“The purveyor of mostly forgettable plonk.” This is how renowned wine critic Anthony Gismondi once described the British Columbia wine industry. Protected by legislation from international competition and cultivating mostly Vitis Lubrusca and hybrid grapes, wine produced in British Columbia were considered poor alternatives to European and American wines. However, after the implementation of NAFTA and GATT, Canadian wine producers where forced to improve their wine's quality in order to survive in this new environment. Today, British Columbia wines are considered world-class, particularly newly planted Vitis Vinifera varieties.
The first instances of wine-making in British Columbia occurred when Oblate missionaries, who settled in the Okanagan Valley in the mid 1800s, cultivated grapes for sacramental wine. These were Vitis Labrusca and Vitis Riparia grapes since Vitis Vinifera vines usually succumbing to diseases induced by hot, humid summers and severely low winter temperatures. For the next 100 years, the Canadian and British Columbian wine industry was focused around these grapes as well as any hybrids that good withstand the Canadian environment. Whereas the number of smaller wineries had increased through prohibition – because the law allowed producing wine for personal use – the number of wineries decreased sharply after Prohibition as the industry consolidated and provinces restricted the establishment of new wineries. In the mid 1970s, the provinces relented and began to issue new licenses to produce and sell wine. The number of new wineries increased dramatically, however, protected against foreign competition, the quality of the wine remained poor. After the passage of GATT and NAFTA treaties, the wine industry undertook a major program to replace native grape varieties with vinifera grapes. New investments in technology and updated wine techniques have allowed these wine makers to produce world class vinifera wines.
However one hybrid that survived the transition to vinifera grapes is Ortega, a cross between the German Muller Thurgau and Siegerrebe. It was originally developed to enhance the quality of Riesling in poor vintages in the Rheinhessen region in Germany. Since the grape possesses the ability to excel in cold-winter conditions, it has been successfully grown in British Columbia, and with limited success in a couple of eastern provinces. This grape produces rich, flowery, peachy wines, with high natural sugar levels.
One B.C. winery that cultivates Ortega is Recline Ridge Vineyard and Winery, a family-owned and operated winery which is located in the heart of the Shuswap Lake area of British Columbia. Mike Smith, the winery’s owner-operator, lists several factors that persuaded him to vinify Ortega. First, the grape is extremely winter hardy and actually develops better character in the cooler zones. In warmer environments the grape ripens too early to develop proper character. Second, Ortega’s parent grape, Siegerrebe, is very aromatic and flavorful and these characteristics are passed down to its “offspring”. And finally, Ortega generally provides good yields per acre – so the grape is very cost affective. Recline Ridge’s Ortega has been well received by the Canadian wine public – it is the winery’s second best white wine seller. In addition, the 2002 vintage won a Bronze medal at the 2005 Northwest Wine Summit after the 2001 vintage wine "Peoples Choice" award and "Best White Wine" at the 2004 Kamloops Wine Festival. Mr. Smith attributes Ortega’s success to the Shuswap Lake terrior, in which he believes provides the conditions necessary to yield the greatest flavor potential. In addition to having a great taste, Ortega wine is very versatile wine with regards to the food it complements. Mr. Smith notes that Ortega finds many friends on the patio in summer with sea foods and cheeses or a crisp fruit salad, the kitchens and dinning rooms presenting a spicy curry dish, Cajun chicken, and Chinese food or simply to quench the thirst of a group of friends around a beach fire and a pot of Dungeness crab.
One of the first wineries to emerge after the British Columbia province began to issue commercial license to produce wine was Domaine de Chaberton Estates. The winery is located very close to the Washington border in the Fraser Valley and was started by Claude Violet, a ninth generation French wine maker. Today, it is the 4th largest estate winery in B.C. The winery cultivates Ortega because of the favorable climate conditions and they enjoy favor. They produce two types of Ortega wine, a vintage wine that tastes similar to a Muscat flavor wine and a Botrytis affected dessert wine that resembles a Sauternes wine. Sometimes called Noble Rot, Botrytis is a mold that causes grapes to lose nearly all of their water content – but not the sugar. The result: an extremely concentrated and sweet grape juice with honeyed, aromatic characteristics. Both wines have been accepted by the general public and wine officials: they have won over 30 medals\awards throughout the years, most notably a Silver Medal at Vinandino '97, an O.I.V. competition held in Mendoza Argentina.
Finally, Zanatta Winery, cultivates Ortega not only because it is reliable, excels in their climate, and is resistant to disease, but more importantly, because they like the wine. They have found that translating their appreciation of the grape to the general public has been a long and slow process. People are reluctant to buy what they do not know and a common question they hear is “Is it like Chardonnay?” Over time, as wine drinkers become more daring, this question will no longer be raised.