Smell the sagebrush! You’re in the dry south, land of big Okanagan reds. Between Oliver and Osoyoos, the Okanagan River divides the Golden Mile on the western slope from the Black Sage Bench to the east and very different soil and sun conditions produce important differences in the grapes. A third group of wineries rim Osoyoos Lake on the Osoyoos Bench.
Osoyoos Lake Bench
The Nk’Mip complex encompasses Nk’Mip Cellars, the first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America, and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. On a guided tour of the endangered antelope brush ecosystem, you’ll also gain insight into the Okanagan First Nations people. Nearby, Moon Curser Vineyards plays up a local legend about gold smugglers foiled by the light of the moon. Afraid of the Dark is their white Rhone-style blend – test your tasting skills by comparing this wine with Road 13’s Jackpot blend.
The Golden Mile
Pair your Tinhorn Creek tasting with a hike to the historic ruins of the Tinhorn Creek mine stamp mill on the Golden Mile Trail – or take in a summer concert at Tinhorn’s grassy amphitheatre. Next door, Gehringer Bothers is known for its whites (read Terry David Mulligan’s picks). Storm the castle tasting room at Road 13 Vineyards to sample their Jackpot series, including the honey-flavoured Chardonnay and the Southern Rhone-style Viognier Roussanne Marsanne. For pure quirk-value, check out the squared-timber, sod-roofed heritage home at Rustico Farm & Cellars, once the bunkhouse of the Sally Silver Mine.
The Black Sage Bench
Across the valley on the Black Sage Bench, take the self-guided tour of Burrowing Owl’s bell tower to learn about the winery’s role in saving the eponymous endangered species. Then indulge in their full-bodied Meritage and Syrah. You’ll find more memorable reds at Portuguese-style Quinta Ferreira where the award-festooned Obra-Prima will fill your mouth with flavours like black cherry, coffee and vanilla. But probably the best known of all the Okanagan reds is Black Hills’ legendary Nota Bene. This wine is so popular that the producers are currently offering a two-for-one exchange for historic vintages to restock their library.
Eat & Stay
With all that wine, you’re going to need some food. The charcuterie is made on-site and the pizza crust is wafer-thin at Miradoro in Oliver. For dinner, locals love the eclectic menu at Diamond Steak & Seafood House in Osoyoos. Another good bet (especially if you don’t want to appoint a designated driver) is the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl in Oliver. If you book far, far in advance, you can spend a luxurious night surrounded by vineyards in Burrowing Owl’s Guest House and hang out by the pool in the morning.
Laurie Carter is an award-winning writer and photographer who has lived in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley since 1991. Author of two books on the region, she seriously enjoys keeping up with the local wine scene. lauriecarter.com
Penticton and Naramata
Straddling the narrow strip between Okanagan and Skaha lakes, Penticton is all about hot sand beaches and cool water sports. Ideally located for wine touring, this compact city is the gateway to three major regions: Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive, Okanagan Falls’ Corkscrew Drive and the renowned Naramata Bench.
Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Spit
Tasting newbies should be sure to hit the Penticton and Wine Country Visitor Centre where staff will teach you to swirl-sniff-sip – and spit.
You may be shy about spewing a mouthful of premium plonk, but demonstrate that you can spit like a pro and a winemaker might just pull out something really special from under the counter.
With so many wineries in this area it’s hard to work out an itinerary, but here’s a start. Head to Dirty Laundry Vineyard’s patio and while you wait for the historic Kettle Valley steam train to whistle into sight, sip a glass of Bordello, their naughty, aromatic big red blend.
At See Ya Later Ranch, high above Okanagan Falls, raise a glass of Gewurztraminer, with the added complexity of a touch of Ehrenfelzer blended in. On the Naramata Bench, you’ll get an eyeful with the art collection at Red Rooster. But keep your head and remember to sample the Reserve Viognier. One of the lesser-known white varietals, this medium-bodied wine will make you a fan.
