After leaving England for Canada in 2008, Neil Taylor established himself as one of British Columbia’s acclaimed chefs, garnering praise at his restaurants in Vancouver. Yet, what he knew about the province’s primary agricultural region was largely limited to the fruits and vegetables that landed in his galley as ingredients for his recipes. That changed when he accepted the position of executive chef at CedarCreek Winery in Kelowna and moved to the province’s spectacular Okanagan Valley.
As he explored his new home, Taylor was struck by the similarities to Europe. Specializing in Spanish and Italian dishes, he realized he had relocated to a place with a “very Mediterranean” feel.
“When I was working in Vancouver, a lot of amazing produce from the Okanagan Valley would end up in my hands, and that’s about the extent of what my knowledge of the area was,” Taylor said during an interview at CedarCreek’s restaurant, Home Block. “When I first came up here I felt my style of cooking was really suited to this area, with that cooler European climate and obviously the emphasis on wine. It’s been a match made in heaven to this point.”
Chances are visitors who arrive wishing for a European-style escape during the COVID-19 pandemic will have a similar sensation. On October 21, the European Union announced it would be restricting Canadians from travelling to its member nations because of an increase in cases of the novel coronavirus here and there. In the absence of a Euro trip, Canadians may be more enticed than ever to visit the Okanagan Valley, which can provide a facsimile of the bliss and flavour of places like Italy, France, and Spain. Yet, it is not derivative. The Okanagan is still the west coast of Canada, after all, full of heartiness and humour, reverence for green space, and a refreshing lack of stuffiness that seems suited to a time of crisis when we want to unmask our anxiety and exhale into nature.
Geographically, the region is similar to Tuscany’s Lake Como area, where a waterway longer than it is wide is the focus of a winemaking district dotted with undulating hills and microclimates that excite viticulturists. Vinifera grow in and around Kelowna in the central part of the region and south to the United States border in the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos, and their neighbour, the Similkameen Valley. The vitality of the grapes changes with the location. Big-bodied reds such as syrah love the desert climate of Osoyoos while pinot noir and pinot grigio are among the varieties that flourish in the cooler vineyards farther north.
The Okanagan wine area has about 165 kilometres (100 miles) of lakes that run in a chain divided by the narrowest of land bridges. Lake Okanagan and Skaha Lake sandwich the city of Penticton — about an hour south of Kelowna — while Vaseux Lake in Oliver and Lake Osoyoos dominate the lower region. The landscape is gorgeous. The wine, increasingly, is phenomenal. The sense, as you tour, is of history being pioneered, steadfastly maturing into a jewel of human endeavour.
The Okanagan, with its first vinifera planted in the late 1960s by members of Indigenous communities, is still young to both the wine world and the global tourism marketplace. Oenophiles would rank it behind California and Oregon as a west-coast destination of choice to explore great wines and fine places to taste them, but the progress has been dramatic and rapid. And, quintessentially Canadian in diversity and style.
KELOWNA’S MIX OF ART AND WINE
In Kelowna, two recent culinary gems add to the winery experience. Taylor’s kitchen at CedarCreek debuted in 2019 in a building that blends into the landscape, giving onlookers a panoramic view of Lake Okanagan, which at 120 kilometres (75 miles) is nearly three times as long as Lake Como. An even younger addition to the area is The Modest Butcher at Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery on the west side of the city. The restaurant debuted in June and its fun, approachable cuisine is a match for Mt. Boucherie’s tasty wines, which include a couple of niche European varietals unique in the Okanagan Valley: Grüner Veltliner, a popular white wine in Austria with a crisp finish and flavours of apple, and Blaufränkisch, a light-bodied German-style red wine similar to gamay.
Mt. Boucherie owns 300 acres of land throughout the valley, which allows winemaker Jeff Hundertmark to source grapes from sites such as Okanagan Falls, which is on Skaha Lake, and the Similkameen Valley, a majestic area with mountainous views and field upon field of vineyards and farms.
“There’s nothing more European-looking in Canada than the Similkameen Valley,” Hundertmark said during a walk around the winery’s sleek new building. “When you have the river going through it and those hillsides, it looks like Germany’s Alsace region, for sure.”
As far as European appearances, no winery in Canada is more reminiscent of the Old World than Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. A short drive from Mt. Boucherie, Mission Hill was built by Anthony von Mandl, whose Austrian heritage influences much of the experience of a visit. A bell tower, resembling those of churches in Europe that would be the focal point of public squares, is the main landmark of the property. It overlooks the vineyards, which lead down to the lake and feature several pieces of artwork from von Mandl’s collection, such as a Marc Chagall tapestry that hangs above a David Foster piano.
Tastings include some of the most important wines in Canadian viticulture history. Both Mission Hill’s Quatrain ($85 a bottle) and Oculus ($160) are robust red blends that are centrepieces of a sampling, while the member-only small-batch Simes Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) is the best Canadian wine of that variety I have tasted. Visitors must also try Perpetua ($60), which is the evolution of the wine that won Mission Hill the International Wine & Spirit Competition award for “Best Chardonnay in the World” in 1994, putting Canadian wine on the global stage.
