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This weekend J & I headed up to my parents’ place in Vernon to help celebrate my mom’s 65th birthday. And not being one to ever miss a chance to combine wine touring with anything… I decided to check out those on offer in the North Okanagan while we were up there! Unfortunately, of the four that are located in the North Okanagan, one does not have a tasting room (The Cellars at The Rise) and one was not yet open for the season (Baccata Ridge Winery). So, I will have to sample some of the wines from The Cellars at The Rise at local liquor stores and I will have to add Baccata Ridge to my list when I head up to the Thompson/Shuswap later this summer.

We took a lovely scenic drive through the green pastures and rolling hills of Spallumcheen, north of Vernon, to get to Edge of the Earth Vineyards. Shortly after turning onto Gulch Road we came around a corner and I could see some vineyards up ahead so I figured we were close. Russ waved at us as we approached, just finishing up some work in the vineyard, and told us to carry on down the hill to the winery, where he would meet us. Well, going down this hill, and down and down some more, I realised why this was Gulch Road! The winery building itself is located down in the bottom of this lush green gulch, seemingly in the middle of nowhere which is quite fitting given the name of the winery! Russ showed us the inside of his production space, where he and his wife Marnie produce approximately 600 cases a year, making use of this great old horizontal basket press! Very cool, at least in my own wine-geek eyes! We moved into the tasting room and Russ poured me three of his wines to sample. The Mostly Merlot is just that – mostly merlot at 70%, then 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Shiraz. This was a mix of grapes from 2006 and 2007. It was quite light in both colour and body, but had lovely fruit flavours and nice soft tannins. This would make an easy sipping wine. The 2008 Blanc de Noir is a light rosé made of 100% Pinot Noir, fermented dry and then had a bit of Süssreserve (sweet reserve unfermented juice) added back in at the end, making it slightly off-dry. The acidity was nicely balanced with the sweetness. The 2008 Pinot Noir Icewine was nice and fruity, and not too syrup-y sweet. Quite tasty! Edge of the Earth Vineyards prides themselves on being a “vegan” winery, not using any animal products in the production of their wines, namely fining agents such as albumin (egg whites) and isinglass (sturgeon’s bladders). They also use organic practices in their vineyard.

Next up was my first experience at a meadery! Mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man, with archaeological links dating back 9000 years, and is made from fermented honey and water. I have tried a few different meads, first in Stockholm and later in southern England, but those occasions had taken place in pubs, not where it had actually been produced. J & I headed back into Vernon and out to Planet Bee Honey Farm & Meadery. We wandered around the shop, checking out all the different honeys (also available for tasting there), the bee pollen products, beeswax candles and even a glass-sided hive (with tubes running through to the outdoors) where we could see all the bees hard at work. Finally we made our way over to the tasting bar corner. There were 7 different meads on offer, ranging from dry (0) to sweet (5). The Okanagan Delight (2) is the most basic of the meads, made with Okanagan Wildflower honey and no other flavourings. It is quite light, with an interesting, if slightly disconcerting, flavour. It tastes a bit of honey, but without the sweetness. The Blueberry Bliss (1-2) was made with the blueberry honey and also had a bit of additional blueberry fruit flavour added. It was quite pleasant and definitely tasted of blueberry. The Apricot Elixir (3) is one of my favourites, being a bit fuller bodied, with the lovely tang of apricot and a hint of spice. Although it’s listed as a 3 in sweetness, it is nicely balanced so does not come across as overly sweet. The Oak & Honey Rapture (1) spent a little bit of time in French oak barrels, producing an interesting effect. The Colossal Cranberry (2-3) has got lots of flavour, and with just a touch of citrus, is very pleasant. The Marnier Metheglin (2-3) is a spiced mead, with vanilla, orange and cinnamon. This one reminded me much more of the mead I had first tried in Stockholm and really enjoyed! The Parad Ice Berry Mead (5) is a dessert-style mead with rich honey flavours, along with boysenberry, raspberry and black currant. Almost too tasty – I would overindulge on this one!

Leaving Vernon the next day, I decided to show J one of the most scenic drives (in my opinion) in the North Okanagan. In order to get to OK Centre, part of Lake Country, I gave the directions to go via the Commonage Road. This goes up to Predator Ridge and Sparkling Hill Resort, but instead of turning in to the golf resort, you just keep on going. This leads over to Carrs Landing and eventually OK Centre, where Gray Monk Winery, Ex Nihilo Vineyards and Arrowleaf Cellars are located. It is a gorgeous drive, especially on a sunny day.

