A visit to the Okanagan Valley, declared the world’s second most beautiful wine region by USA Today (2014), is full of surprising pleasures. The startling combination of bunchgrass- and sagebrush-covered rugged hills, endless periwinkle skies, leggy lakes surrounding by bench land, orchards or eroding hoodoos, is a visual delight. It’s dramatic in the extreme. Blue skies and lake water, golden sunburned ranch lands, verdant green vineyards. It’s hilly or downright mountainous. This semi-desert environment is an unexpected home to some very articulate wines, defined by freshness, expressive fruit flavours and precise architecture. With more than 80 per cent of all British Columbia’s 9,800 acres of vineyards, the Okanagan Valley is also brimming with wonderful places to lunch, sip coffee, dine and rest between winery visits.
Kelowna anchors the mid-point of Lake Okanagan, and it’s here you’ll find some of the head-turning rieslings described by outsiders as “bladerunners,” with a style and identity unlike any others. Tantalus and Sperling Old Vines bottlings deploy some of the most historic vines (that means the late 1970s) found in this young, ambitious wine region. Tense, ripe yet nervy, there is a whisper of sweetness that counters the electric acidity in these versions. Further south in Okanagan Falls, Synchromesh makes a suite of rieslings that are as “eye-poppingly” limey, juicy and honeyed as you could hope for.
Before you leave the Kelowna area, visit Bean Scene for espresso drinks and breakfast wraps — Giobean is another favourite caffeine dispensary. And yes, it’s 400-odd kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, but that does not stop Mubai Sushi from nailing all the seafood classics. Dinner might be at Waterfront Bistro, where Chef Mark Filatow’s culinary genius partners a terrific local list. For regional and utterly delicious eats, Kelowna’s RauDZ’s should not be missed.
Many of the winery biggies are in the Kelowna area, but push on south to Peachland and Summerland, where vineyards on the lake’s west-side receive morning sun. Pinot gris is B.C.’s most planted white grape, and there’s a plethora of choice, but focus on Haywire’s Switchback Vineyard’s leesy, nutty, botanical version, shaped by renowned international wine talents Alberto Antonini and Pedro Parra. Directly across the lake is the Naramata Bench where both Nichol Vineyards and Roche Wines each make two admired versions of pinot gris, with and without neutral oak. A pair of charmingly rustic spots for overnighting are the Sandy Beach Lodge & Resort and the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa.
Albariño is a niche success story and both Terravista’s and Stag’s Hollow’s efforts are shockingly correct. Look out for Stag Hollow’s Grenache as well — it’s making waves everywhere. Grüner Veltliner too — and Culmina (this is the Golden Mile estate of the Canadian wine industry-pioneering Triggs family) — haa two fabulous ones: Unicus and the peppery, leesy No. 002 Wild Ferment. Equally compelling are sparkling wines from the Okanagan. There are brilliant traditional method bubbles to try like Blue Mountain especially and Noble Ridge, but the international pét-nat craze is also alive and well here. Bella is a bubbly-only domaine and their Méthode Ancestrale Rosé is a must, as is Okanagan Crush Pad Winery’s crisp and racy Narrative Ancient Method.
You’ll note the pervasive savoury stamp of black sage in many Okanagan wines — it’s the local signature, like garrigue in the south of France. It shows particularly in Okanagan pinot noirs, such as Miraval and Spierhead from the Kelowna area; Naramata’s Moraine; and from Okanagan Falls, Blue Mountain and Meyer. And if you happen to be in Okanagan Falls, make a pit stop at Wild Goose’s Smoke and Oak Bistro, where the food is addictive, especially the pulled pork and brisket.
The South Okanagan presents generous warmth that Rhône grapes demand and Okanagan syrah from here is supremely distinctive, with plenty of ripe dark and juicy fruit, cracked pepper and brisk acidity. Le Vieux Pin’s Syrah Cuvée Violette is a smoky, herbal and meaty wonder; for a contrast, try Markus Ansems potent, fruit-forward shiraz. When you are ready for dinner, The Wildfire Grill and Campo Marina Café in downtown Osoyoos are both popular dining spots with locals and tourists alike. The Walnut Beach Resort is a fine place to stay in the south, with its beachfront pool and promenade for people-watching.
One of B.C.’s loveliest drives is along Highway 3, a twisting, rolling road that links the south Okanagan with the Similkameen Valley. Stop at Spotted Lake to learn about saline endorheic alkali lakes, then head strait to Cawston for a tasting at Little Farm (for Pied de Cuve) and Orofino (for Hendsbee) to get a sense of the saline, mineral lacing that Similkameen Riesling in particular, conveys. Tree to Me Market & Café is your stop for coffee (as well as sandwiches, meat pies and preserves) and there is also a homey bed and breakfast. On the main drag of the cowboy town Keremeos is a truly authentic restaurant called Benja Thai, for lunch or dinner. It’s been there forever and never wavered.
Look, smell, taste, eat it all in. And you’ll be back for more Okanagan.
1. Jill Spoor, Wine Director, Botanist,
Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver
The Okanagan Crush Pad’s winery motto is “Respect the Grape” and they live up to this in every way. If you want to experience firsthand the progressive winemaking movement happening in the Okanagan Valley, then this should be your first stop. Explore their compelling terroir-driven wines made with minimal intervention and organic grapes. I’m secretly obsessed with their gamay noir which sells out every year because it’s irresistibly delicious, so don’t miss out!
2. Kelcie Jones, Sommelier,
The ingredient for a perfect day in the Okanagan is a Naramata picnic. Pick up an outdoor, wood-fired pissaladière from JoieFarm, swing into Lock & Worth’s tasting room for some Poplar Grove Cheese (Yes, they are bedfellows), then drive straight up the road to Bella Wines for a bottle of ancestral method Gamay. All things in-hand, park yourself at the Indian Rock Beach access in North Naramata. Few things are better than bubbles, a fresh pie and the cool Okanagan Lake between your toes.
And, should you tire of your travel mates, The Book Shop in Penticton has a serious philosophy collection that pairs perfectly with a glass of CedarCreek Amphora Wine Project.
3. Lisa Haley, Sommelier,
Restaurant Director, L’Abattoir, Vancouver
My priority, whenever I arrive in the Okanagan, is to get myself to the tasting patio at Nichol Vineyards in Naramata. You can look out over the oldest syrah vines in Canada, talk to the cat and chat with Ross and Matt about making great wine on the Bench in what must be the most relaxed tasting ‘room’ anywhere.
4. Sean Nelson, Sommelier,
Vij’s Restaurant, Vancouver Best Sommelier British Columbia, 2018
My favourite place to sit with a glass of wine is the patio of Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek. Panoramic views of the South Okanagan and a great tapas menu make it a fantastic spot to finish a day of winery visits. Also, if you’re looking for something cool on a hot day Tickleberry’s Ice Cream in Okanagan Falls will no doubt tickle your fancy.
5. Randy Chafe, Sommelier,
General Manager, Bistro Verde, Nordstrom, Vancouver
So, thinking about my many experiences travelling through the Okanagan, one memory keeps coming back to me. My wife and I love stopping at Tinhorn Creek in Oliver, grabbing a bottle of their delicious Cabernet Franc Rose and playing some Bocce while admiring the view towards Osoyoos perched high above the Okanagan Valley floor. We’ve done this a handful of times and it always make me smile — partly because I always win!
Photos Courtesy of: Poplar Grove, Lionel Trudel, BC Wine Institute, Daniel Seguin