of the Sonoran desert that extends all the way to Mexico.

Here the focus is on syrah, cabernet sauvignon and franc, merlot and a bit of sauvignon blanc. North of Okanagan Falls the landscape is more lush, the lake widens and exerts a cooling influence, and the vineyards are planted to Germanic and Burgundian varietals, most important of them riesling, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir.

Sparked by changes in international trade law and government-assisted viticultural research, a complete overhaul of the B.C. wine industry has been quietly gaining speed. Two-thirds of the existing vineyards were taken out virtually overnight. The odd, cold-climate hybrid grapes such as de chaunac, kerner and baco noir are now all but gone; the familiar "international" grapes are taking (and finding) their place. A Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) designation was approved in 1991; their seal of approval appears on most Okanagan wines today. Dozens of tiny boutique wineries are springing up, with passionate grower/winemakers producing a few hundred cases each of wines that range from experimental to world-class.

Mission Hill winery leads pack

Happily for the Okanagan vintners, there are some bigger wineries as well, with the production and marketing capacity to reach outside the region. Vincor, the company that recently purchased Hogue Cellars here in Washington, owns Sumac Ridge, Inniskillin, Hawthorne Mountain and Jackson-Triggs, quality wineries with some of the largest vineyard holdings in the valley. But the force majeure behind the aggressive push for international respect is unquestionably Anthony von Mandl's Mission Hill Family Estate winery.

After purchasing a run-down, virtually abandoned shell of a winery in 1981, von Mandl set himself the seemingly-quixotic task of creating a winery so undeniably world-class that it could become the focus for an Okanagan wine renaissance. A soft-spoken, charming yet driven man, now in his early 50s, he has doggedly put the pieces in place: acquiring 1,000 acres of vineyard, most of it within the past decade; luring New Zealand's top winemaker, John Simes, to Mission Ridge in 1992; and the coup d'etat, the construction of a stunning, $35 million architectural showplace on the site of the old winery, atop a rocky hill in Westbank, B.C.

Now, let me tell you, I've seen wineries all over the world, but I've never seen one that outshone Mission Hill. It is not just the grandeur of the place, which incorporates elements of classic Greek and Roman architecture, along with the most elegantly displayed barrels and bottles this side of Chateau Mouton. Nor is it just the museum-quality collection of art and antiquities (a Chagall tapestry here, a 2,500-year-old Greek urn there), the manicured grounds, the Hollywood lighting or the open-air amphitheater (where performances of Shakespeare will be given later this summer).

As beautiful as each and every thoughtful detail is on its own, the perfection of the whole is what takes your breath away. The way all of the spaces — the entryways, the tasting room, the barrel room, the theater, the dining room — manage to be at once intimate and grand, to draw your eye back again and again to soak in one more detail, one more astonishing piece of art.

Region's wines taste distinct

Because it owns vineyards in all the major Okanagan grape-growing areas, Mission Hill is one of the few B.C. wineries that does equally well with Bordeaux and Burgundian grapes. Their wines provide an excellent gateway to the distinctive flavors of the region. White wines are high in acid, with the sort of brilliant, intense fruit flavors that we find in Washington, taken even a notch higher. The red wines are balanced and elegant, with substantial tannins.

All these wines have a percent or two less alcohol than we find in other West Coast wines, and all will match wonderfully with food.

Recommended Mission Hill wines:

2001 Pinot Blanc ($10). Very lemony and tart, with hints of mineral and anise.

2001 Pinot Grigio ($10). Spicy flavors of green apple and pear in a bone dry style.

2001 Reserve Chardonnay ($13). Bright lime/pineapple flavors; powerful, barrel-fermented, yet not too oaky.

2000 Estate Chardonnay ($19). Beautifully structured, with citrus, mineral, anise and a bit of spice.

2001 Cabernet-Merlot ($10). Good cranberry/raspberry fruit and clean, stiff tannins; excellent value.

1999 Reserve Pinot Noir ($13). I tasted the 2001, but 1999 is the vintage currently in the Washington market. The '01 was masterful, with a delicate balance of fruit, earth, mineral and spice.

1999 Estate Syrah ($19). Very dark and earthy, with hard, muscular tannins.

Some of Mission Hill's most sophisticated wines, such as their reserve shiraz and their dense, tannic Bordeaux blend called Oculus, are not currently available in Washington. In fact, very few B.C. wineries sell into this market at all, and federal laws prohibit them from shipping wines directly to consumers.

You can, however, find many of the best boutiques represented on top wine lists in Vancouver. At C Restaurant, Cin Cin, La Terrazza, Lumière, Raincity Grill, Quattro, Vij's and a host of others, seek out wines from emerging stars such as Black Hills, Blue Mountain, Burrowing Owl, Cedar Creek, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, La Frenz, Poplar Grove, Quails' Gate, Township 7 and Tinhorn Creek.

Am I enthusiastic about these wines? You bet I am. Do I believe that the Okanagan valley has the potential to join the Columbia Valley and the Willamette Valley as a world-class wine region? Without a doubt.

The Okanagan is a much younger wine region than its Pacific Northwest peers, with fewer vineyards and wineries. And to be sure, not all the B.C. wines are noteworthy; there are some very sour whites and more than a handful of green, earthy, stemmy reds.

But there are enough good ones — and a few great ones — to point the way to a brighter future for the region.

As vineyards mature and winemakers learn more about their particular sites and soils, we can expect to see the kind of vintage-to-vintage improvement that ignited the excitement about Washington vintners two decades ago. This is one region I will be keeping a close eye on.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

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