WINEMAKERS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA HOPING FOR SOME RESPECT ABROAD CONNOISSEURS GROW LESS CHILLY

WINEMAKERS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA HOPING FOR SOME RESPECT ABROAD CONNOISSEURS GROW LESS CHILLY

Forget hockey, think chardonnay - Canadian chardonnay.

Canada is trying to shed its image as a frozen land more hospitable to polar bears than grapes and convince the world it can make first-class wine.The effort is centered in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, a warm and arid corner of the country's westernmost province where winemakers say grape-growing conditions rival those in sunny France and California.

Even boosters of Canadian wine admit they have a public-relations battle on their hands, because snob appeal weighs heavily with consumers. But Canadian winemakers take comfort in the success of new producers such as Chile and New Zealand and predict that the world will happily be sipping Canadian chardonnay and merlot by the turn of the century.

"People think Canada is just freezing cold and wonder how we can grow grapes here," said winemaker John Simes of the Mission Hill winery near Kelowna. "Then they taste the wine, and they are amazed at the quality."

Mission Hill, one of Canada's most acclaimed wineries, knows the skepticism only too well. When its 1992 Grand Reserve chardonnay was deemed the best of 260 wines from around the world at a prestigious competition in London last year, even the judges were surprised.

"They couldn't believe it at first. They double-checked and called Canada to make sure there wasn't a mistake," said Mr. Simes, a native of New Zealand who came to the Okanagan Valley three years ago.

Since winning several awards, Mission Hill has seen its sales soar and is now exporting its wines to Britain and Sweden. Other British Columbia wineries are also gaining international notice, and more than a dozen new ones have opened in the last few years, bringing the total to 30.

"There's no question about it. This is evolving into a world-class area. If you give it five years, it will be recognized as one," said Australian- born winemaker Jeff Martin of Quails' Gate Vineyards Estate Winery near Kelowna.

While the region's output is still small compared with wine-producing areas such as France and California, sales of quality wines have grown to US$16.1 million last year, more than three times what it was three years earlier, according to the British Columbia Wine Institute, which represents the industry.

Although one of the northernmost grape-growing regions in the world, the rugged Okanagan Valley, perched just above the border with Washington state, produces high-quality fruit, wine experts said. The region is extremely dry and has short, hot summers. The scarcity of rainfall helps combat many weather-related diseases that strike vines elsewhere, and the absence of pests enables growers to use organic methods, forgoing chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

"Most places in the world, you can't do that. Here there are a lot of organic vineyards," Mr. Simes said. "You get nice clean grapes that are quite well balanced."

The white wines are considered the best, and Okanagan chardonnay, chenin blanc, pinot blanc and pinot gris win high marks from wine experts. "There are some outstanding wines; 1994 was an exceptional vintage in terms of quality," said wine critic John Schreiner, who has written a book on the wineries of British Columbia.

Among red wines, the pinot noir and merlot are considered the most promising, but many have not yet reached their full potential, wine experts said.

In addition to well-known varieties, growers in the Okanagan are cultivating grapes that are hardly household names, such as auxerrois, chasselas and muller-thurgau.

Although grape vines have been planted near Kelowna since the 1860s, the industry's growth is tied to a rapid improvement in the quality of grapes and wine-making techniques since the late 1980s.

The free-trade deal between Canada and the United States in 1988 opened the once-protected local wine market to California imports. Canadian growers and wineries quickly realized they had to improve their product, which previously consisted mostly of cheap jug wine.

Many vineyards were uprooted and replanted with higher-quality grape varieties, which will take a few more years to reach maturity. "We're just in our infancy in terms of quality," Mr. Simes said.