The sun is shining brightly on the rocky slopes that drop steeply down to the shores of Lake Okanagan. This is Okanagan Fall Wine Festival...

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PENTICTON, B.C. — The sun is shining brightly on the rocky slopes that drop steeply down to the shores of Lake Okanagan.

This is Okanagan Fall Wine Festival week, and the valley is looking splendid, bedecked in vibrant fall colors and packed with wine tourists. My fellow judges and I, however, are sequestered in a hotel conference room, staring rather glumly at 21 neatly numbered glasses of Okanagan chardonnay. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd. But it’s a tough slog through 21 in a row, at the very beginning of two days in which my panel of four will explore well over 200 wines, which must be rated, debated, ranked and awarded (or not) the coveted gold, silver or bronze medals.

Well, coveted is a bit too strong for silver or bronze, even at so generous a competition as this. But any award is better than none, and everyone likes to find something to get excited about. For me, it is the region itself that is exciting. The Okanagan Valley is the largest and oldest wine-growing region in Western Canada, home to Canada’s only desert, and capable of producing a large range of wines — from tannic syrahs to delicate pinot noirs to racy rieslings and pinot blancs.

All together, British Columbia can claim 229 grape growers, 88 wineries, 10 fruit cideries and one meadery, spread across the province from Vancouver Island to Lake Okanagan. The growth in the sheer number of vineyards and wineries is startling; but more important, dramatic leaps in quality are tagging right along behind.

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The judges sit silently, making their notes, until all are done. Then the discussion begins. Wine judgings all carry an aura of objectivity, but this one tries harder than any I’ve done to let diverse opinions be heard, to find consensus without any one judge dominating the discussion.

These days, most judges do their very best to seek out and reward elegance. My own thinking: Regardless of the particular grape’s varietal characteristics, I look for balance, elegance, typicity, specificity, clarity, polish and depth. I recognize that there are genuine flaws in some wines, and it is important to know and identify them. Wines that are too ripe, too oaky or alcoholic to the point where nuance and detail are obliterated, are not going to win my praise.

Palates tuned, choices made, we move to the next round: merlots. Some quite interesting wines are here, many very light, showing fruit-juice flavors of apple and plum, lively spice and acid, and no heavy hand with the oak. But only two meet the standard of rich, fragrant, cherry/berry-driven merlot that Washington has set.

Pick of the Week

King Fish 2005 California pinot grigio, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz; $5. I like all of the King Fish wines, so I’m listing them as a group. Five bucks isn’t going to buy you Chateau Lafite, but it gets you soft, smooth, clean flavors of cherry, raspberry and blueberry pie in all of these light, fruity reds. Skip the chardonnay, but the pinot grigio is a score. King Fish is part of the Delicato Vineyards wine portfolio. (Distributed by Alaska)

The next round — pinot blanc — is stellar. There is a lively mix of styles, highlighted by wines that show a gorgeous blend of flowers and fruits, from the enveloping aromas right on through the cascading, lingering finishes. All of the Alsatian grapes — pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling and gewürztraminer — seem destined for greatness in the northern part of the Okanagan, and as consumer preferences move toward these lighter, aromatic, unoaked white wines, they should become stars.

On to the syrahs. Now, syrah is clearly a Washington state strength; I’m a Washington guy, and my prejudice is to assume that no one up in Canada is going to be able to challenge Walla Walla, Wahluke, Red Mountain, etc. when it comes to syrah. But I give them a good look, knowing that folks up here think they know what they’re doing. Syrahs come from the southern part of the Okanagan, which gets a lot of heat — they can grow cactus there. But it’s a shorter, more compact growing season, and the big red wines consistently show very astringent tannins. Most lack the flesh on the fruit that can provide a counterbalance.

The “Meritage” flight is my least favorite by far. My summary of the group of 15 entries, sad to say, reads “desperately seeking bronze.” As a group they are simply raw and green and tannic. The tannins, rough and bitter, almost completely obliterate whatever light fruit character might exist.

Once the two groups of judges have selected their nominations for medalists, the wines are re-tasted by the entire group, and medals are awarded. Of course, a fair amount of compromise is involved. But some wonderful wines emerge from the pack, all gold medalists and deservedly so. In this competition, there were 29 gold medals awarded, and given that there were six judges weighing in with votes, I was pleased that almost two thirds of the gold medalists were wines I had listed among my favorites.

Among the wineries, the big winner is Jackson-Triggs, coming away with 13 gold medals, nine silvers and six bronzes. Good news for consumers, as these are widely available in the U.S. J-T swept the syrah category with four golds. I particularly liked its Sunrock Shiraz, both 2003 and 2004 vintages, beautifully smoky and peppery, with lingering flavors of berry and smoked meats. From the same vineyard came a gold-medal-winning 2004 merlot and 2004 meritage, elegant wines with fascinating aromas.

Inniskillin Okanagan, another producer whose wines you will find in the U.S., scored with a wonderful 2005 Dark Horse Estate Vineyard pinot blanc. Pinot blanc was perhaps my favorite category of the judging, and this admirable effort brought fresh, textural flavors of pear, citrus and stone, wrapped around a creamy minerality.

Some smaller, less familiar producers delighted me with surprises such as the Thornhaven 2005 gewürztraminer, a bracing, yeasty wine; and the Gehringer Brothers 2005 Classic ehrenfelser, with its classy, floral and citrus flavors, a perfect mix of fruit and flower. Calona Vineyards grabbed gold for its 2005 Artist Series pinot noir, with appealing, delicate scents of rosewater and pie cherry; and Golden Mile Cellars won three golds for its regular chardonnay, its 2005 Black Arts chardonnay and its 2005 Black Arts pinot noir, ripe and true to varietal with mixed fruits, herbs and cola flavors.

Pinot noir is a grape that has found a home in the Okanagan. Here the flighty grape’s natural lightness and elegance are allowed to express themselves in the manner of a simple burgundy but without the weediness. The syrahs are dark, tannic wines that require a bit of adjustment from the Washington style. Here they get the color and the tannin, and a different type of ripeness that seems to lack flesh but compensates with plenty of acidity and the kind of structure that wants a big, juicy steak alongside the wine glass. Still, in general, B.C. reds seem too tannic and the fruit, though clearly ripe, is rarely of sufficient weight or density to match the tannins. The Blasted Church 2004 merlot and Cedar Creek 2004 red meritage were my favorites among the more substantial red wines that took golds.

Best of all were the dessert wines. Golds went to four of them, including a glorious Inniskillin Okanagan 2005 Dark Horse Estate riesling ice wine, a 2004 Total Botrytis Affected riesling from Wild Goose Vineyards, and a pair from Jackson-Triggs, my favorite being the 2005 Proprietors’ Reserve riesling ice wine.

Beyond these spectacular successes, this region is producing a great many aromatic, elegant white wines, some truly Burgundian pinot noirs and the occasional merlot or syrah that is good enough to warrant your attention. The landscape is lovely and the wines share a highly desirable characteristic — relatively low alcohol. For complete information on year-round, wine-touring events and tasting- room hours, consult British Columbia Okanagan Wine Festivals ( or 250-861-6654).

How to find recommended wines

Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages may sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. Show them this column, and if they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section.

He can be reached by e-mail at

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