Escapes and Road Trips – British Columbia’s Okanagan wine region

Graps for OK blog

Vancouver  B.C. to Okanagan Valley, October 2012 – 397 km

It’s true. We saw it for ourselves. We toured, we tasted and we were smitten. On the Eastern side of British Columbia’s Coastal Range is the land of wine, warmth and sunshine – by some records more than 2000 hours of it yearly. Bouncing off rivers, warming crystal lakes it ripens voluptuous apples, peaches, plums and pears in Okanagan orchards. It also provides ideal conditions for the growing of grapes, a fruit that produces 35 per cent of British Columbia’s agricultural revenue, in an area that is highly promoted for its climate and attractions.

Friends and family told us since our arrival in Vancouver from Toronto six years ago: “You must do an Okanagan wine tour” we had toured other wine regions in France, Switzerland, Italy, Argentina and Chile, but we had not yet driven the 397 kilometers to Osooyos B.C. where the “pocket desert” of the Okanagan hosts one of the nation’s best wine growing regions.

Fall color and hills to hike near Oliver

In late September, when a grey veil of cloud dropped out of the late summer sky and our neighbors disappeared in fog across False Creek we decided this was it. Time to see for ourselves if the sunny tales were true and if the wines really did have legs.

My brother, a traveler, adventurer, writer and Okanagan enthusiast gave us a game plan, a fist full of amusing dispatches, a couple of resort contacts and full license to do with his tips what we wished. “It doesn’t really matter when you go,” he told us. “You can bike, hike, sail, raft, golf, scale a rock face, ski, and drink delicious wines you’ve never heard of almost any of the 365 days there are in a year. If it rains, it will pass quickly. If it snows it will be champagne powder. Just pick you time of year and go. You’ll love it.”

We followed Hwy. 1 from Vancouver and crossed the Fraser River on the new Port Mann Bridge the day it opened to eastbound traffic. The sensation of flying past snarled west bound commuters on the 850 meter span structure was akin to the schadenfreude a seagull might feel flying at 100 kph above ferries, trawlers and freighters crawling across Georgia Strait.

Landslides and grazing grass in the Similkameen Valley

It is a gorgeous drive in early fall in the Fraser Valley. The farms and fields in the villages of Mission, Abbotsford and Chilliwack look like graphics on a milk carton. The lush farms give way to rocky canyon and gravel slopes at Hope where the Coastal Range rises to become the northeastern arc of The Pacific Ring of Fire. These mountains, responsible for our wet coastal weather, or as aptly put by writer Owen S. Lange, “the veil of Chaos along the British Columbia Coast”, form the northern reach of the Cascade Volcanic Range. This 1600-km long geophysical feature is mother to the rain forest, the fertile valleys of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and the mineral rich soil of the hot, sunny Okanagan Valley.

Leaving Hwy. 1 at Hope we took the Hope-Princeton Crowsnest Highway that passes through dark forests and forboding landslides. We picnicked on a sun-warmed wooden bridge spanning a sparkling creek in Manning Park. Creeks just like it were panned for gold a generation ago.

Rustic Roots in the Headley Valley

The gold prospecting towns of Hedley, nestled between Stemwinder and Nickel Plate Mountains, Keremeos and the lush Similkameen River Valley are still sprinkled with prospector’s homesteads, split rail fences and tumble down barns. Cattle graze on chartreuse meadows. These diminutive towns, largely intact, suggest more their past than the present and are still authentically spooky enough to have been chosen as locations for Hollywood films. Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood and Sean Penn’s The Pledge were both filmed in the Similkameen Valley.

At the top of Allison Pass in the middle of Manning Park just before descending to the valley the climate makes a distinct shift. Cool forest air and blue shadows give way to arid heat and golden light. At Princeton the temperature shot up to a sultry 34 degrees and place names reflect climatic and geographic conditions, Osoyoos (narrowing of rivers) and Keremeos, (creek that cuts its way through the flats), Peachland, Summerland take precedence over Hope and Hells Gate.

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Sage grass, Ponderosa pine, crystal lakes and hectares of orchards. Fruit stands, dusty pick-up trucks laden with fruit crates, 70’s style motels, guesthouses, retired folks and water-ski athletes. That’s the way it was in the pocket desert  – until the wine makers came to town.

In 1980 the Okanagan boasted 11 wine producers in a landscape largely bereft of good restaurants, with a mere handful of golf courses, and limited but great skiing. Today there are dozens of adventurous chefs in numerous gourmet restaurants, over 38 golf courses, ski resorts that offer some of Canada’s best downhill adventures  and 166 wineries currently listed on the tourist map. Don’t count on the official numbers though because the list keeps growing.

OK panorama

Adding to the list of metaphoric village names come the imaginative parade of winery appellations: Golden Mile, Stone Boat, Tinhorn Creek, Burrowing Owl, Quail’s Gate, Road 13, Stag’s Hollow, Poplar Grove, Castoro de Oro , Noble Ridge, Blue Mountain, Tantalus and Cedar Creek.

