Okanagan Wines

by Mattie John Bamman | Photo © Mattie John Bamman

If Napa Valley were to move 1,000 miles north and had a lake in its center, it would give you an idea of the size and scope of the Okanagan Valley. Add sheer cliffs and sweeping sandstone benches coated with verdant vineyards—all of which plunge into shimmering blue water—and you can understand why the Okanagan is one of the most visually mesmerizing wine regions in all of North America. But don’t worry about fighting the crowds: It still flies under the radar among U.S. Travelers.

The Okanagan Valley is easy to access, and direct flights connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to Kelowna, the valley’s largest city. As breezily navigated as a zip line, the Okanagan really has only one main road, Route 97, which runs the length of the valley. Signposts guide you to the more than 120 wineries, the majority of which produce pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc and merlot. Consider pairing your wine-tasting journey with skiing in the winter or hiking, biking and beaching in the summer. The local farm-to-table restaurant scene is open year-round.

Beginning your tour at the southern end of the Okanagan, the town of Osoyoos is home to the only aboriginal-owned winery in North America, NK’Mip Cellars (pronounced inca meep), and Canada’s only desert. The winery shares its property with a golf course and the NK’Mip Spirit Ridge Resort & Spa. There is also a cultural centre on site, full of fascinating stories about the aboriginal Okanagan people. Stop in for a visit after tasting the winery’s excellent 2010 Talon and 2009 Qwam Qwmt cabernet sauvignon.

Driving north, you’ll pass national-park-worthy rock formations, including towering McIntyre Bluff, as well as numerous farm stands touting the area’s culinary bounty. Taste what’s in season before continuing to Blue Mountain Cellars, Hester Creek Winery and Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. The drive to Blue Mountain Cellars is one of the most beautiful in the area—fitting when you consider the elegance of the winery’s pinot noirs and Champagne-style sparkling wines. Tinhorn Creek houses the fine-dining Miradoro Restaurant, replete with amazing views of the southern valley. Tinhorn also makes one of the best cab francs in the valley: the Oldfield cabernet franc. “The growing environment really isn’t as radical as you might think. We do get 90- and 100-degree days,” says Tinhorn winemaker Sandra Oldfield. “Of course, we sometimes have to harvest in the snow.”

Offering water sports, hotels, restaurants and a summertime farmers market, the large town of Penticton lies smack in the Central Okanagan. Nearby, the scenic Naramata and Summerland Bench regions are prime wine-tasting destinations. On the Naramata Bench, visit Poplar Grove Winery, which makes a complex 2009 merlot—a wine that can age another 10 years but costs only $29. To tour Summerland Bench, take Bottleneck Drive, a short road speckled with award-winning wineries. Okanagan Crush Pad stands out for its sharp wines, biodynamic farming and willingness to experiment. The winery even mows the grass between vineyard rows using a scythe!

Perhaps the Okanagan’s best restaurant scene is found in Kelowna. An hour from Penticton in the North Okanagan, Kelowna is the third-largest city in British Columbia, and it maintains a farm-to-plate lifestyle while offering luxurious, lakeside lodging. With some of the oldest vineyards in the valley, many Kelowna-area wineries focus on producing white wines. At the forefront, Tantalus Vineyards designs divine rieslings for aging, and Quails’ Gate Winery produces a crisp, minerally chenin blanc.

The budding wine and food scene of the Okanagan Valley is calling out to culinary travelers. For help planning a visit, see the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association’s website, totabc.org

When you go:
>> Poplar Grove Winery, poplargrove.ca
>> NK’Mip Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, spiritridge.ca
>> NK’Mip Cellars, nkmipcellars.com
>> NK’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, nkmipdesert.com
>> NK’Mip Canyon Golf Course, nkmipcanyon.ca
>> Blue Mountain Cellars, bluemountainwinery.com
>> Tinhorn Creek Vineyards & Miradoro Restaurant, tinhorn.com
>> Upper Bench Winery, upperbench.ca
>> Laughing Stock, laughingstock.ca
>> Okanagan Crush Pad, okanagancrushpad.com
>> Tantalus Vineyards, tantalus.ca
>> Quails’ Gate Winery, quailsgate.com
>> Hester Creek, hestercreek.com
>> Terrafina Restaurant, terrafinarestaurant.com