As the world's second largest country in geographical area, Canada's vast terrain varies greatly. But as a nation stereotypically synonymous with ice hockey and year-round winter, it's hard to imagine that in British Columbia there's the Okanagan Valley, which includes the Osoyoos Desert—complete with rattlesnakes and prickly cacti. Nestled between the Coast Mountains to the west and the Monashee Mountains to the east is the valley's 75-mile long lake, and sprinkling its edges are impeccably cared-for vineyards that benefit from the rain shadow covering the area. The Okanagan's unique meso-climate lends itself to nuanced winemaking, and a community of highly skilled grape-growers and obsessive winemakers are demonstrating just how special the region really is.
One of the wineries leading the way is Mission Hill Family Estate in Kelowna, owned by Canadian entrepreneur Anthony von Mandl and helmed by Kiwi winemaker John Simes. The winery's architecturally stunning grounds and sophisticated restaurant are reason enough to pay it a visit, but wine enthusiasts will revel in Mission Hill's portfolio of terroir-driven wines, which includes their award-winning chardonnay that started it all, as well as merlot, riesling, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, viognier and more. The burgeoning region is garnering increasing international acclaim, but as Mission Hill's Director of Wine Education Ingo Grady points out, Okanagan wines are still relatively unknown, which gives them a huge opportunity to strategically experiment and ultimately create a distinct appellation.
"We're judged by what's in the bottle, not by the label that says burgundy, bordeaux, Napa or Marlborough, where there's an implication of quality. We have to prove it every vintage, especially when we have people who've never been here. I find that really challenging—but it's a challenge we welcome because it gives us a chance to tell our story," Grady explains.
Mission Hill owns 28 vineyards within the 125 miles that span Okanagan's five growing districts, starting from Kelowna in the north of the province down to Osoyoos near the Canada-US border (or the 49th parallel as it's often referred to). They use the land, and subsequent variation in temperature and soil particle size, to focus on creating truly distinctive wines with a character idiosyncratic of that district.
Mission Hill's Director of Viticulture, Australian James Hopper, continually refines the way they cultivate the vines on a daily and annual basis, from implementing a sustainable drip irrigation system that works in favor of their short growing season to determining which varietals should have a bigger canopy and which should be more neatly manicured. We spoke with Hopper standing between viognier vines (a saggy variety) on one side and sauvignon blanc (an upright variety) on the other, which were trimmed differently despite being so close in proximity.
"Sunlight at a certain period in the season is important for the reproductive stage of the grapevine in terms of the fruitfulness of the buds. What we were finding with the sauvignon blanc is when you tuck it all up and it's all shaded in there, the next year we weren't getting the fruitfulness because the buds weren't getting sunlight. We were having this biannual kind of cycle where you'd have one good crop year, one low crop year. So I opened up the canopy and we were getting a consistent crop, the sunlight when we wanted it and the flavor profile changed so we've kept with it. Before, the fruit was more shaded and greener, almost one-dimensional. It was fruity and green, but this gives us a more tropical component."
Hopper also obsessively monitors and adjusts the crop load, in which he drops perfectly good fruit to allow the vines to concentrate their energy on a smaller amount of grapes. He tells us of the mentally distressing task, "It's always the hardest thing to do because you pay to drop money on the ground, but do you want to make a quality wine or weak grape juice that nobody wants to drink? I know which I would prefer personally."
In addition to his interest in building a legacy through wine, von Mandl also ensured the Mission Hill estate was designed to last for generations to come. His detailed approach is evident throughout the 120,000-square-foot winery, which was accomplished by architect Tom Kundig and his team. From the 12-story bell tower to the wine cellar (where there's a display of vessels dating back to 5,000 years) to the tasting rooms, every piece of material has physical longevity and a timeless aesthetic. Currently Mission Hill is home to a sculpture exhibition by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, whose 42 life-size figures cast in iron and aluminum fit in naturally with the serene surroundings. Von Mandle decided to showcase her works after seeing them on a trip to Iceland, because "her art promotes self-reflection and connectivity to nature through their quiet intrusion into our everyday lives." For a winery that seemingly wears its heart on its sleeve, Thórarinsdóttir's sculptures feel very congruent with both the landscape and the business philosophy.
Executive Winery Chef Chris Stewart at the tranquil Terrace Restaurant uses local ingredients to prepare carefully considered dishes that pair perfectly with wines. It's clear Stewart is influenced by his time spent working at Thomas Keller's esteemed French Laundry restaurant in Napa and the Michelin-starred Fat Duck in the UK. The ingredients are hyper-fresh and sustainably sourced, and culminate in his understanding of how they relate to each other as well as the wine.
With a portfolio of wines that are as profoundly delicious as they are unique, and a winery that is as friendly as it is serious, Mission Hill is an incredible place to visit—which you should plan on doing, because they're keeping their wines close to home. Some wines can be found at select shops in Canada, and choice restaurants in the US, but their exports are extremely limited and they don't ship outside of Canada. The best way to experience the fruits of their labor is with a trip to the Okanagan, which will provide a full understanding of this magical region.
Images by Karen Day