This April I was lucky enough to spend a little over two weeks travelling via Seattle to British Columbia, including Vancouver and the wonderful wine region of the Okanagan. Fabulous scenery aside, the trip was a revelation in terms of Canadian wine and the food culture of the region.
We began our tour in Seattle – the home of the public market in Pike Place, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the US (as well as the site of the first Starbucks which is still operating today). The market is home to a host of stalls, from fresh produce and fish, to flowers, delis and crafts, and although it’s very much a tourist destination, the locals do also use Pike Place. Seattle, whilst still a beautiful city, is sadly suffering from the impact of Covid, with many people working from home, multiple homeless camps and a very strong aroma of cannabis permeating the air.
From Seattle we drove (via a ferry!) to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia (BC). This small city has a great food culture with some excellent restaurants, and like every Canadian town or city we visited, is very proud of its produce and its wine in particular.
After Victoria we drove into Vancouver Island to stay at Emandare Winery, the first of the dozen or so wineries that we visited (it’s a hard life!). Like many of the wineries, it was a relatively small business, run by owners Mike and Robin Nierychlo. A quick trip to the onsite wineshop quickly turned into a passionate introduction from Mike to his wine (and tasting!) and the region overall and his philosophy when it comes to caring for the soil and the environment – which became a recurring theme.
We used our time in the area to visit a few wineries including Averill Creek, Blue Grouse and Unsworth. Whilst Averill, like Emandare is privately owned, Unsworth is now part of a larger group and Blue Grouse has clearly had significant investment. We tasted a variety of wines from excellent Pinot Noirs, to some very different and vibrant sauvignons – but even better was to come on our trip to the Okanagan…
On the way to the Okanagan region, we spent a few days in the very lively city of Vancouver, which has a combination of some stunning modern architecture alongside original buildings. Vancouver is home to many fantastic restaurants, but our favourite was Forage which had at its heart a commitment to local food. The dishes were consistently delicious and given we were a party of three coeliacs – two who also couldn’t eat dairy, and one who was also allergic to nuts - the choice they provided every time was superb. One of the most surprising ingredients that appeared on nearly every menu over the two weeks – was the Brussels Sprout!
About 50% bigger on average than a British sprout, they were served in a variety of ways, usually as an accompaniment. When I asked when Brussels Sprouts had become so popular, I was told about a year or so ago, but no one seemed to quite know why! Given we were in springtime it felt odd to see them on the menu so frequently (though they are one of my favourite veg) especially as ‘new season’ asparagus was usually on offer too – though most of what I saw seemed to come, like a lot of fresh produce from Mexico.
One of my personal highlights of Vancouver was Granville Island Public Market. A large indoor market that was home to multiple types of food stalls – including lots of stunning bakeries – that were hugely popular, as well as food to go, fresh produce, meat and fish. This very busy space was clearly popular with both locals and tourists and had a strong community feel.
One of the main reasons we chose BC for the holiday was to visit the Okanagan wine region – and we were so glad we came! So, after a few days in Vancouver we drove for around four hours to the city of Kelowna in the Okanagan valley. Against the backdrop of Okanagan Lake – huge by our standards at 135km by 5km - wineries flourish, producing world class wines that, at the moment, for the most part are only available for purchase in Canada. Here we tasted our favourite wines – ranging from the delightful Cipes Brut NV from Summmerhill, Canada’s largest organic winery to Pinot Noirs with amazing depth of flavour – like Cedar Creek’s Pinot Noir.
One of my personal favourite visits was to Tantalus Winery who not only produce outstanding wines but have a very real and robust sustainability ethos.
Many of the wine makers talked in detail about which parts of their vineyards they grew which grapes for which wine and also had crops growing slightly south of the region for some varietals. For the most part everyone we met was incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, passionate about their wines, cared about their fellow local wine makers and were unpretentious and straight talking. One of the largest producers in the region is Mission Hill – sadly we didn’t feel the same ethos here but do visit the site if you can to see the multi million pound / James Bondesque site if nothing else. Big pockets are needed for this tourist attraction (a white mug we spotted for sale was a mere $115!).
As an aside, I was surprised to see so much soft and stone fruit being grown and produced in the Okanagan region. There were fields and fields of fruit bushes (blackcurrants were particularly prevalent) being grown amongst the vines and in the valley and multiple processing sites in the region too.
Chocolate was another recurring theme. In Seattle, in a fab deli in Pike Place, there was the biggest display of chocolate I have even seen and multiple chocolate shops – but the stand out was the award winning Kasama Chocolate Granville Island – its 70% Kaskar Island Chocolate was truly exceptional!
Like in the UK, there was much talk of rising food costs – and of food retailers forecasting reduced profits. There is a significant labour shortage with businesses of all types advertising for staff across all platforms.
One seemingly successful sector in Canada seems to be cannabis. Whilst retail prices fell last year, in June 2021 there were monthly record sales of $319 million and we saw countless outlets selling cannabis. One hotel was even hosting a Cannabis Convention – clearly showing just how accepted it is in this part of the world.
So, in short, if you haven’t got BC on your travel wish list and you love wine, good food and enjoy being in fabulous countryside, then this is really a place to go…
We shall definitely return, but in the meantime, we did manage to successfully bring back a case of wine we had collected on our travels and shall enjoy reminiscing whilst continuing with our Canadian wine tasting!
Oh, and looking for a wine client!