Kamloops, BC: The Thompson Valley is BC’s newest wine region
British Columbia’s wineries continue to push the boundaries, opening up new areas previously not deemed capable of ripening grapes. A decade ago, if you’d suggested to anyone that Kamloops would be on the verge of becoming B.C.’s newest wine region, chances are you would have elicited a look of disbelief – if not an outright guffaw.
However, a number of factors—from climate change to better viticulture, no shortage of sheer determination and not a little capital—have combined to produce such a scenario. The Kamloops Wine Trail is now a reality, even if the “region” as it stands today comprises only four wineries.
I’m a big fan of emerging regions. I think it’s something we take a little bit for granted. What’s more, there aren’t too many places in the wine world where you can look back over 20 years and say “I was there at the beginning.”
Incidentally, this week saw the release of the BC Wine Task Group Report, which formally proposes the creation of a Thompson Valley region. Good news, and a sure indication of things to come.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about getting to Kamloops, especially if you’re in Vancouver or Whistler: It’s a much easier (and equally scenic) trip via Pemberton, Lillooet and the Duffey Lake Road. Added bonus: you can stop at Fort Berens en route.
Because there are only four wineries (so far) you can easily get to them all in a day—or spread things out over a couple of days if you want. These days there’s a lot more to Kamloops than meets the eye.
1. Harpers Trail: Reshaping a heritage ranch
The most potent example of success so far may be found at Harper’s Trail. Starting in 2007, Vicki and Ed Collett planted vinifera on a bluff overlooking the South Thompson River, just east of town, on the historic Thaddeus Harper Ranch.
Working with winemaker Michael Bartier, the couple eliminated some initial varieties. Riskier plantings of Syrah and Merlot were pulled in favour of Pinot Noir, Gamay and more hardy Cabernet Franc. Winter kill remains a prime concern here; and very much determines the varieties planted, be they vinifera or hybrid.
A vein of limestone that runs through the site provides the backbone for their assertively mineral streaked Harpers Trail Pioneer Block 2013 Riesling (91 pts.). Their Silver Mane Riesling 2013 (more fruit driven, 91 pts.) was the ideal compromise between pork and Little Fort trout with salsa dressing at Kamloops’ Brownstone Restaurant (see below).
Also of note, a standout Cabernet Franc 2013 (92 pts.) and 2014 Cab Franc, which continue to develop luscious red and black fruit, fine tannins and some peppery notes (91 pts.).
Harpers Trail (now almost 100 per cent estate grown production) sports a new tasting room, already hopping, with plans in the near future for a restaurant on a higher up, south facing bench.
2. Privato: Setting sights high
North of Kamloops, close to the North Thompson River, and also garnering acclaim, Privato Vineyard and Winery is a gem of a spot, with a compact but gorgeously detailed tasting room and cellar, nestled in immaculate gardens. This winery first came to my attention, when its 2012 Pinot Noir popped up as a Double Gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships, in May 2015.
John and Debbie Woodward‘s focus is on premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, most of which is Okanagan grown, while the couple trial various varieties (including Riesling) in their estate vineyard.
Standouts include a vinous, dry finished 2014 Pinot Chardonnay Rosé (91 pts.), perfectly balanced, Oaked 2012 Chardonnay (91 pts.), and the well-crafted (much medalled), strawberry and smoky toned Privato Woodward Pinot Noir 2012 (92 pts.).
Waiting in the wings is a Grande Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 (92 pts.). Privato’s attention to detail is very apparent, making it a winery to watch, especially as the estate evolves. What would be helpful is a mention of vineyard origin on the labels, as it’s not always apparent.
3. Monte Creek: Hands Up!
Recently unveiled, Monte Creek Ranch Winery occupies a spectacular site on a bench south of the South Thompson. The 3,600 acre ranch is multi-purpose, producing its own grass fed beef, all natural honey, haskap berries (for cooking and jam), and more.
Monte Creek brands its wines with the legend of train robber Bill Miner, who staged his last hold- up on the property (famously celebrated in the 1982 Canadian movie, The Grey Fox).
I kind of like the National Film Board Vignette.