Don’t miss Lake Breeze Winery, where you can pair the lively award-winner Seven Poplars Sauvignon Blanc with a bite on the garden patio; La Frenz with its big red Bordeaux blend, Grand Total Reserve; or Kettle Valley’s Adra Station Chardonnay Reserve, named for a tunnel on the historic Kettle Valley Railway near the winery. Also look in on little gems like Upper Bench Winery & Creamery with its hand-crafted cheeses, and family-owned wineries such as Howling Bluff Estate with its floral and fruity Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend and Foxtrot Vineyards, known for its premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Eat & Stay
Try to time your visit for Saturday morning when the north end of Main Street morphs into the pedestrian-friendly Penticton Farmers’ Market, ideal for a grazing brunch. Locals swear by the piled-high deli sandwiches at Il Vecchio Delicatessen for lunch, while a “hybrid” paella, stuffed with extra seafood like scallops, is featured on the Vanilla Pod menu at Poplar Grove Winery for both lunch and dinner ($20/$32). If you’re into global fusion, book ahead for the food, entertainment and ambiance of the Dream Café before snuggling into the period elegance of the Naramata Heritage Inn, about a 20-minute drive north of Penticton.
All grown up with skyline towers, high-tech industry, trendy shops and celebrated chefs, Kelowna anchors five wine touring trails on the shores of Okanagan Lake.
Mount Boucherie’s volcanic soil flavours many of the wines created by Westside Trail wineries. Put Quails’ Gate on your must-sip list.
Tours at this sophisticated destination winery start from the Allison House log cabin, built in 1873, and finish in the ultra-chic wine shop overlooking the lake. Give their full-bodied Merlot a go, then drive on to lesser-known Mt. Boucherie Estate for the silky, medium-bodied Summit Reserve Pinot Noir.
Explore the roots of the wine industry in Kelowna’s Cultural District. The tasting room for Calona Vineyards, B.C.’s oldest winery, which opened in 1932, is located on the Downtown Trail near the BC Wine Museum & VQA Wine Shop. While historic exhibits are limited, VQA wine displays are impressive with more than 600 wines from 90-plus wineries.
Home to Gray Monk Estate Winery, pioneers in the valley wine industry who work with some of the lesser-known varietals like Ehrenfelser, Lake Country is also the place to look for hidden gems like 50th Parallel Estate Winery where you’ll want to sample the Pinots. The Pinot Noir is a blend of the winery’s own estate grape clones while the Pinot Gris is a bright, medium-bodied white that took home a bronze medal at the 2013 British Columbia Wine Awards.
East Kelowna Fab Five Trail and the Lakeshore Trail
Close to the city, the Fab Five Trail nestles among orchards to the east while the Lakeshore Trail includes vineyards cascading down the sunset slopes. Here, Tantalus Vineyards is renowned for its Old Vines Riesling and you’ll want to sample CedarCreek Estate Winery’s multi award-winning Platinum Pinot Noir. Summerhill tops out the quirk-o-meter with its scaled-down Pyramid of Cheops where many of their organic vintages are barrel-aged. Famous for its sparkling wines, if you’ve got deep pockets, try Summerhill’s Cipes Ariel ($85).
Eat & Stay
Start your Kelowna day with a salmon “B.C. Bennie” at The Boh (Bohemian Café) in the heart of downtown. Schedule lunch across the lake at Mission Hill’s open-air Terrace Restaurant, where food presentation is as spectacular as the view. Each year’s fresh menu reflects the “cuisine du terroir,” featuring local, in-season ingredients. Try a selection to pair with Mission Hill’s international award-winning S.L.C. Syrah. Dinner is a tough choice between Waterfront Wines’ Pacific Northwest cuisine (below) or French fare with the prix-fixe Chef’s Table at neighbouring Bouchons Bistro.
Call it a day at the cosy boutique Hotel Eldorado (The El). But before you turn in, soak in the sunset glow on the lakeside Boardwalk patio and order a liquid dessert like Optima from The View Winery. Not as thick or sweet as icewine, this smooth sip will make you mellow.
Where to eat, sleep and, of course, sip at one of the top wine destinations in the world: the Okanagan
Okanagan wine culture exploded from a tiny cluster of vineyards 20 years ago into an internationally recognized appellation with over 120 wineries. With world-class vintages, food pairing spurred by acclaimed chefs and a host of new wine country accommodations, it’s no wonder that the Huff Post has named the Okanagan Valley the No. 1 wine destination in the world.
Here are some must-sees, must-sips and must-eats of the three major Okanagan wine regions.