by Daenna Van Mulligen
You don’t have to be a wine lover to appreciate the vinous trappings of wine country. At least I don’t think you do because I’ve only ever traveled to wine country as a wine lover. Of course, the depth of my wine-y knowledge, my passion and palate have evolved over the years but my excitement never wavers. I made my first trip to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia a decade ago, never realizing that in the future I would be so fully encased in the wine world. So much has changed since that first trip, there were less than 40 wineries in all of British Columbia and now there are 136 with more pending as I write. The majority of these wineries are located in the Okanagan Valley, a narrow region that starts at the Canadian U.S border in Osoyoos British Columbia and curves its way northward 160km up each side of Lake Okanagan.
Although I’ve been through the Okanagan Valley (one of five wine regions in BC) many times since that first trip each time is different. I try to visit places I haven’t previously, but some I am drawn back to again and again.
From Vancouver we drove, veering off of the Trans Canada Highway at Hope onto route #3 called the Crowsnest Highway on our 400km trek. It’s a beautiful, narrow mountain route that eventually winds its way out into the arid hills of the Similkameen Valley. Fruit is king here and you’ll find dozens of produce stands lining the highway in Keremeos. It’s along this stretch of Highway #3; between Keremeos and Cawston you will find half-dozen small wineries to begin your tour.
The first winery, Orofino has earned a reputation for well-made wines but recognition also comes from their eco-friendly strawbale winery–its thick walls built from bales of straw. Their aromatic white wines; Gewurztraminer and Riesling are delicious but their fresh Pinot Noir has a strong following as well. Down the Road on the south side of the highway is the region’s newest addition, Seven Stones. This husband and wife team opened their wine tasting room in May 2007 and by September were supplying many renowned Vancouver restaurants. Their wines have a distinctly old world style; the Chardonnay is crisp and clean, balanced with light oak. Their Pinot Noir Rosé is dry and spiced like those from the South of France and their Pinot Noir is earthy with fragrant cherry and orange peel.
Continuing south-east Highway #3 will spit you out directly above the Okanagan Valley presenting you an awesome view of the lake, east bank vineyards and Osoyoos.
Here, the South Okanagan amazes with sandy soil and desert-like terrain. This region is the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert which starts in Mexico. The temperatures here can reach 40˚ Celsius (104˚F) in the vineyards; I know I’ve experienced it. Believe it or not, daytime temperatures in the South Okanagan are hotter than those in the Napa Valley, but the northern winters arrive sooner shortening the growing season, an important factor in the science of viticulture.
Small hotels and inns dot the lakeside in the quaint tourist destination of Osoyoos but our target was the Nk’Mip (pronounced Inkameep) Winery and Spirit Ridge Vineyard
Resort & Spa on the far side of town.
The four star Spirit Ridge Resort offers 1&2 bedroom suites or Vineyard Villas, a spa with indigenous and desert inspired treatments, a nine-hole golf course and the wine country cuisine of Passa Tempo. We checked into our top-floor one bedroom suite with its fully functional kitchen, opened the bottle of rosé we’d purchased at Seven Stones, sat on the patio, relaxed and savored the view.
Before dinner we made the brief walk to the stunning Nk’Mip Cellars to taste the award winning wines from North America’s first Aboriginal owned and operated winery. Nk’Mip wines will please every palate; the crisp fresh whites, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, lush and deftly oaked Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs or the intense flavours of their top-tier series Qwam Qwmt (or Q2) that includes a Meritage blend. And if you are a fan of the Canadian calling-card “Icewine” make sure to pick up a bottle of this honeyed apricot and exotically spiced dessert wine. From the tasting room we walked back out the door to Passa Tempo with its wine country bistro food and extensive selection of wonderful BC wines. It is a warm and cozy room but we chose to sit at the bar as we and delved into numerous fresh, aboriginal inspired shared plates and flatbreads and drank local wines from the BC-centric list.
The next day had us on a tight schedule—arriving at the Inniskillin Okanagan winery (a ten minute drive north on Hwy 97 from Nk’Mip) we tasted their mouth-watering whites; Reserve Pinot Blanc with floral and orchard fruit aromas, their smooth Reserve Pinot Grigio with apple/pear compote aromas and their Discovery Series Chenin Blanc with crisp citrus and honey-blossom aromas. The reds included the berry and tobacco aromas of the Reserve Pinot Noir, the lifted cassis aromas of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and ripe blueberry aromas and velvety texture of the Dark Horse Vineyard Zinfandel.
Ten more minutes north is Tinhorn Creek Vineyards where California ex-pat Sandra Oldfield has lived and made wine for well over a decade. Tinhorn Creek is a highly recognized winery whose status blossomed in the 1990s with their flagship Merlot. I recommend tasting their bright Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer as well as their aromatic blended white the Tinhorn Creek Oldfield’s Collection 2 Bench. Their food-friendly reds, the Cabernet Franc and the Pinot Noir have reserved fruit and a subtle earthiness rather than many overtly jammy new world wines. And if you visit Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, make sure to take in the view from the winery’s front patio before visiting the educational vineyard. This small vineyard boasts a guided walk-through instructional and I guarantee you’ll learn something new about viticulture.
The stretch of land along Highway 97 in Oliver where Tinhorn Creek is located is called the Golden Mile (its actually about 20 km) and is home to approximately 15 wineries so there is no shortage of tasting rooms to visit. Simply follow the wine route signs and you will be on your way to grape heaven.
