In the Okanagan, tasting is believing

A world of wines awaits under the northern desert sun

by Kurtis Kolt

CedarCreek Vineyard, Kelowna, courtesy of tourismkelowna.com – Brian Sprout

Sun-drenched throughout most of the year, BC’s verdant Okanagan region is a blissful escape for vacationers. On top of the breathtaking landscape, world-class golf courses and shimmering lakes, it boasts vineyards and wineries that are lauded globally.

What is so special about creating wines in this region? Let’s go back to when it all began.

Around 10,000 years ago, the area was covered by glaciers. When they receded, they revealed a sculpted landscape of rugged mountains and pristine lakes that left behind fertile, mineral-rich soils. The Okanagan is also at the northern end of the Sonoran Desert and has the semi-arid climate of a desert region. These are the natural, key elements of the Okanagan terroir that have been turning heads and pleasing palates across the world.

While small by international standards, the British Columbia wine industry produces a little over two million cases each year, with the Okanagan responsible for almost 85 per cent of that output.

Let’s take a tour of this spectacular wine region. The first stop is Kelowna, where the moderating effect of Okanagan Lake allows balanced cool-climate wine varieties to shine. Riesling is a specialty here, expressing those mineral-rich soils, bright with shimmering acidity. Can’t-miss stops include Tantalus Vineyards, BC’s first LEED-certified winery, featuring Chablis-esque chardonnays and stylish pinot noirs, along with Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where traditional-method sparkling wines have been a specialty for decades. Try Summerhill’s aromatic whites and visit the winery’s Sunset Bistro – a great place to enjoy locally inspired bites.

Summerhill Estate Winery
Summerhill Pyramid Winery, courtesy of tourismkelowna.com

More of a craft beer fan? Be sure to hit up Smack Dab at Manteo Resort, a modern gastropub with an excellent selection from the province’s best craft breweries.

Heading across the lake to West Kelowna, a stop at Mission Hill Family Estate, arguably British Columbia’s best-known winery is a must. An epic setting with its famous bell tower, enjoy a wide array of award-winning wines and learn about the history of the Okanagan on a sommelier-guided tour.

South of West Kelowna is the charming town of Summerland. Nature buffs will enjoy strolling the Summerland Ornamental Gardens, a century-old heritage botanical garden with stunning views of the Trout Creek Trestle Bridge and more. You’re probably starting to get thirsty again, and your first stop back on the wine trail should be Okanagan Crush Pad. Situated on the tiny organic Switchback Vineyard, where chickens and sheep graze among the vines, both Haywire and Narrative labels are crafted at the winery and specialize in minimal-intervention red, white and sparkling wines. Many are fermented in large egg-shaped concrete tanks and are wonderful odes to Okanagan terroir.

Another can’t-miss winery visit is the tiny TH Wines tasting room. Winemaker and former hockey pro Tyler Harlton, specializes in charismatic small-batch, “garagiste”-style wines sourced from vineyards throughout the Okanagan.

Before you pop over to the east side of Okanagan Lake, plan to spend some time in the small city of Penticton. It’s a great place to soak up the sun at the beach, whether you’re into kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming or simply lazing on the sand with a good book. Great spots for lunch include Brodo Kitchen, a favourite of locals offering hearty soups, salads and sandwiches assembled from a bounty of local ingredients, and Bad Tattoo Brewing if you’d like to enjoy a refreshing ale with your lunch.

View of Penticton
View of Penticton, courtesy of Destination BC/Joann Pai

Linda Tanaka is the managing artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which takes place on Jericho Beach, the strip of sand that separates the neighbourhood of Kitsilano from English Bay. “We’re in a neighbourhood in the city, and we’re right on the beach. We’re big on recycling and composting and we’re respectful of the environment,” she says.

The festival, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in July 2017, is held on Musqueam First Nations land, a connection that’s honoured with a traditional opening ceremony.

On the way to Naramata on the lake’s east edge, stop in at the Bench Market, a one-stop-shop to grab coffee and a panini, along with an impressive selection of local cheeses, charcuterie, chutneys, snacks and drinks.

As you take in the view along the winding Naramata Road, choosing between the dozens of small, independent wineries can seem overwhelming. While it’s tough to go wrong in this part of the Valley, highlights for many include stops at JoieFarm for wines inspired by Alsace and Burgundy (along with artisan, wood-fired pizza picnics); Kettle Valley Winery for bigger, rugged red wines (and Gewürztraminer slushies!); and Bella, the only BC winery devoted entirely to sparkling wines, each of them single-vineyard.

Cycling enthusiasts shouldn’t miss out pedalling along the old Kettle Valley Railway; odds are you’ll pass a local winemaker or two on your ride.

Cyclists biking the Kettle Valley Rail Trail
Cyclists biking the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, courtesy of Destination BC

Davidson agrees; tourism influences the success of the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt, which, though not an Island, is only accessible by boat or plane.

“Half of our audience travels to the Sunshine Coast,” she says. “We need and welcome the visitors who get on that ferry and come to see us every August.”

Heading down to the Oliver-Osoyoos region of the Okanagan, the mercury rises and you’ll note more of a desert climate with scrubby sagebrush and cacti dotting the landscape. It’s hotter than California’s Napa Valleymaking it perfectly suitable for rich, red wines that still express those mineral-laden soils. It’s balanced with great acidity as the cool nights keep grapes on the vine from ripening too fast. No trip to this part of the Valley is complete without a visit to Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Winery, where chef Jeff Van Geest uses his strong relationships with local farmers, fishermen and ranchers to offer a menu that provides a snapshot of the Okanagan through a Mediterranean lens. It’s a fantastic place to grab dinner.

Wake up early the next morning for a round at the nearby Fairview Mountain Golf Course where the setting is every bit as stunning as the local wines. Recommendations include Road 13 Vineyards for many award-winning Rhone-inspired wines and Moon Curser Vineyards, for those who want to get a little geeky. They specializes in lesser-known varieties for the region, like a crisp and citrusy Arneis, a spice-laden Tempranillo and a rich and robust Petit Verdot.

Fairview Mountain Golf Course

And that’s just a taste — there’s a lot more in store when you visit this strikingly beautiful part of the world.

— Kurtis Kolt is a Vancouver-based wine educator and writer, and an expert on BC wines.