Fauna and topography play as a big part in the mythology of new-world winemaking as do the clever blasphemies of B.C. viticulturists. Take the names Church and State, Forbidden Fruit, Laughing Stock, Therapy Vineyards, The Misconduct Wine Company, Hollywood and Wine, Dirty Laundry, Moon Curser and See-Ya-Later for example.

Russian sage, vines and Pines on the shores of Okanagan Lake

If you were asked if the wines of these cheeky newcomers are comparable to other worldly appellations, you would have to think a bit before answering. Consider first that the impertinence of the label is a sneak-peek at the nervy thinking of the B.C. vintner. His or her cause célèbre is to use the science (oenology) of the trade to manipulate the acetobacter (bacteria), acidulation (natural grape acids), anthochanins (pigments), phenolic compounds (flavonoids and non-flavonoid for taste) and sugars to make wines that are truly unique to the region. And that, even so there may be a protest from wine snobs, is what they are, unique.

We’re not wine snobs of course. For my husband Arnold and I it’s more about having fun – which is exactly what we did. The first two nights we stayed in Osoyoos – a town at the south end of the valley, settling comfortably into the Walnut Beach resort, home of the only licensed, private beach in British Columbia. From there we ventured to as many of the top-tier wineries as we could in search of wines not readily accessible in retail outlets.

adobe-style-farm

We often found that the remarkable fun of making wine in the Okanagan is often reflected in the exuberance of the wine makers. Tasting rooms are staffed for the most part by wine lovers of all ages. In the smaller wineries you might even be lucky enough to meet the enthusiastic owner, who just might open the private cellar and let you have a bottle of the private reserve as we did at Meyer Family Estates. Meyer is one of the smaller producers whose wine sells directly to collectors, restaurants, and specialty wine shops.

While they must compete for the best terroir (geography, geology and climate) and keep their secrets mum, Okanagan winemakers enthusiastically promote each other. Our first stop was Blue Mountain, a property so perfectly situated that it makes the quintessentially perfect postcard photograph. It was at Blue Mountain we were advised to visit their neighbors at Meyer Family Estate, our next stop as it turned out. We bought from the owner who suggested we have lunch at the newly opened bistro at Lake Breeze Wine Farm. It was an excellent idea, situated high on the Naramata Bench, the chic bistro patio was shaded, the view stunning and the lunch refreshingly tasty.

Le Vieus Pin styled on a French Railway station

Some other favorite wineries we visited include  the French inspired Le Vieux Pin where heirloom chickens scurry around the vineyard, and its Tuscan style cousin La Stella where we sipped a rich 2008 Maestoso Merlot looking out over the vineyard from the top of a tower.

Towering out of the mountainside above Osoyoos is the remarkable Nk’Mip estate winery. The estate owned and operated by members of the Osoyoos Indian Band comprises a resort, restaurants, cultural Centre and winery. The emblematic cultural Centre is constructed with rammed earth walls. The life of aboriginal inhabitants and their commitment to maintain the sensitive Okanagan ecology are explained in educational Centre and large outdoor park where powerful sculptures and naturalistic displays tell the story of the first inhabitants of the valley.

Nk'Mip sculpture

Not to be missed is Burrowing Owl, whose name is derived from the tiny long legged yellow-eyed fowl that live in burrows vacated by small mammals, but today is sadly endangered by development. The wines at Burrowing Owl  are rarely available except at the vineyard, although you can find them in some restaurants, and private collections. The wines are high end and a little on the pricy side, but that does not seem to deter the avid tasters and shoppers crowding the wine shop. The winery’s restaurant, The Sonora Room, is named after the desert it sits in. John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide writes: “Older vintages no longer available anywhere else remain on the Sonora’s Room’s wine list, accompanying what is arguably the best food of any South Okanagan restaurant.”

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Mission Hill, at Kelowna, is one of the Okanagan’s earliest producers. It is also one of the most stunning properties, its great hall hung with a stunning Jean Miro tapestry. Mission Hill’s signature Bordeaux-inspired red wine is the elegant Oculus. John Schreiner describes his experience with the 2007: “On the palate, the flavor layers revealed plum, currants, figs, chocolate, with a hint of spice on the finish. With time, a core of delicious ripe fruit flavors emerged.” Sound good? Have a glass sitting in the loggia terrace enjoying the view of the countryside below!

On our last evening we moved to a Key West style motel in Okanagan Falls. For $89 per night we had a spotless, freshly painted and refurbished one-bedroom suite. Before going out to dinner we enjoyed the sunset while sitting at a freshly painted picnic table with a glass of chilled wine and walnuts, Skaha Lake turning gold in the alchemy of the setting sun and opened a chilled Chasselas VQA 2011 from the Swiss style St. Hubertus winery.

Holiday Beach Resort in OK Falls

The next morning dawned moody with the smoke of forest fires in the atmosphere, but the soft impressionistic light made a perfect day for photography and the drive back home with a couple of cases  collected for our cellar, all the while scheming about our next wine-route road trip, to California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys in October.

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