The Texas of Canada – Okanagan Valley
If I ask you what wine region is so large and diverse that you can grow just about any grape variety somewhere, hosts approximately 8,000 acres of grapes serving 300+ wineries with temperatures that can range from 10F to 104F, what would you guess? If you guess Texas you are correct. If you guess Okanagan Valley of Canada, you are correct. In the Okanagan Valley, 8,000+ acres of grapes are cultivated, there are 300+ wineries and temperatures can range from -4F to 104F. Both areas produce wines from Cabernet Sauvignon to Tempranillo and Riesling to Viognier. Recently Paul and I had the opportunity to tour some of these special wineries. Each one offered a unique experience.
As we topped the mountain range between Vancouver and Penticton, we saw the expanse of the Okanagan Lake stretching before us (home of Ogopogo, the Canadian Loch Ness Monster). The lake is 83 miles long and the beginning of a series of lakes that reach to the USA border. Each lake is framed with vineyards and wineries. Even with the lake effect and plentiful water, the rainfall ranges between 12-16 inches from south to north creating a dessert environment much like the High Plains of Texas. In British Columbia there are 6 grape growing areas with 84% of the grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley.
Most of us think of ice wine when we think of Canadian wine or light whites. As we learned, there are so much more. Our guide Allison Markin of All She Wrote brilliantly led us through the Okanagan Wine Experience.
Our recommended stops:
Fly into Kelowna and drive 1 hour to Penticton, BC. (It is a 4.5-hour drive from Vancouver.) Penticton is centrally located on the lake and offers many accommodations. For a lakefront casual stay, Tiki Shores offers a relaxed beach experience. Penticton Lakeside Resort has just finished renovation, offers beautiful views and has a wonderful lakeside restaurant, Hooded Merganzer.
- Tiki Shores:
- 914 Lakeshore Dr, Penticton, BC V2A121
- (866) 492-8769
- Penticton Lakeside Resort:
- 21 Lakeshore Dr W, Pentincton, BC V2A 7M5
- (250) 496-8221
There are a number of wine regions in the British Columbia. Visiting the Okanagan by region makes organization easier, as there are clusters of wineries throughout.
Oliver Osoyoos Region: A great place to start as it is the farthest south and home of NK’ MIP (means the bottomland or bottom of the valley) winery. This is the oldest 1st Nation winery in North America and honors the native heritage of the area. The 32,000 acres reservation hosts several vineyards with different micro climates. Red grapes ripen well here on the western exposure.
NK’ MIP Cellars: We tasted the QQ series which comes from an Indian term meaning highest quality. It is produced in limited quantities from the 40-year-old Vineyards. The 2014 Merlot which was aged in French and American oak and the 2015 Riesling Ice Wine, which was chock full of apricot flavors, were standouts. The winery also boasts an outdoor café high on a ridge at the edge of the Sonoran Desert.
Hester Creek, located on what is called the Golden Mile Bench, has a lovely restaurant (Terrafina), demo cooking kitchen, large tasting room, individual villa accommodations and geothermally cooled building with native plants growing on the roof. Here I had my first wow moment of understanding the natural acidity and fruitfulness of the white wines of the Okanagan. Trebbiano, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris all expressed that delicate, crisp fruit forward personality. The Rosé of Cabernet Franc was a delightful find.
vinAmité means Wine Friendship. The name perfectly describes the experience. Family owned and operated, the owners greeted us. Wendy and Catherine’s passion for what they do, love of their guests and excitement for the wine is contagious. This boutique winery produces only 1200 cases from grapes grown with sustainable farming techniques. Ask for a food and wine pairing as the selection includes their own Pinot Gris wine jelly, fresh cherry compote with pecans, meats and cheeses.
Blue Mountain Winery is surrounded by beautiful willowy birch trees on acreage that was originally called Oliver Ranch. Now run by the enthusiastic second generation, Christie and Matt Mavety, Blue Mountain is redefining the customer experience with beautiful views that look like “Walk in the Clouds”, relaxed tastings, lovely sparkling wines, and Burgundian style wines that express the intense fruit from meter x meter plantings. All but the sparkling are made with wild yeast. Many of their wines are sold out upon release to a waiting list.
Liquidity is a destination that offers great wines and a bistro with valley view that was listed in the top 100 restaurants in Canada. You can often find President Ian MacDonald, wine specialist Erin Korpista, and wine writer Allison Markin helping in the tasting room. Helicopters bringing wine tasters from Vancouver land in the vineyard four times a week. In a tasting with winemaker Alison Moyes we were particularly impressed with the Viognier, a rose’ from the Dornfelder grape, and their focus on Pinot Noir clones.
Noble Ridge lies in the valley below Liquidity. It is one of those meant to be stories. After a life changing tour of Europe, Leslie and Jim D’Andrea saw and bought Noble Ridge on 1-1-2001. To celebrate this new beginning, they created a sparkling called The One. Their vineyards are trained in double Geneva curtains which are much higher off the ground than the rest we saw. We tasted also Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux Blend.
