Phil McGahan wanders among orderly rows of vines, showing a visitor his vineyard. One side of the vineyard is nestled against a 15-metre-high rocky bank, reflecting summer heat onto the plants. Above the bank is a pasture, home to a herd of wild horses. “They come down here for a visit once in a while, usually in the early morning,” says McGahan, winemaker and general manager of CheckMate Artisanal Winery in Oliver, B.C. “This really is a spiritual place.”
Spiritual, yes. But also, a place that is fast developing as an attractive tourism destination, thanks to its burgeoning wine industry.
Four hours by automobile, 50 minutes by airplane, but seemingly a world away from Vancouver, the Okanagan Valley is a small but formidable wine-producing region in a rain shadow between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges, carved out by receding Ice Age glaciers. The region drew 3.5 million visitors last year, and tourism here employs 15,000 people.
“The diversity of microclimates in this area is really remarkable,” says McGahan. “It means we can make some completely distinctive, high-quality wines.”
The region’s wineries now number almost 200; many have restaurants to accompany the nearly ubiquitous tasting rooms, and accommodations for visitors who want to stay. From Kelowna in the north to Osoyoos in the south, vast stretches of finely groomed vineyards are evidence of an industry in full bloom.
Drew MacIntyre, who owns Lake Breeze Winery and MacIntyre Heritage Reserve, agrees that the region is evolving. “We probably could not have made our Heritage wines a few years ago,” he says. “But as we learn more about the soils and what the fruit can be, we can really elevate the quality.”
MacIntyre is not afraid to pour Okanagan wines in tastings with iconic vintages from Bordeaux, Tuscany, or Sonoma. “We are not competing against those guys. We’re just saying there is pretty fantastic wine here in the Okanagan,” he says.
The climate is predominantly cool, which is an advantage in an era of global warming that is affecting wine regions around the world. Microclimates abound and are a distinguishing feature of the region.
In the north, where Mission Hill Family Estate forged a reputation for quality, there is plenty of chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir. Such establishments as Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, CedarCreek Estate Winery and Summerhill Pyramid Winery offer dining as well as tasting rooms that boast magnificent views to savour as you sip and swirl.
Summerhill‘s proprietor Ezra Cipes notes that when his father, Stephen, first considered making high-end sparkling wines here, “most people thought he was crazy. But over time, and with fully sustainable practices, the wines now are even better than we thought they could be.”
Farther south, in Penticton and Naramata Bench, with its cluster of high-quality wineries, the region’s climatic diversity is obvious. Here, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, even syrah have started to appear in tasting rooms, such as those at Poplar Grove Winery, where house-made cheeses win awards alongside the wines. Lake Breeze Vineyards, Hillside Winery, Serendipity Winery, Van Westen Vineyards, and even an extraordinary fruit-wine establishment – Elephant Island Winery – are all part of the neighbourhood.
In nearby Summerland, the innovative Haywire, with its custom-made fermenting egg-shaped tanks, foudres, and organic farming principles are turning heads.
Farther south is first Okanagan Falls, then Oliver. Here, the northern tip of the Sonora Desert, which begins in Mexico and stretches into B.C., shows another aspect of how this wine-producing region has developed so quickly, going from good to great. Features of the climate include low rainfall, more daylight in June and July than in the Napa Valley, and large diurnal swings in temperature, especially in the crucial autumn growing season.
This means that such grapes as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah can achieve maturity with soft tannins and sumptuous fruit to produce wines that are enjoyable at a young age, while there is still potential for aging. The Black Sage Bench is gaining more international acclaim for its microclimate that makes Bordeaux-style wines a reality.
In Oliver, nestled against a stark, heat-distributing rock face, is Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, long a leader in quality and, along with Mission Hill Family Estate, one of the first to gain international recognition. Yes, real burrowing owls live in the nearby hills, beneficiaries of an ecological stewardship program funded by the winery. Big red wines are the specialty; and as vines mature and techniques evolve, these are sought after and often sold out far in advance of September. The tasting room is augmented by the splendid Sonora Room, a restaurant known for fine dining. There are eight sumptuous guest bedrooms as well, so this is a place to take a leisurely stroll under the stars as you make your way from dinner to bed.
In Okanagan Falls is Liquidity Wines, where founder and owner Ian McDonald has decorated his winery, restaurant, and serene guest room with fine art. “I wanted to make it clear that this region belongs on the world stage for quality of wine but also for wine and food experiences,” MacDonald says. “We are situated in the midst of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Our winery should reflect that.”
Painted Rock Estate Winery, also in this area, offers a beautiful tasting room, event facility, and bountiful red wines. At a recent dinner in Stockholm, King Olaf of Sweden rose from his seat and proclaimed that he loved the Painted Rock merlot, and hoped it was available for purchase in Sweden. Owner John Skinner explains the king’s enthusiasm: “That merlot really started to take off in the 2009 vintage. It has got better with each vintage, and I believe as a region, we are breaking through.”
Following the sale of his first winery business, Canadian wine industry icon Don Triggs started Culmina Family Estate Winery in the province’s first sub-appellation, located south of Oliver on the valley’s west side. The land here features ancient riverbed soils unique to the new “Golden Mile Bench” sub-appellation. Culmina is a boutique winery dedicated to making highest-quality wines. “We could have built a winery almost anywhere in the world,” says Triggs. “But I knew this was the place – the place where we could grow the exceptional fruit required to make distinctive, great wines.”
Finally, Osoyoos: the southernmost part of the valley ends at the 49th parallel. Significantly warmer than in the north, this is where the red varieties can achieve full ripeness consistently, and over a wide swath of territory. It underscores the diversity of the Okanagan’s climate, with microclimates giving winemakers many options.
At Le Vieux Pin Winery, in Oliver, Rasoul Salehi says, “it took us some time to really understand these soils, but over time, with plenty of experimenting and study, we are now able to make wines that express the place they are grown in. We are proud to pour our wines at any table, anywhere in the world.”
As grape varieties improve and are matched to ideal soil types, or terroirs, the wines will continue to improve.
The recreational opportunities in the Okanagan – from golf through cycling and water sports on the lakes – mean visitors can find a range of activities in addition to wining and dining. And those who prefer to cook for themselves will find local produce to create their own haute cuisine.
This is a region in which to explore and expand your wine palate in breath-taking scenery, where attention to detail and passion for wine promise visitors a memorable stay.