As I started to pen a rave of a fine Okanagan Valley pinot noir the other day, I felt compelled to triple-check the label. Could it really be a 2011? I toured the valley in late spring that year and, scarf wrapped tightly around my collar, greeted each producer I encountered with my condolences. The vines were weeks behind schedule, huddling against the unseasonable cold with what few leaves they had been able to produce.
The Okanagan growing season is short at the best of times and it was going to take a sustained period of warmth in the precious months ahead for the vines to play catchup in the sprint to harvest. Though fairer weather did come, it would be a stretch to call 2011 a great vintage in the end. "Challenging" is more like it, to employ a popular wine-industry euphemism for off vintages. And yet the season yielded surprises, including Meyer Family Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, a gorgeous red that, as I scribbled in my notebook, could be mistaken for one grown under the more dependable California sun.
Winemakers in Canada, as elsewhere, have become adept at mitigating the vagaries of bad weather. They may, for example, bite their nails and harvest later in the season, taking chances against the threat of grape-rotting autumn rains. They may prune more aggressively during summer, leaving fewer bunches on the vine to accelerate ripening in the remaining clusters. And they may sort more carefully post-harvest to ensure that only the best berries make it into the fermenting vat.
The domestic wines below, some available only directly from wineries, span a few recent vintages, from Ontario's glorious 2010 (not as glorious in British Columbia) to 2011 and the remarkably hot 2012 (especially hot in Ontario and, after a late start again, pretty good in British Columbia).
Meyer Family Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $40
Produced from fruit in South East Kelowna, this terrific red excelled in a tough vintage thanks to meticulous farming and winemaking practices. Many clusters were lopped off midway through the season to divert resources to the remaining grapes. Though it rained in October, the fruit was left late on the vine to ripen fully. The mouldy bunches were then sorted away from the best. The wine is round, concentrated and jammy, with fresh berry and plum-jam flavours enlivened by spice and tight acidity. Great for grilled salmon or roast pork (mfvwines.com).
Painted Rock Syrah 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.90
Reminiscent of fine Northern Rhône syrah, this juicy, tightly wound red offers up a big dose of cracked pepper and dark fruit, with nuances of tar, roast pork and new shoe leather – all those wacky overtones that melt the hearts of syrah fans. From a stellar winery, this is a fine candidate for up to 10 years in the cellar, where it should develop an even meatier, earthy profile. Ideal for braised red meats such as beef short ribs (paintedrock.ca).
Peller Estates Andrew Peller Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $40.20
The brilliant sunshine of 2010 is evident in the opulent fruitiness, but this is a multilayered, structured red. Smooth cassis and dark chocolate get support from spicy oak, cedar and cigar notes, caressed by fine-grained, elegant tannins. Perfect for steak or roast beef now, it would benefit from four to eight years in the cellar (peller.com).
Joie Farm Un-Oaked Chardonnay 2012 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23 A medley of orchard fruit disguised as a wine, this white comes across like peaches, pears and apples squirted with grapefruit juice and dusted with chalk. The profile is crisp and clean, with a backbone of vigorous acidity. Terrific for simply prepared seafood (joiefarm.com).
PondView Bella Terra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $35.15
A splendid, long growing season, culminating in a Nov. 12 harvest, yielded one very ripe, full-flavoured red. Aged for 16 months in French and American oak barrels, it shows luscious cassis, dark chocolate and vanilla flavours, with black olive, cedar and coffee nuances. It would crush many comparably priced California cabernets. Try it with grilled or roasted beef (pondviewwinery.com).
Quails' Gate Chenin Blanc 2012 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.99
I can't remember ever not loving Quails' Gate's splendid chenin blanc, made with the grape responsible for France's Vouvray. Well, that's not quite right; actually, there is also 8-per-cent sauvignon blanc in the mix for added verve. The 2012 is brilliantly focused and dry, with citrus, pear, peach and tropical fruit framed by tangy acidity and a trace of stone. The winery recommends it for oysters and I can't disagree, though it would be splendid with just about any light seafood or even young cheeses (quailsgate.com).
Château des Charmes Equuleus 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $40
Stylistically, this comes across as a compelling cross of ripe California and elegant Bordeaux. The texture is as polished as a Jaguar after a hand buff at an auto spa. Classic cabernet characteristics of cassis, mint and black olive mingle with vanilla and quality oak. Cellar it for up to eight years and treat it to steak (chateaudescharmes.com).
Peninsula Ridge Reserve Meritage 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Supple and smooth, here's a wellbalanced red with hints of cherry, baking spices and cigar, with just enough acidity to give it edge. A charmer. Great for roasts (peninsularidge.com).
Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $23.95
A fellow taster whispered "Meursault" upon tasting this next to me, and that's a magical word to chardonnay lovers. Yes, I'd have to agree, this white winks at fine white Burgundy, with subtle fruit supported by lots of vanilla and lively acidity. Try it with grilled salmon. The B.C. price is $20.90 (bluemountainwinery.com). Available at $23.95 in Ontario stores.