There’s no question my mind that this latest Kamloops wine destination will be another wine touring hit. It’s ideally situated, close to the junction of Highways 1 and 97 south. The contemporary, clean-lined tasting room and eclectic wine shop on the upper floor, along with its patio, enjoys sweeping views east, west and north across the river.
Monte Creek’s significant plantings (on benches on both shores) are predominantly Minnesota hybrids, which have been known to withstand temperatures of minus 40 Celsius, such as Marechal Foch, Marquette, La Crescent and Frontenac. Vinifera is also being trialled and Riesling has also been planted on the north shore Lions Head Vineyard. Of note, Okanagan sourced 2014 Riesling (lemon-lime citrus, honey notes, fresh fruit driven, 90 pts.).
Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters was once an ardent critic of anything that wasn’t vinifera—especially Marechal Foch—which he has always said “best belongs on the barbecue, and lit!” However, McWatters recently told me, especially around Kamloops, it just makes sense to grow what can properly ripen and withstand extreme cold. McWatters insists the hybrids he’s tasted don’t show the foxiness with which they’re often associated.
Hands Up White 2014 is an easy sipping, aromatic, off dry white (Frontenac, La Crescent with some Viognier, 88 pts.), along with approachable red and black fruited Hands Up Red 2013 (Okanagan Merlot, Cab Sauv., Frontenac Noir, Marquette, 87 pts.).
4. Sagewood: A Family Affair
Sagewood Winery, the fourth member of the Kamloops Wine Trail, is one of the area’s original vineyards. It’s a hands-on labour of love undertaken by Shelley and Doug Wood, who planted on a north shore bench of the South Thompson in 2005. The lillipution tasting room is often busy, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait a short while outside.
Estate plantings span numerous varieties, with a mix of vinifera and hybrids, including a rose-toned, quite viscous Gewurz 2013 (89 pts.), and a plush, well-structured, anise toned Cabernet Franc 2014 (90 pts..)
5. Meanwhile … back in town
Kamloops has a robust and eclectic dining scene—that’s come a long way from the rough and tumble hotel bars of old.
Terra Restaurant is arguably one of the most doggedly determined of locally focused rooms between here and the coast. David and Andrea Tombs work closely with a wealth of area farmers and suppliers to produce a menu that’s truly regional and seasonal. There’s also good attention to better BC wineries, including dutiful focus on those in the immediate region. The mood is relaxed but service is professional and comfortably polished. Highlights from my visit: an heirloom tomato salad, and line-caught Haida Gwaii Halibut. 326 Victoria St., Kamloops, 250-374-2913
The craft beer revolution is also happening here, most evident at The Noble Pig Brewhouse, a bustling and expansive emporium with an excellent selection of brewed on premise and other beers. Tough to pick a favourite here but from my sampler, although the Wallonian Pig Belgian Peppered Ale does have a pretty intriguing kick; it’s tough not to love a beer with a moniker like “Prodigal Swine Dark Amber” (that reminded me of Fullers); and what’s not to like about a delicious, smoky toned Mocha Porter, or a decently hopped IPA that should keep even the most demanding hopheads happy? Not surprisingly, The Noble Pig is at the epicentre of the newly launched Brewloops festival.
On the menu, an abundance of hearty and pubbish plates, from crispy pickles or creative personal pizzas to the house hallmark pulled pork sandwich. An added, quirky bonus is the patio built over an old swimming pool. 650 Victoria St., Kamloops, 778-471-5999
Even though Kamloops has expanded considerably over the last few years, there’s still plenty of downtown heritage that’s not only survived but flourishing. Witness the Brownstone Restaurant, housed in the former CIBC building which dates from 1904. The restaurant (owned by husband and wife team, Connie and Dale Decaire) occupies the entire ground floor, which allows plenty of space between tables. The mood is quiet and gently elegant without being stuffy.
Chef Dale learned his trade with Bruno Marti at La Belle Auberge. The Brownstone, in some ways, reflects a similar style. Good tastes included pork three ways, with crisp boar belly, bacon wrapped tenderloin, Wuxi jus, vegetable stuffed gyoza, and pan seared fresh trout from Ted’s Trout in Little Fort, with mango-red onion salsa. 118 Victoria St., Kamloops, 250-851–9939