Mission Hill’s lead sommelier, Bram Bolwijn, is a Dutchman who has settled into the Okanagan Valley and can see both similarities and contrasts between his place of origin and where he now resides.
“Space is a luxury if you’re from Europe and there is so much space here, and of course I really love that,” Bolwijn said while pouring precious wines into tasting glasses. “Space can make you feel isolated, too, and, sure, during these times that can be attractive.”
A marvel on Lake Okanagan, Mission Hill is rich with ways for guests to physical distance. The property features multiple rooms for private tastings, which during the pandemic has been key to guest relations, and its grounds and gardens provide plenty of outdoor areas to allow for taking in the scene.
PENTICTON IS BASECAMP FOR WINE LOVERS
Driving south from Kelowna, travellers journey along Lake Okanagan until they reach Peachland and Summerland, small communities graced with some of the most beautiful scenery in British Columbia as well as creative winery tours.
As with Kelowna, there are wineries on both the east and west sides of the lake in this area where Penticton serves as home base for exploration. The opportunity to tour by bicycle, just as you might through the towns and countryside of Europe, is among the most compelling reasons to visit. The Kettle Valley Railway Trail — which runs 650 kilometres (400 miles) from Castlegar near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the small town of Hope, about an hour east of Vancouver — is accessible through multiple points near Penticton. A trek through Little Tunnel provides a view of the lake worthy of cinema, with picnic tables smartly placed to encourage hikers and cyclists to break and contemplate their surroundings.
Wineries such as Hillside and Poplar Grove offer a chance to see how the terroir of the area changes as you move through it. Pinot grigio excels on the Naramata Bench — one of four designated sub-geographic wine regions in the valley — while a bit farther south in Okanagan Falls, where wineries slope down to Skaha Lake, chardonnay blossoms into a well-rounded and balanced beauty thanks to cooling temperatures and a consistent climate. At Liquidity Wines, the varietal is expressed in a signature reserve bottle that won gold at the 2018 Chardonnay du Monde competition in France. The lake view from the hilltop tasting room and bistro (closed during the pandemic) is worthy of merit, too.
Meanwhile, Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland offers a sense of the throwback style of winemaking that was developed in Europe. New Zealand winemaker Matt Dumayne and owner Christine Coletta have teamed to create three different organic brands — Narrative, Haywire, and Free Form. The latter uses ancient-method techniques, such as aging the wines in terra-cotta containers called amphorae, a chosen vessel of winemakers in places like Greece and Portugal dating to 500 BC.
Dumayne uses native yeast and extended maceration to build more structure and flavour into Free Form’s wines. The result is distinct wines that tell a story of the evolution of winemaking and the mineral richness of the soil in the Okanagan Valley.
FRENCH FLAIR IN OLIVER AND OSOYOOS
In the wine capital of Canada, two new properties pay homage to France in architecture, experience, and wine. French Door Estate Winery, which overlooks the Black Sage Bench in Oliver, resembles a farmhouse you might see in the heart of Provence. Its wines include a rosé bottled in gorgeous glass similar to what’s used in some of the finest wines from France. Bordeaux-born winemaker Pascal Madevon incorporates biodynamic farming and other viticulture practices of his homeland. A boutique winery, French Door sold out of its 2,000 cases within one month of its opening this year.
Farther south on the shores of Lake Osoyoos is Lakeside Cellars, which debuted in spring 2020. Tastings are currently in the winery’s production house but in 2021, a new 4,000-square-foot chateau is scheduled to open. Visitors will be able to enjoy tastings with charcuterie in the facility’s bistro or picnic area by the lake.
A new grape will also debut in the new year. Owner Ricky Dhaliwal has planted cinsault, the grape used in Provence for rosé, after an inspiring trip to France. “My wife and I we were in Provence in 2019 and doing some research on wineries for our business, and we had this cinsault rosé and we really loved it, and I had the idea of, ‘Why not try to recreate that here?’ You know, to bring some of what we loved about France back home,” he says.
Lakeside Cellars is switching from using pinot noir grapes for its rosé to cinsault in a nod to Europe. When it arrives on shelves, it will be another Old World addition to a region that approximates the classic wine trip, further tempting anyone thirsty for a travel experience during the COVID-19 crisis.
As Taylor of CedarCreek astutely points out, “The chance to go abroad is slim to none right now and people have decided to stay and see what’s around them. For BC, the Okanagan is a place for people to go on holiday and get a sense of having gone somewhere that feels different. It really does tick a lot of the boxes you want.”
Note: Vacay.ca editors and writers are creating a series of articles on the Okanagan Valley, which has handled the pandemic exceptionally well and maintained a strong culture of hospitality while adapting to the realities of COVID-19 and still introducing new experiences. Explore recent articles on new tasting experiences and how hotels are preparing for the arrival of snowbirds.