Over the last month, I've been way out west, talking to those attending the Vancouver International Wine Festival – not least because this year's edition celebrated the wines of France, my adoptive home. The displacement gave me the chance to explore vineyards I had never visited before: those of British Columbia.
The Province is four times bigger than the UK – yet only three per cent of that land mass is cultivable; most is mountain or upland plateaux. The Okanagan Valley, a long, lake-filled glacial slash which crosses the Canadian border into the USA's Washington State, is where most of BC's wine comes from. Despite the fact that it shares Champagne latitudes, summer temperatures hit 40°C... during the day. At night, though, the mercury can plummet by as much as 30°C or so. That marks the measure of the place: stark, dramatic, elemental. Leave the valley and you're quickly in a geological world sparsely bearded by conifers; a world of raptors, bears and wolves. Bears can eat $2,000's worth of grapes in a single night. The second most important part of a vineyard in British Columbia is its exterior fence.
I also visited the neighbouring Similkameen Valley with Master of Wine Rhys Pender, who makes Little Farm Mulberry Tree Riesling there. The sun was just setting behind the bare, rocky hills, and the cold of night beginning to bite; we'd passed merry, drill-waving fisher folk boring holes in frozen lakes on the way over the mountain which separates it from the Okanagan. We greeted Rhys's colleague Steve Roche of Clos du Soleil whose only concession to the chill of late winter was a large-brimmed black hat. Drinking Rhys's wine was like sipping ice, snow and rock.
I was also introduced to the perfect food partner for bracing Similkameen Riesling: a dainty crustacean which adores the icy waters of the north. Wine Society members familiar with Alaska and Western Canada may think 'spot prawns' (Pandalus platyceros) at this point. I didn't, in fact, try these legendary delicacies: they're so popular in Japan and Asia as to be, I was told, beyond the reach of locals. Instead, though, we feasted on the smaller 'side stripes', or Pandalopsis dispar: an exquisite, fairy-like prawn with stargazy eyes, red-and-white banded legs and a body of patterned stripes. Their juicy sweetness reset my prawn horizons.
British Columbians are always on the search for new places to grow and make wine – like Lillooet, Kamloops and Shuswap even further north from Okanagan, like rainy Fraser Valley just upriver from Vancouver, or like Vancouver Island and the smaller, often tiny Gulf Islands which swarm around it. Some will work economically; some won't; but in a world whose climate is now warming at a gallop (another of the topics I was talking about at the Festival), it's in lonely frontier zones like this that the future of North American winemaking is being mapped out.