Gray Monk Estate Winery is one of the original wineries in the Okanagan and in fact this year, they are having several milestone celebrations. It is the 30th anniversary of the winery, the 40th anniversary of the vineyards, and the 50th wedding anniversary of George and Trudy Heiss, the owners. 2012 is a pretty momentous year for Gray Monk! I have always been a fan of their entry-level  Latitude 50 series of wines (white, rosé and red) as well as many of their aromatic whites (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Ehrenfelser, Siegerebbe & Kerner) but I decided to mainly focus on their Odyssey (Reserve) series of wines this time. The 2011 Odyssey White Meritage is predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, with approximately 10% Semillon. It is dry and crisp, with flavours of lemongrass and kiwi. Approximately 40% of the Sauvignon Blanc underwent barrel fermentation so it is not overly oaky. The 2011 Odyssey Pinot Gris comes from their block of older vines, planted in 1978, lending much more of a richness to the flavours. It is crisp, fruity and dry, with just the barest hint of oak. The 2011 Estate series Pinot Blanc has a lovely round mouthfeel and crisp sweet green apple flavour. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is much richer than I expected, with tasty plum, blackberry, cherry and a touch of cedar and medium to firm tannins. Next I was given a side-by-side comparison of the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir to the 2009 Odyssey Pinot Noir. Both were quite tasty, but very different. The Estate has a much lighter colour, a strawberry-cherry nose and very light flavours. The Odyssey is much darker in colour, has a lovely cherry and caramel nose, much fuller structure and beautiful flavours of black cherry, plum and spice. Definitely my pick of the two!

Up the hill we went, to Ex Nihilo Vineyards, where the Okanagan Erotic Art Show is being held through to the end of June. Ex Nihilo has a large exhibition space within the main building which has revolving exhibits year-round. The winery has close ties with art, having been named after a sculpture by the artist Frederick Hart, depicting creation, which is in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. We perused all of the artwork a couple of times around while waiting for someone on staff to arrive in the tasting room, the only drawback in an otherwise-lovely visit there. The 2010 Riesling is dry, with flavours of grapefruit and pineapple. The 2010 Pinot Noir is quite light but has good structure to it. Flavours of cherry, plus and spice lead to black tea on the back palate. This wine was aged for 10 months in 100% French oak and is very much made in more of an old-world style – quite lovely! The 2008 Merlot has a deep garnet colour, a bit of herbs and spice on the nose, with cherry, chocolate and spice on the palate and medium tannins. The flagship 2008 Night has spent 22 months in part new/part older French oak, and is a blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc. This is full of cherry, plum, clove and black currant, with nice balance and could easily be cellared for another couple of years. The 2004 Sympathy for the Devil Riesling Icewine was a partnership with the Rolling Stones and features their trademark lips and tongue on the bottle. This Icewine has lovely apricot and mango flavours and nice acidity. The Journey of Hope 2008 Icewine is made from Merlot has a painting of the Ex Nihilo sculpture screen printed onto the bottle – it’s quite ethereal. This Icewine has nice acidity and flavours of raspberry jam and cherry.

Across the road from Ex Nihilo is a winery that I have enjoyed ever since my first visit about 3 years ago – Arrowleaf Cellars. There are very few views as lovely as theirs and they have made the most of it with a beautiful picnic area overlooking the vineyards and Okanagan Lake below. As I am quite familiar with their wines, I only sampled those new vintages that I had not yet tried. The 2011 First Crush Rosé is a blend of Gamay and Zweigelt. It is slightly off-dry, with flavours of strawberry and cherry and nice acidity to balance the sweetness. A very pleasant patio sipper. The 2009 Merlot (some of the most northerly-grown Merlot in the Okanagan) was aged 12 months in American oak and has lovely raspberry and cherry flavours with a hint of cedar and spice. I think this one will be very smooth drinking come wintertime. The 2009 Solstice Reserve is a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Zweigelt. This was aged for 12 months in French oak and has a rich nose of cherry and caramel, with cherry, raspberry and plum on the palate, with a touch of black pepper. Very tasty indeed!

We crossed back over the hill to Highway 97 and decided to stop at one last winery for the day before heading home. Ancient Hill Estate Winery is located at the north end of Kelowna, overlooking (at a fair distance) the Kelowna International Airport. I have recently “discovered” Ancient Hill after I picked up a bottle of their Pinot Noir when I was looking for a bottle of red to go with a turkey dinner I was attending. It impressed everybody at the dinner, including myself. The winery building is a beautifully appointed design by Robert MacKenzie, a well-known architect in Penticton who has designed many of the wineries in the valley. The heavy timbers, plaster walls and use of dark woods give the space a sense of permanence, that it’s from another century. At the lovely tasting bar I run through all of their wines on offer. The 2009 Pinot Gris is crisp and dry, with a nice mouthfeel and flavours of peach, pear and grapefruit. The 2009 Gewürztraminer, which took a Gold medal at last year’s BC Wine Awards, is slightly off-dry and has a lovely rich mouthfeel with rose petals and lychee on the nose and palate. The 2010 Rosé is beautiful! It is a blend of Baco Noir, Pinot Noir, Lemberger (also known as Blaufränkisch) and Zweigelt. It has a bright cranberry colour and is bursting with flavours of cranberry, cherry and citrus, with a hint of spice. Ancient Hill Tasting BarThe 2009 Lazerus is a blend of Zweigelt and Lemberger. It has a lovely nose of vanilla and raspberry but was almost too light on the palate for my tastes, with very little fruit flavour. And finishing with one of my favourites, the 2009 Pinot Noir. This Pinot Noir has great flavour and more structure than many of the Pinot Noirs in the valley. It has spent 12 months in French oak and has beautiful flavours of raspberry, cherry, vanilla and spice. And at $21.95 a bottle, is a good value for money.