A few minutes north of here is Jackson-Triggs Winery.
At Jackson-Triggs we were faced with an awesome variety of wines. As a large producer, Jackson-Triggs is one of the few British Columbia wineries who produce enough wine to export. Because British Columbians are so supportive of their industry they (we) drink all of our wine—and demand more.
Recently Jackson-Triggs unveiled a new, modern tasting room with plenty of warm lighting and dark wood. My favorite whites here were the Proprietor’s Reserve Viognier with spice and tropical fruit, the Proprietor’s Reserve Gewurztraminer brimming with rose oil and lychee aromas and the peachy/mango and dried pineapple scented Grand Reserve Meritage. The reds showed power and elegance, the Proprietor’s Reserve Shiraz with black cherry, pepper and dried fruit and the Sun Rock Meritage with smooth cocoa, spiced berry and leather shows how far this northern region has come with its world class wines.
With the promise of lunch and spectacular views we followed the signs up to See Ya Later Ranch. The drive up this narrow winding mountain road can be daunting but is well worth the effort. When you finally pull up to the quaint cottage, you’ll be ready to taste the juicy, fruit forward See Ya Later Ranch (SYLR) wines. The vivacious SYLR Brut, the refreshingly off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, the layered and fruity P3 (made with the Pinots-Gris, Blanc and Noir) or the honeyed, rich, spiced Semillon are all winners. Hopefully there will be some of the ripe, meaty and intense Meritage red called Ping available for you to purchase. And, the bright, multi-colored labels on the SYLR bottles will have you displaying the bottles like works of art.
Sitting down for lunch on the SYLR mountaintop patio, we shared a cheese plate, fresh salad and quiche, sipping the bubbly SYLR Brut while looking out over kilometers of lake and vine.
Day three we continue north to Summerland where Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, one of British Columbia’s first and most famous wineries, resides. Their portfolio is broad so make sure you’re in peak tasting form. We started with one of my favorite bubbles, the Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay Brut–always beautifully balanced with toast, nuts and fruit. Their aromatic seven-varietal white blend Pinnacle White will leave you swooning and their Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are fresh and well-made. Their top-tier Black Sage Vineyard wines are layered and stylish with outstanding balance and the red blend Pinnacle is that–the highest quality wine in their portfolio with unctuous fruit, leather, tobacco and spice.
Heading toward our final destination Westbank (located across from the lake from the Okanagan’s largest city Kelowna), we drove up to Mission Hill Family Estate, perhaps the Canada’s most eminent winery known for its stunning architectural compound. It has soaring Roman arches, six-story bell tower, fountains and groomed lawns. This winery is jaw-dropping. I strongly suggest you sign up for a tour. The cellars, priceless artwork and hidden recesses of this stronghold can only be seen with a guide. During the warmer months (May to October) you can dine al fresco on the columned terrace overlooking Lake Okanagan. I have never been disappointed with the dishes of renowned Chef Michael Allemeier. Nor was I disappointed this visit or by the well-crafted and consistent wines we chose to drink with our lunch. The Reserve Series Riesling, Pinot Noir and Syrah and the Select Lot Collection (S.L.C.) Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon we tasted showed wonderful varietal character and paired extremely well with the menu.
Just below Mission Hill is Quails’ Gate Estate Winery which underwent a massive renovation this spring and now features a beautiful new tasting room with lush surrounding gardens. Quails’ Gate is the antithesis of Mission Hill, in a good way. Within walking distance, the two highlight the variety and personality of the region. There is a sincere, tranquil comfort here that’s obvious in the grounds and in the attached Old Vines Restaurant with its walls of windows and flagstone patio.
After sampling in the tasting room head down to the restaurant and take the opportunity to order wine from the Quails’Gate library. We ordered a youthful 1997 Family Reserve Pinot Noir letting it breathe while enjoying appetizers and glasses of the Quails Gate Dry Riesling.
Local wine, local produce…a pairing made in the Okanagan. That’s what it’s all about.
*The Cove Lakeside Resort is just a cab ride down the road from Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate wineries. It’s has a wonderful West Coast feel. The Cove features large suites with full gourmet kitchen and fireplace. The Cove’s Stay & Savour offers a 2 day 1 night package that starts at $140.00 (CAD) per person (based on double occupancy) and includes a $100 gift certificate that can be used toward spa services or at the resort’s Bonfire Restaurant & Grill. More packages available.
4205 Gellatly Road Westbank B.C. 1-877-762-(cove)2686
*The Dine & Unwind Package at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa offers a 2 day 1 night package for two and includes a one bedroom suite and a $100 gift certificate to wine and dine at Passa Tempo. $320.50 (CAD). More packages available
1200 Rancher Creek Road Osoyoos B.C. 1-877-313-(wine)9463
Cellar Door Bistro @ Sumac Ridge Estate
Passa Tempo at Spirit Ridge Resort
Sonoran Room at Burrowing Owl Vineyard
100 Burrowing Owl Place
Toasted Oak Wine Bar & Grill
34881 97th Street
Road 11 West
38691 Hwy 97
Mission Hill Estate & Terrace
1730 Mission Hill Rd.
1400 Rancher Creek Road
2152 Barcelo Road
Quails Gate Estate & Old Vines Patio
3303 Boucherie Road
See Ya Later Ranch @ Hawthorn Mountain
2575 Green Lake Rd.
Okanagan Falls BC
Seven Stones Winery
1143 Hwy #3