This month the #Winophiles are taking a look at French varieties made into wines around the world. While we could think of many examples from various regions we have visited, we want to shine a spotlight on our own backyard where the Okanagan Valley is making some truly world-class Chardonnay. (To read the other articles related to this month’s topic, please refer to the links at the end).
Chardonnay has an association with Burgundy that is an unbreakable bond. That is simply because so many of the world’s most profound Chardonnay wines come from that region. The great wines of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, Meursault and Chablis, among other Burgundy sub-regions, make the reference-point wines from the Chardonnay grape. But Chardonnay is a chameleon-like grape that has been successfully planted all over the world and shown its ability to adapt to new terroirs with the potential to make great wine outside of Burgundy as well as within. One of those regions that is rapidly gaining notice is the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
The Okanagan Valley is one of the most northerly viticultural areas in the world. Nestled just below the 50th parallel, it is 2 degrees north of Champagne. Yet despite its northern setting, it has a very hot, dry but short growing season and consequently it is able to fully ripen grapes. The Okanagan Valley stretches over 250kms from the US border in the south to just north of the region’s major city, Kelowna. Its geography is defined by lake Okanagan that runs most of the length of the Valley and provides water to irrigate the local vineyards and moderates temperatures. There is considerable variation in climate from one end of the Valley to the other, resulting in warmer variety reds being grown in the south and cooler variety whites being grown more in the north. A key feature of this climate is the large diurnal temperature shift which matches hot days with cool nights that keep the grapes acidity, a key feature in growing top-quality Chardonnay and an Okanagan signature.
We made 2 visits to this gorgeous valley in 2020. We were generally impressed with the significant improvements we noticed in the quality of the wines since our first visit 20 years previously. What really struck us most was the quality of the Chardonnay. While we also tasted some delicious Merlot and Cabernet Franc along with some great rosés, we think Chardonnay is the signature grape of the Okanagan Valley.
The Okanagan has proven its merits with Chardonnay over the years. Perhaps most notably was in 1994 when Mission Hill, a then small local winery without much following outside of the Okanagan, took the Avery Trophy for best Chardonnay Worldwide at the International Wine and Spirits Competition, besting some of the top names out of Burgundy and California. Legend has it that the judges, who conducted the tasting blind, re-tasted when they were revealed who they had chosen. This was not a one-off event. Since that time, Okanagan Chardonnays have won numerous prestigious awards in international competitions including Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine and Spirits Competition and Chardonnay du Monde.
As we said earlier, Chardonnay is a chameleon grape that adapts to its terroir and expresses its site. As such it is hard to make generalizations about Chardonnays grown in regions with climatic diversity. Just as in Burgundy, a Meursault and a Chablis are stylistically worlds apart, and so it is hard to generalize about and provide a single description of Okanagan Chardonnay. If you have not yet tried these wines, expect to find a style that fits more in the middle rather than at the extremes. A big, buttery, oaky wine reminiscent of a Napa Chardonnay is not likely to come from the Okanagan, nor is a steely Chablis.
The Okanagan Valley is a beautiful place to visit. Lots of sunny summer days and blue skies which frame hillside vineyards that follow steep slopes down to Lake Okanagan. Our top recommendations for Chardonnay are:
Checkmate Winery: This beautiful winery on the west side of Lake Okanagan was just finishing its new tasting room when we visited with winemaker Phil McGahan, who formerly made the wines at Williams Selyem. It will be a spectacular place to visit when completed. Checkmate only makes Chardonnay and Merlot, with several different bottlings of each varietal. These wines are expensive, but they are worth it. The intensity and the texture of these wines put them up with best from regions across the world.
Meyer Family Vineyards: JAK and Janice Meyer started making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from estate fruit off of Mclean Creek Road about 20 years ago.
Right from the start they proved themselves to be among the best in the Okanagan with those two grapes. They do several different Chardonnays, each worth checking out. Their Tribute Series Chardonnay and their McLean Creek Road Chardonnay are also excellent value.
Painted Rock Estate Winery: John Skinner might very well own the finest viticultural property in the Okanagan.
His winery is best-known for its reds, but his Chardonnay is a treat to behold. An intensely flavoured, minerally wine with lovely texture, this is terrific Chardonnay. Painted Rock’s tasting room is gorgeous, a must-stop visit if you are in the Valley.
Little Engine Wines: The little winery that could, is the little winery that IS making quality Chardonnay. Still relatively young, Little Engine has a very bright future with Winemaker Scott Robinson at the helm. Definitely a winery to watch with this variety.
More Articles on French grapes made around the world from #Winophiles
- Andrea of The Quirky Cork declares Ooo la la! French Grapes in Turkey!
- Gwendolyn of Wine Predator examines Bordeaux Grapes Growing in West Coast Vineyards.
- Jeff of FoodWineClick! takes A Reluctant Look at French Grapes Outside of France.
- Jill of L’Occasion features Rhône Grapes in Paso Robles.
- Melanie of Wining with Mel offers French Grapes Around the World: Spotlight on Niagara Gamay.
Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings examines Elevating French grapes outside France at Texas’s William and Chris Vineyards.
Robin of Crushed Grape Chronicles looks at Roussanne 9009 km from Home.
- Susannah of Avvinare posts Petit Manseng Flourishes In Virginia.
- Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm is Exploring Malbec outside of France Paired with Pineapple Teriyaki Salmon.
- Lauren at Swirling Dirvish shares Beyond Champagne: Pinot Meunier Shines in a Varietal Wine from Two Shepherds.
- Nicole at Somms Table shares Celebrating Women’s History Month with Gamble Family Vineyard’s Mary Ann
- And host Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla surveys Gamay Around the Globe: From Burgundy to the Willamette Valley + Mussels, Pici, and A Bottle from New Zealand.