Moving to British Columbia from Ontario gave me the keys to a new life — and the wine cellar.
Every bottle I opened in my new home province was a discovery, excellent wines are made here that rarely make it beyond the BC border.
So, it seemed like a good idea to head to the Okanagan Valley to say thank you in person.
The cradle of BC’s wine industry is home to about 85 per cent of the province’s output.
Car travel is considered a safer option during the global pandemic and with provincial health officials encouraging careful excursions during summer and fall, the South Okanagan was a road-tripper’s dream. As the public-health crisis is expected to last for at least a few more months, the region remains an incredibly rare destination: It’s safe to visit, above all, with wide open spaces to explore, an exotic climate, and conscientious businesses that have managed the pandemic well. Those advantages are keys to why the South Okanagan has been selected in first place of the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2021, a ranking sponsored by travel-trivia app Trippzy.
It’s just over four hours by car from Vancouver. If you take Highway 3A you’ll drive through the uplifting scenery of E.C. Manning Provincial Park in the Cascade Mountains.
I followed all COVID-19 protocols. So did the wineries. Despite a busy season with travellers from BC and Alberta, visitor numbers at the wineries were well controlled through pre-booked tasting-room appointments. Tastings were either outside or indoors at standing stations or tables and limited to small household or bubble groups.
The first lesson I learned was the Okanagan is a big area, stretching about 250 kilometres (155 miles). The largest city, Kelowna in Central Okanagan, is a 90-minute drive from the South Okanagan’s southernmost centre, Osoyoos.
Even by narrowing my focus on Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country, with 43 wineries (and growing) along the 20-km (13-mile) route, I’d only be able to make it to a few each day. I wanted to stick to small wineries where the chance of meeting winemakers or their family is pretty good. The vibe is friendly, relaxed, and down to earth. The tasting rooms are staffed by knowledgeable residents who know their wine but don’t act stuffy if you don’t know yours. I’ve been lucky enough to taste at wineries all over the world, but a first-time taster would feel right at home here.
And things will only improve as the pandemic wanes. While 2020 was a challenging year for wine tourism, the South Okanagan has big plans to let visitors experience small, boutique vintners in one spot when Canada’s first wine village opens in Oliver in summer 2021. District Wine Village will be home to 16 artisan producers, plus food and entertainment.
As the road dipped south toward Oliver and Osoyoos, I left green forests behind to enter the dun-coloured hills dotted with green-grey sagebrush of our country’s only desert south of the Arctic region. This is Canada?
Ordered rows of green vineyards and bountiful fruit orchards bracket the road and trail up the bluffs toward the mountains on either side of the valley. Lake Osoyoos, with its sandy beaches and inviting waters, runs down the middle.
The region has the country’s highest average annual temperatures. Winters are dry, spring comes early, while summer and fall are hot. Microclimates saturate the lake-filled region, creating conditions that mimic the more famous wine regions of the world.
“There are no chateaus here, however it’s fantastic,” says a woman visiting from Whistler who was also doing a wine tasting at a table overlooking the Tinhorn Creek Winery estate.
Named for the creek and the site of silver and gold mines in the hills behind the winery, Tinhorn Creek is situated on the Golden Mile Bench growing area, a name that soon became familiar. Another one I got used to hearing was Black Sage Bench, which runs along the east side of the valley.
I was surprised to learn that Okanagan is Canada’s secret wine region. I thought it was world famous. Not so.
“It’s relatively unheard of if you don’t follow the wine scene and even people who consume Canadian wine will not know that it’s coming from right here,” says Mike Johnson, retail and experience manager at Tinhorn Creek. I tasted Tinhorn’s wines while overlooking rows of education vines where you can nibble each grape variety before you sip.
What goes best with wine? Pizza — especially one made with foraged and fresh mushrooms and nutty Alpindon cheese from Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company. It was cooked on a wood-fire oven at on-site restaurant Miradoro. It has excellent views across Tinhorn’s vines and grassy amphitheatre.
One of the newest tasting rooms is the cheerful spot at Red Horses Vineyard in Oliver. The delightfully unusual thing about this winery, owned by two generations of the Fortin family, is the unexpected location in a quiet residential neighbourhood. A couple of vineyard blocks surround the southwest-inspired hacienda and gardens and abut neighbour’s yards. Like the tasting room, the grounds have fanciful Mexican sculptures and artwork. The winery may be on Zinfandel Street, but Red Horses is making its name with smooth, boldly fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon bottles.
“We don’t like to tell you what to taste,” said Eileen Fortin. Her husband, Tim, wrote the fun tasting notes. Hints of Dr. Pepper in the 2018 Cab? Why not?
She says the Okanagan wows wine lovers with variety.
“Other parts of the world really are specializing in a few varietals, whereas BC has become such an experimental area. You typically see more whites up north, more reds down south, but you’ll see so many unique varietals here, things that you just don’t see other than in Spain or Italy,” she says. “BC is just experimenting with everything. And they’ve got a little pocket for everything.”
That mix of wines Fortin spoke about was front and centre at Moon Curser Vineyards, home of some crazy-fun varietals that I tasted with winemaker Chris Tolley while overlooking the winery’s vines. The Moon Curser name is a nod to the gold-smuggling miners who once slipped across the nearby U.S. border. Retailers and restaurants that carry the wines are called “conspirators” and the bottles have paper-cut label artwork depicting sneaky creatures and nighttime marauders.
