In Western Canada, a Surprisingly Diverse Wine Region Is Booming
Canada’s stunning Okanagan Valley is emerging as a varied and exciting wine destination.
Only 155 scenic miles stretch from the northern edge of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley to its southern limit at the U.S. border, but that short distance encompasses a world of wine. The north, with its cool, forested hills and racy Rieslings, evokes Alsace or the Mosel; the south comprises Canada's only desert, where intense summer heat produces powerful Bordeaux-style reds and lush Rhône-style whites. "The fact that from north to south there are so many pockets with so much potential for certain grape varieties—I don't think there are very many wine regions like us in the world," says Emily Walker, wine director at the lakeside Naramata Inn, a recently restored heritage property that has become a central hub for the region's food and wine lovers.
This sun-soaked valley follows a series of pristine lakes and steep bluffs carved out by retreating glaciers. "The Okanagan has the most diverse and complex soil system of any region in the world," says Anthony von Mandl, the proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estate, established in 1981, as well as several other Okanagan wineries, including CheckMate and CedarCreek. "It's the only region that was formed by volcanic activity and then overrun by not one, but two glacial ages."
The soils here are ancient. Winemaking, however, is not. The first vines were planted in the 1860s by missionaries thirsty for sacramental wine. By the 1970s, only a handful of wineries were operating, including the Burgundian Blue Mountain and the Germanic Gray Monk. Until the 1990s, the region was best known for peach orchards and beach culture. Then in 1994, at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, Mission Hill won the award for Best Chardonnay Worldwide, and suddenly the world began to take notice.
Now, the valley has 185 wineries and nearly 9,000 acres planted with vines, growing more than 60 grape varieties ranging from Auxerro is to Zinfandel. Indeed, "variety" is the watch- word here—variety of soil, grapes, climate, and even winemakers, who've emigrated in large numbers from all over the world, including France, Germany, Portugal, Australia, and India. Randy Toor and his brothers were among several families who applied their Punjabi farming traditions to vineyards in the valley and then, once they tasted the wine made from the grapes they had grown, opened their own wineries. "I fell in love with it," says Toor, whose Desert Hills Estate Winery has a cult following for its cherry-bright Gamay Noir.
Desert Hills is just one of nearly 50 wineries between the desert city of Osoyoos and the funky little western town of Oliver, which is surrounded by nearly half of British Columbia's vines, earning it the nickname the "Wine Capital of Canada." Several have notable restaurants; among them is Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, where guests can sip elegant Chardonnay while watching the afternoon sun fall on the Black Sage Bench across the valley, ripening the powerful reds that go into the Bordeaux blends at Burrowing Owl and Black Hills Estate Winery.
As you travel north, brawny reds give way to delicate, cool- climate whites, and sleepy small towns to booming midsize cities alongside 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake. Kelowna, the valley's urban center, is a boisterous sprawl of shopping malls, lakefront vacation homes, and celebrated wineries.
But north or south, it's the climate that makes the Okanagan so appealing for both grapes and people. Located in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains, the valley has a short but intense growing season, with hot, dry days; cool nights; and loads of sunshine. "The vines have to snap into action in spring. And it's a sharp decline at the other end of the season," says Christine Coletta, proprietor of Okanagan Crush Pad. The result is ripe fruit balanced with mouthwatering acidity. "There's a purity, a freshness, and a vibrancy to our wines," Coletta says. "They are vital and full of energy."
That lively acidity is especially apparent in zesty bubbles like Coletta's The Bub, as well as in other wines up and down the valley, such as the grippy Rieslings from Synchromesh Wines and Tantalus Vineyards, which spark with citrus zest and punchy tropical fruit flavors.
Twenty-five years ago, visitors traveled to the Okanagan for the boating, the golfing, and the sunshine along the lakes' many beaches. Today, they also come for wine and food that can be savored only in these 155 miles of narrow valley, with its ancient soils, shimmering lakes, and youthful exuberance. As von Mandl says, "It's a very precious region."
Wines to Try Now
You can travel to the Okanagan without leaving your dinner table. Here are a couple of the region's wines that you can buy in the U.S. —Melanie Hansche
2015 Painted Rock Syrah ($42)
With its savory Northern Rhône–ish qualities and cool-climate elegance, this Syrah is a strong ambassador for the region. Vibrant raspberry aromas are tempered by a little spice and char and a velvety finish.
2018 Quail's Gate Pinot Noir ($30)
Not many wines make it outof the Okanagan Valley to the States, so lucky for us that those of family-owned Quails' Gate do. This Pinot is nicely balanced; it's lightly earthy with a nice lick of dark cherries and a touch of toasty oak.
Where to Stay
This 12-room heritage boutique inn is the valley's most charming property, with an exceptional restaurant that features celebrated chef Ned Bell's hyper-local cuisine. (Rooms from $118, naramatainn.com)
The location on Kelowna's lakefront couldn't be handier. This rambling resort comprises new and vintage sections, as well as a marina and private beach. (Rooms from $110, eldoradoresort.ca)
Penticton Lakeside Resort
The west wing of this Okanagan stalwart was designed by the late Nick Bevanda and is a refuge from the masses, with a wine experience center off the lobby. (Rooms from $117, pentictonlakesideresort.com)
Where to Eat and Taste
Conveniently, many of the Okanagan Valley's best restaurants are located at its best wineries. Here are just a few where you can stroll straight from the tasting bar to dinner.
Block One At 50th Parallel Estate
In Lake Country, self- styled "glamour farmers" Curtis Krouzel and Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel have created a dramatic engineering marvel of a winery known for elegant cool-climate Pinot Noir and wood- fired regional cuisine. (50thparallel.com)
Home Block At Cedarcreek Estate Winery
At this rustic-modern restaurant in Kelowna, chef Neil Taylor's Mediterranean-inspired cuisine pairs brightly with the terroir-driven, low-intervention wines of InterVin's 2019 Cana- dian Winery of the Year. (cedarcreek.bc.ca)
Masala Bistro at Kismet Estate Winery
The grape-growing Dhaliwal family produces powerful, fruit-driven reds that pair beautifully with the fragrant spices of South Asian cuisine at their Oliver winery-restaurant. (kismetestatewinery.com)