By Blake Allen
I could begin just about anywhere in the Okanagan, but instead I’ll start on the other side of the globe. More specifically, the forlorn Australian island of Tasmania where, one stormy night at a stone-walled pub in Hobart, I found myself engrossed in conversation with the bartender. He was, in many ways, the epitome of an Australian stereotype, but he made wonderful conversation and in no time at all it became clear he was no stranger to the world of wine. I casually mentioned my involvement in the Okanagan wine industry, expecting nothing more than skepticism about the notion of “Canadian wine.”
“The Okanagan!” he exclaimed, “I’d say you blokes make a better Shiraz than we do!”
At first I was taken aback by this familiarity with our little valley on the other side of the world, and for good reason. In prior trips to other wine regions, I’d often found it hard to even convince the locals that Canada did indeed produce wine—let alone wine of such high quality. One particularly memorable moment in South Africa saw me unable to convince locals that Icewine isn’t a cocktail of grape juice and snow.
Nevertheless, as my newfound Tasmanian friend continued to comment on the lighter bodies and more fruitful notes that define our Syrah—I came to realize that he was indeed familiar with our wine. As it turns out, this particular fellow had spent some time in Vancouver, where he’d become, shall we say, closely acquainted with Okanagan wine.
This seems to be how it goes. As the geographical restrictions of the Okanagan keep our total wine production quite low by international standards, most of the world remains unfamiliar with our wines and in some cases, unaware that we even produce wine. And my experiences in South Africa were anything but atypical. At a wine bar in Ravenna, Italy, a close friend and I were up until two in the morning trying to convince just one of the regulars that an Okanagan Pinot Gris, with its citric notes and bursts of fruit, was comparable to an Italian Pinot Grigio. Let it be said that I know of no object more immovable than the opinion of an Italian connoisseur.
To be fair, our wines certainly weren’t always comparable to those of Australia, Italy, or South Africa. My father often likes to reminisce about coming to the Okanagan as a younger man and filling his car with an eclectic mix of wines from Kelowna to Osoyoos, only to have had them “turned to vinegar by the time he had returned home to Québec.” Admittedly, his own youthful ignorance about the proper storage of wine, coupled with the heat of the car and the length of the journey, might very well have guaranteed that his collection was spoiled by the time he reached Regina. But he’s often quick to add that the spoilage hadn’t made a terrible difference in the quality of the wines.
Needless to say, our valley’s first vintages left much to be desired. But anyone who’s enjoyed our wines since my father drove through in the late ’70s has come to understand that the quality of our vintages now rivals any other region of the world. I could list all the international awards and accolades our wines have received over the last few years as evidence that, despite the stubbornness of a few Italian connoisseurs and misunderstanding in South African, our wines are well received on the world stage. But as far as I’m concerned, no praise could possibly speak louder than that of an Australian with a taste for Okanagan Syrah before the Shiraz of his own homeland.