What’s in those bottles includes grape varietals previously unheard of in the Okanagan, like Tannat, Dolcetto, and aromatic, berry-herbaceous Portuguese Touriga Nacional. I loved the last one so much, I bought a half case to ship to my sister in Ontario. She’s never tasted anything like that, I figured. What a fine BC souvenir.
The number of must-visit wineries on my list grew. Nick Atkins, chef at Watermark Beach Resort on Lake Okanagan, came out to say hello after an excellent meal of halibut paired with a bottle of 2017 Chardonnay from winemaker Rajen Toor’s Ursa Major vineyard up the road.
“You should check out Second Chapter,” Atkins said. The 2018 start-up is run by the Pullen family, the former owners of Church & State Wines, which I was visiting the following day. His mother-in-law, Dianne Gibson, who he described as “a real character”, works in the tasting room.
Gibson was indeed fun (she’s also a corset maker) and the wines were a delightful find. The tasting room opened in August, in a former Sea-Can, one of those huge metal cargo containers used for ocean transport. It’s been transformed with a wall of windows overlooking the vines. Gibson poured our samples and kept us smiling. The winery makes about 4,000 cases a year and the 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2016 Syrah were both excellent.
On the way to our next tasting, I spotted Kismet Estate Winery and popped my head into the tasting room before having lunch at its next-door restaurant, Masala Bistro. The sign at the roadside advertised the “best Indian cuisine in the Okanagan.” No lie there. I’ve never been a fan of drinking wine with South Asian food, favouring a cold beer or a mango lassi, but the suggested match of Kismet’s lively Infinity Rosé blend with paneer pakoras and Malabar chicken curry was a winner.
I returned later to taste the three wines designed and blended by Ingo Grady for his new Hermit Wine Co., a project he’s doing in conjunction with Kismet Estate Winery.
Grady has a BC wine pedigree like few others, having worked in sales, marketing, and wine education for Okanagan heavy-hitters including CedarCreek, Mission Hill, and Phantom Creek.
He’ll produce just 500 cases in total this year and says the South Okanagan is open to new vintners like him. I really liked his muscular RMX red wine blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Malbec and (surprise) Viognier.
“The pace down here favours the smaller side of wine, with hand-crafted premium wines that over-deliver on their price points,” he says. “Moreover, except for a few vanity projects, the cellar-door experiences are unforced and unpretentious, a quality that appeals to all wine country visitors.”
The first Indigenous-owned winery in North America is a boutique producer, making 17,000 cases a year. This was the largest winery I visited, with plenty of distancing measures being used in the tasting area and wine shop.
I tasted the Qwam Qwmt brand of premium wines (the name means “achieving excellence” in the Syilx language spoken by the Osoyoos Indian Band) in the downstairs grotto tasting room. The dining table overlooks the barrels where the wines develop their signature taste, aroma, and colour.
My two top tasting experiences had me out in the vines.
On the one-hour Tasting and Terroir Tour at Church & State Wines, senior associate Janik Livera showed me that the best thing to pair with wine is a great story. He carried a few bottles to taste as we walked along the vines used to make the wine we were sipping. We wandered the land overlooking the picturesque Coyote Bowl with the sun hot on our shoulders. Livera talked about how the wine was made, how art, science, and passion meet in the bottle and what I should look for as I tasted.
My favourite was the Coyote Bowl Series Syrah, what Livera calls a “Marlene Dietrich wine: beautifully flirtatious.”
Have this one without food, he advises. “Pair it with something like a sunset or a bubble bath or a crackling fire and a good book. Enjoy it on your biggest birthdays and anniversaries but after your friends have gone home for the night.”
I loved the Private Wine Enthusiast Harvest Tour at Covert Farms Family Estate, just outside Oliver. Proprietor / winemaker Gene Covert hopped in the cab of his 1952 red Mercury truck while I sat on a bench in the open flatbed for a two-hour tour of some of the 650-acre estate.
The landscape is stunning, the vines curling around nʕaylintn (Ny-lin-tn), South Okanagan’s most familiar landmark, formerly known by its colonial name, McIntyre Bluff. No wonder the massive cliff face is on the Covert Farms wines labels.
The land is kept healthy through regenerative farming, which ensures the soil is packed with nutrients with the help of a very photogenic herd of cattle. They graze on various cover crops sown between the vines, leaving nature’s fertilizer in their wake.
The farm has animals from pigs to llamas, a play area for kids and a lovely covered patio and pavilion where I tasted the estate wines and enjoyed a delicious picnic. Vegetables and fruit grown on the farm were laid out alongside BC cheeses and charcuterie. I added a few of the strawberries we’d picked when Covert stopped the truck beside the rows of bright red berries.
What makes this area so special, Covert says, is the good wine and great food that grow here. While other winemaking regions have seen all the fruit ripped out to make room for wine grapes, the Okanagan grows everything from luscious cherries and peaches, to crunchy apples.
“The climate here is on the edge of being able to grow good grapes,” he said. “It’s one of the most northerly wine-growing regions in the world.”
It’s something that says Canada, something we can raise a glass to and take pride in.
MORE ABOUT VISITING OLIVER-OSOYOOS
Where to Stay: Watermark Beach Resort faces Lake Osoyoos and has suites ranging from studios to three-bedroom units and all have equipped kitchens and balconies. There’s a spa, pool, and two outdoor hot tubs. The excellent main-level restaurant helmed by executive chef Nick Atkins is open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday and Sunday brunch. Pets are OK. Long-stay packages are available.
Note: Vacay.ca editors and writers have created 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.