Vancouver's Gold-Medal Wines

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Beyond the thrill of athletic competition, Olympic tourists who also happen to be wine enthusiasts are in for a treat. The city of Vancouver is a great food destination, but it's the locally produced wines that are sure to have oenophilic tongues wagging. Some 200 miles east of Vancouver, in Canada's only desert, the Okanagan Valley produces wonderfully unconventional and good-value wines that pair well with everything from curry to caribou.

Most viticulturalists have to deal with changing temperatures, moisture, and birds. Add deer, elk, and bears to the equation (oh, and why not throw in snow, and a dry heat that peaks at 130 F) and you've got Canadian wine country. The soil is sandy, the climate schizophrenic at best. As a young wine region, the Okanagan has vineyards growing all sorts of varietals, like Chasselas, Ehrenfelser, and Carmenere, having not yet identified the strengths of their terroir. This spirit of discovery characterizes many Okanagan winemakers. With its rough-hewn mountains, sagebrush-speckled desert, and rock that is as old as any on the planet, the land not your average place to grow vines. But the results can be delicious, and, in most cases, are available only in British Columbia.

With heartier fare, try Quails' Gate's 2007 Pinot Noir, which is redolent of leather and red cherry, with hints of clay and milk chocolate.

One more widely distributed producer, however, is JoieFarm, which produces wines from grapes traditionally grown in Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne, and does so as sustainably as possible. Its 2007 Joie Rosé is inspired by the pink wines of the Loire and boasts a cocktail of fruit flavors, ranging from lush strawberry to tangy rhubarb. In Vancouver, you can enjoy the wine at Uva Wine Bar with a selection of small plates, like arancini, blood pudding, and various cured meats. Uva also stocks Black Hills Estate's highly aromatic 2008 Alibi, a white blend made just six miles north of the U.S. border. With a razor-sharp acidity balanced by pineapple and pear, the wine is ideal with the menu's young sheep's milk Piave.

Local offerings are also available at Market, which is owned by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, including CedarCreek's 2008 Ehrenfelser, a bright, crisp white with tropical fruit and lime notes and a lengthy finish, outstanding with anything from the restaurant's raw bar. With heartier fare, try Quails' Gate's 2007 Pinot Noir, which is redolent of leather and red cherry, with hints of clay and milk chocolate. Not quite Burgundian in style, it's unexpectedly elegant.

Many of the wines from the Okanagan, in fact, have been deemed good matches with Asian flavors like those used by Vongerichten. 2007 Quails' Gate Chenin Blanc, for example—incidentally, the wine served to President Barack Obama during his first official visit with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper—pairs wonderfully with many Chinese dishes. Partly barrel-fermented to soften and fatten up the naturally zesty fruit, it is something you might want to drink with the city's notoriously superlative dim sum. (Vancouver has the third-largest Chinatown in North America, and authentic Chinese food is easy to come by.)

In restaurants, these wines can be expensive, but when purchased in wine shops they reveal their value. With reservations hard to come by in Vancouver these days, visitors might do well to order in and fill their refrigerators with Okanagan wine.

Other bottles to look out for include those by See Ya Later Ranch, which overlooks the silvery waters of Skaha Lake. The winery boasts the largest planting of Gewürztraminer in North America, and also grows Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, which it blends in equal parts for its signature Pinot 3 (suggested retail: $20). In addition, Sandhill, with its line of vineyard-designated wines, makes a bold Beaujolais-style Gamay Noir that's full of ripe fruit with a violet finish.

You might also try Tinhorn Creek's 2004 Oldfield Series Merlot. Blended with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Syrah, it is bluish black in the glass and velvety in the mouth. Notes of peppermint offset leather and tobacco. There is also the Joie Muscat, a delightfully tart and nutty complement to spicy foods, and Road 13's 2008 Viognier Marsanne Roussane Oliver, which is figgy and silky, with subtle hints of the sagebrush that flecks the land.

If anything, Okanagan Valley wines impress people simply because they surprise those who taste them for the first time. Good Canadian wine? sneer the skeptics. But if it can snow in the desert, anything's possible.

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Chantal Martineau covers food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice. More

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal native now based in New York who writes about food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice.
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