Though we did not visit Poplar Grove or Painted Rock, Liquidity graciously arranged a tasting with them. The Poplar Grove CSM (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot) and the Painted Rock Cabernet Franc showed how bold the reds from the Okanagan can be. Both were lovely and worth a consideration for a visit.
West Kelowna Area:
Cedar Creek is owned by the same owner as Mission Hill. It is a well-developed destination winery boasting a farm to table restaurant, event venue, tasting room, and creative events like weekly Yoga and Wine; music concerts; creative wine and food pairing tastings and educational vineyard and wine classes like Pinot-Pinot-Pinot. Impressive in their employee education is that each employee has a vineyard row for which they are responsible for tending. Special in their wine portfolio are “M” which is the only Madeira in Canada, aged 5 years in oak giving it a nose of single malt, and the concrete egg fermented – oak aged Chardonnay.
Quails Gate, one of the oldest wineries in the valley, honors the family roots with a private tasting room in the original family log cabin, Allison House, decorated with the historical photos and wine labels. In addition, they have a glass walled tasting room with dramatic views of the lake, 2 rentable lake houses and event space. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the lake and good food that you can enjoy with a flight of different wines. Be sure to try the fries with truffle oil and parmesan. The black cherry character of the Pinot Noir was rich and the Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris blend is their most iconic wine. Chasselas was the first vinifera grape planted on their estate.
Mission Hill commands the hill overlooking Okanagan Lake. It is not only visually iconic but truly an art form in many ways. Architecturally resembling Robert Mondavi’s winery, owner Anthony Von Mandl has graced the grounds with commissioned and collected statuary and art, preserved 17th century Austrian water wells, concrete bunker barrel cellars deep in the volcanic hill, and 4 custom forged bells in the 12-story bell tower which ring four times per hour. Five private tasting rooms are hosted by Sommeliers who will guide you through tastings of wines from the different regions, wine and food pairings. The Terrace Restaurant offers breathtaking views. (You may have seen this winery on t.v. when Will and Kate visited Canada or in the Bachelorette). We were particularly impressed with their three legacy reds: Quatrain (Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc), Compendium (Cabernet Sauvignon dominant), and Oculus (50% Merlot).
Lake Breeze, which includes the McIntyre brand, offers an intimate and quaint wine experience. The winery is literally in the owner’s backyard. It has enjoyed the same South African winemaker since it opened in 1996. The wines were solid across all types – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Ehrenfelder, Rose’, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Rose’ was made from 100% Malbec. Across the Okanagan we experienced Rose’s from many different varietals. It would be a fun vertical tasting.
Deep Roots is a four generation Okanagan family winery. The Hardman’s have been farming there for 100 years. Owner Bryan Hardman, son Will (the winemaker) and sister in law Marilyn work together. Fun is their goal. An event not to miss: Piping Awake the Vines. A bagpiper plays to the vines as he marches through the vineyard followed by a Sock Hop band and celebration. Be sure to try the Frosted Pinot.
Legend Distillery embraces the legend of the resident Ogopogo in its name and whimsical décor. This small distillery is huge in hospitality, flavor food and beverages. The sour cherry vodka was full of bold cheery with hints of almond that comes from the cherry pit. Doctor’s Order Gin tastes like a martini in the bottle. Try the CLT (chicken, lettuce, tomato) sandwich or the curry stew. Chef Josh even prepared a forest harvested stinging nettle pesto that was excellent. Unusual and unique define this destination.
Upper Bench offers a unique Okanagan food and wine experience. The owners are a cheese monger and a winemaker. Onsite they make a gourmet assortment of cheese include Gold and Baby Blue. Wine tastings include cheese tastings as well. All the wines are nicely made and would perfectly pair with pizza. Give it a try at their beautiful new wood fired pizza oven patio. Their Chardonnay just received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in British Columbia’s Wines.
Wild Goose, a collaboration of 2 brothers, are known for aromatic whites including a unique wine called Morio Muscat and Friends which is a Muscat clone blend. Other wines to try are Autumn Gold which is a semi sweet blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Riesling and their Gewürztraminer. The also make a 100% Merlot Rose’ and a unique Dunkelfelder varietal which is a black wine. The winery hosts concerts with dinner including Texas artist Randy McAllister and offers casual dining featuring southern style BBQ. The sauce is uniquely Okanagan made from local cherries. It is thick, fruity and light on the spice. If you are lucky you might her the tower bell toll for special purchases.
The common thread in the whites of the Okanagan Valley is lean, clean, crisp with very aromatic fruit. Reds from the Oliver Osoyoos region are as big and bold as those in Texas.
Restaurants to try:
Front Street Brasserie which offers daily specials with a focus on fresh local. It is owned and run by husband and wife.
Theo’s Greek Restaurant offers a reasonably priced family style Greek dining experience in an authentic setting. We even sat on an outdoor patio under a grapevine. Portions are large enough to share and staff is accommodating.
With the help of Allison Markin, Paul and I are putting together a tour to the Okanagan Valley so you can see for yourselves! Stay tuned….