Getting to Canada’s premier wine region may not be imminently doable for most people. The consolation to the restricted travel is you can still find a taste of the Okanagan Valley in the thousands of bottles produced each year. Many of them are fantastic and the wineries are eager to ship them to you. But what do you purchase? And why?
Here are some wines I think you should put on your list based on my most recent visit, along with a few long-time favourite bargain picks mixed in. These are wines from the South Okanagan region — which includes Peachland, Summerland, Penticton, Okanagan Falls, Oliver, and Osoyoos. (For more picks, check my previous article on Oliver-Osoyoos wineries.)
Recommended White Wines
CheckMate Little Pawn 2016 Chardonnay ($110): Arguably the best table wine in Canada, this Chardonnay comes from grapes grown in vineyards on Jagged Rock, a monolith on the Black Sage Bench of Oliver. Less pricey than CheckMate’s Queen Taken ($125), Little Pawn is a gorgeous wine with depth of flavour, elegance that connotes the terroir, and well-rounded balance, a hallmark of the winery. It’s what the wine industry calls a “reward wine” — a purchase consumers make when they feel it’s time to honour an achievement. For all who have made it through 2020, a prize is certainly deserved.
Hester Creek 2019 Chardonnay ($21.99): This is undoubtedly one of the best values in the Okanagan Valley. Hester Creek’s new edition holds up well to some from nearby CheckMate, where the least expensive Chardonnay sells for $80. The reason why is obvious. Hester Creek’s assistant winemaker Rebecca Ruggeri has spent time working at CheckMate. Her learnings are expressed in a bold Chardonnay that showcases the terroir of the Golden Mile Bench.
TIME Winery 2018 Meritage White ($25): An equal blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, the unique white Meritage is a classic French-style wine with body and balance. Its fruitiness is pleasant, with more stone fruit than citrus flavours, and a fit for pasta or light seafood dishes.
Recommended Rosé Wines
Free Form 2018 Vin Gris ($26.90): A treat for wine geeks, Free Form’s vin gris is made from pinot noir grapes. Minimal skin contact gives the wine the pale (or “gray”) colour. Aged in concrete eggs at Okanagan Crush Pad, the parent of the Free Form brand, this vin gris has the soft and delicate characteristics that draw oenophiles to pinot noir. There are hints of spice and a rounded finish, a credit to winemaker Matt Dumayne.
Phantom Creek 2019 Rosé ($30): You’ll feel like you’ve suddenly stepped into Sonoma when you sip this wine while overlooking Phantom Creek and its sprawling view of the Black Sage Bench that leads to Lake Osoyoos. The 2019 rosé is the first vintage sold by the winery and not surprisingly it is one of its biggest sellers. Elegant texture, strawberry freshness, and a whopping alcohol level of 13.5 per cent make this wine the poster child for the “Rosé All Day” activists.
Hillside Winery 2019 Rosé ($24): Strawberries in a glass. This wine is a rosé lover’s dream, with fruit flavours that are balanced with winemaker’s panache. An extraordinary seven red grapes — led by merlot — are used to build this gem that is suited for festive occasions.
Recommended Red Wines
French Door 2017 Héritage ($48): A true find and a rarity, as its name suggests. Unlike a méritage wine, which contains at least two of the five main Bordeaux grapes, a héritage features syrah, an outlier from that group. It joins cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and petit verdot in this marvellous bottle. Winemaker Pascal Madevon is from Bordeaux, so he understands the history of French red wines as well as anyone in the Okanagan Valley. His knowledge shows in this beautiful wine that tastes Old World in many ways.
Lakeside Cellars 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25): Lakeside Cellars, a new winery on the shores of Lake Osoyoos, made an impressive debut in 2020 with its list of stellar wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon is well structured and smooth for such a young wine. A good choice to get you through winter pandemic nights.
TIME 2017 McWatters Collection Meritage ($35): TIME’s red Meritage is also a nod to France. There’s history in this bottle, too. Pioneering winemaker Harry McWatters made the the first Canadian Meritage and the McWatters Collection honours the winery’s late founder. It’s a treat to drink and will remind you why you fell in love with wine to begin with.
Phantom Creek Estate 2017 Cuvée ($125): A classic big, bold red blend anchored by cabernet sauvignon (38 per cent) and petit verdot (35 per cent), this promises to be the signature wine of Phantom Creek’s state-of-the-art operations. Made with smaller berries caused by a hot summer, the 2017 Cuvée from the winery’s namesake vineyard is intense and a good choice for your next steak or bison dinner.
Bargain Wines (under $20)
River Stone 2019 Sauvignon Blanc ($19.99): A wine that wows. River Stone is set on a property that used to grow melons and the stone fruit is beautifully expressed in its Sauvignon Blanc. The flavour is a departure from the green apple notes that predominate many New Zealand wines of the same variety.
NK’Mip Cellars 2019 Dreamcatcher ($19.99): An easy-to-drink blend, this wine features riesling (35 per cent), ehrenfelser (20 per cent), sauvignon blanc (18 per cent), pinot blanc (18 per cent), chardonnay (8 per cent), and semillon (1 per cent). It’s juicy and well-balanced thanks to the work of a superb wine-making team.
Hester Creek 2019 Selected Barrels Merlot ($17.99): A slightly cooler growing season in the South Okanagan benefited this merlot, which is smooth and aromatic.
Star of Central Okanagan
I was stupefied when I tasted the Mission Hill Single-Lot 2016 John Simes Pinot Noir ($53). Named after the winery’s former winemaker, the wine is the best Canadian pinot noir I’ve tried and would stand up well next to revered Oregon bottles of that variety. I couldn’t quite believe I was tasting a wine from Canada that could express the elegant characteristics of pinot noir so superbly. It’s one to cherish.
Recent Vacay.ca coverage has featured the wineries of Kelowna, including Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, CedarCreek Estate Winery, and Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery.
Where to Get These Wines: Many British Columbians may not be aware that the Save-on-Foods grocery chain has its own wine director. Several of the stores have their own wine section stocked with wines from the province. If you make a purchase of four or more bottles the entire order is discounted by 10 per cent.
Note: Vacay.ca editors and writers are creating a series of articles on the South 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. Discover our recent articles: “Finding Naramata’s Charms“, “Snowbirds Warm Up to the South Okanagan”, and “Seated Tastings Receive a Standing Ovation in Wine Country“.