By Michael Fagin
What does Michael Fagin have in common with both Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama? We all like British Columbia white wines. President Obama sipped the Quails’ Gate Okanagan Valley Chenin Blanc in Ottawa and my wife and I sipped Quails’ Gate Estate wine in Kelowna. And Queen Elizabeth II? She also sipped Okanagan wine in the 1980’s. This was, incidentally, about the same time that a Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace and stole a half bottle of wine (type unknown). It needs to be clarified here that that Michael Fagan is not the same person I am. I swear that on that infamous day in June of 1982, my wife Elizabeth and I (Michael Fagin with an “i”) were on our honeymoon cruise in Alaska.
We learned that Quails’ Gate is a stately winery steeped in a long farming background. The business roots of the Stewart family, who currently own the winery, can be traced to Richard John Stewart who emigrated from Ireland to Kelowna. The Stewart Brothers Nursery was begun in 1911 when they started growing fruit trees. In 1960, they graduated to planting grapes and soon, the grapes were considered so good that a major winery contracted to purchase them. Finally in the 1990’s, after many successful years of grape growing, the Stewart family expanded their operation to an estate winery.
Following our discussion of the history of Quails’ Gate we were escorted to a private tasting room to sample their finest wines. This tasting room is called simply, The Library. We were told that reading was optional but wine tasting was mandatory here. We were pleased to be educated on Quails’ Gate wines while in the Library.
We began by sampling the Chenin Blanc and as we savored its zesty taste we understood why President Obama enjoyed this wine. Next was the Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay which had been oaked for nearly a year. This gave it a perfect balance with just a light vanilla taste. The hits just kept on coming as we enjoyed the light fruity taste of the Pinot Noir. This was followed by a richer and fuller body tasting Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir that we were advised is excellent with duck. We completed our tasting with the Optima wine, which is a late harvest wine, perfect for dessert.
Discussing food was a way for our wine hostess to bid us farewell and lead us into the Old Vines Restaurant. There we enjoyed the outside dining on this autumn afternoon where the views of the sunny hillsides were relaxing and the prepared lunch was outstanding. I had the Albacore Tuna with sundried olive and organic quinoa salad paired with their Pinot Noir. My wife, Elizabeth, had the Orecchiette Pasta with peas, prosciutto, basil, roasted garlic and tomato. We topped our meal off with cinnamon chocolate cake with burnt orange ice cream and dark chocolate ganache.
After our meal, with full stomachs and the warm sun upon us, we contemplated a nap but chose instead to continue our wine tasting. We decided to walk the grounds where the first thing we noticed was the gift shop. Restored from a log cabin built in 1873 by pioneers of this region, John and Susan Allison, it’s aptly called the Allison House. We were told that this was the original tasting room for Quails’ Gate.
After perusing the gift shop, we went back outside to view the two major vineyards. The Lower Boucherie Bench is close to Okanagan Lake and is mainly composed of the fine soils of silt and sand. The vineyard in the Upper Boucherie Bench is coarser, made up of glacier till and volcanic soil. This coarser soil forces the grape vines to dig deeper which adds to the complexity of the vines planted there. These include the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling. The Upper Bench also tends to be warmer in the summer than the Lower Bench which is cooled by the nearby lake.
We later found that much of the region’s soil structure was impacted by the dormant volcano, Mount Boucherie. It was created 60 million years ago and has endured many glacial periods. Over time, Mount Boucherie has been ground down to 1376 feet (417 meters) above the lake. This is much smaller than the 6362 feet (2000 meters) it was originally. Elizabeth and I felt gratitude to the glaciers for bringing us this rich volcanic soil that expresses itself in the excellent wines of Quails’ Gate.
Our next mission was to drive up the hill to enjoy some wine at Mission Hill Family Estate. What impressed us from the hilltop was the panoramic view of the Okanagan Valley, including the hillsides and the lake below. However, the most striking feature was the outstanding architecture of the estate. I found it hard to identify exactly what the arches, the castle, the medieval fountain, the amphitheater, and the bell tower rising from the courtyard were, in terms of style. The feeling that resonated within me was of “earthy”. I learned that Tom Kundig, the architect of this estate, developed a feel for the region as he had climbed many of the mountains in Western Canada in his prior professional career. Mr. Kundig certainly knew how to combine his structures with Mother Nature’s beauty. Incidentally, we later discovered the architectural style is known as Tuscan style (“earthy”).
Pleasantly, the commitment to the beautiful structure does not stop with the buildings. We discovered the present owner, Anthony von Mandl, goes the extra mile in his winery. Mission Hill was chosen Canada’s Winery of the Year twice within a seven year period. Winemaker John Simes, a former winemaker in New Zealand, came to Mission Hill in 1992 and the awards speak to his achievements. Mission Hill has also brought in the foremost wine consultant, Michel Rolland from Bordeaux, who has been awarded winemaker of the year.
Now for the important question: How was the wine? From the light tasting Sauvignon/Semillon to the citrus notes of the Perpetua Chardonnay and then to the rich taste of the award winning Select Lot Collection Syrah, we found them to be exceptional. My wife described her favorite wine, the Reserve Riesling Ice wine as “yummy”.
As we went outside to admire the architecture once again, we felt the outdoor dining terrace beckoning us. We decided that would have to wait as we had other places to visit. On our way out of town, Elizabeth shared her hopes that we would be returning before too long. She had heard rumors of a hotel and spa going in at Mission Hill Family Estate. We drove off with hopes of making a weekend of it next time!