Wine in Canada? Who Knew? Bob Ecker knows. He took the tour.

By on April 2, 2013

Who knew there was a desert climate in Canada? Who knew the wine makers had staked a claim?  The cognoscenti of the wine trade knew. Growing Wine grapes and making great wines even occurs in British Columbia which has more in common with the Napa Valley and Chianti than we knew

Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

by Bob Ecker,  the Wine Trail Guide

Whether navigating through Burgundy, Napa Valley, Chianti or the Barossa Valley, sampling new wines, experiencing gorgeous scenery, dining at fine restaurants and hobnobbing with fellow enthusiasts – wine based travel can be an insightful, enjoyable effort.  But wine-serious touring…in British Columbia, Canada?  You bet.

Okanagan trestle bridge

Okanagan trestle bridge

Called the Okanagan, this spectacular, up-and-coming wine region begins at the northernmost tip of the Sonoran desert, just over the US/Canadian border.  The Okanagan Valley exists in a rain shadow between British Columbia’s majestic Monashee and Coastal mountain ranges producing an arid agricultural zone with long hours or northerly summer sun – perfect conditions for grape growing.

To put this simply – though British Columbia lies above the 49th parallel (the latitude line separating the United States from Canada, and would seem to be too northerly to ripen grapevines properly, during the actual growing season, this region receives plenty of long hot days, with ample heat units reaching the grape vines.  The desert climate helps keep unwanted rain out and the resulting vineyards produce vines with sufficient maturity.

Many Canadians retire to the Okanagan area for its warm, dry climate.

Add in modern technology and a commitment to produce fine white and red wines, and you can taste the results.  In fact, some winemakers from Bordeaux have relocated to this region for the wide open spaces and ability to plant and produce fine Bordeaux styled wines.

Winery arches

Winery arches

Seek out a bottle of the incomparable Osoyoos LaRose

The Okanagan is divided three main regions surrounding a few lakes roughly bisecting the Okanagan.  “South” Okanagan is made up of  the towns of Summerland, Penticton, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Oliver, and Osoyoos, “Central”  comprises Lake Country, Kelowna, West Kelowna and Peachland and “North” comprises Armstrong, Enderby and Vernon.

Vineyards and wineries are primarily located in the Central and South Okanagan areas.  There are very few wineries in the North Okanagan as it is really more of a ranching/agricultural area.

The Okanagan wine industry, and by extension the greater BC wine industry, began in the Central Okanagan in 1932 with Calona Wines – BC’s first commercial winery. And then in earnest in the 1970s with wineries beginning to pop up here and there.   These included: Mission Hill, Gray Monk, Cedar Creek, Sumac Ridge, Quails Gate, St. Hubertus and Tantalus.

Today, there are about 135 active wineries producing in the Okanagan with more than 9400 acres planted with grapevines.   The areas around Oliver and Osoyoos contain the greatest number of vines, with Merlot being the number one varietal.    Chardonnay is the second largest varietal grown in the Okanagan followed by Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

Winery at sundown

Winery at sundown

Vineyards thrive on the east and west sides of the lakes, starting with Osoyoos Lake in the south and the larger Okanagan Lake farther north, near Kelowna, the largest city.  Nearby towns include Oliver, the self-proclaimed Wine Capital of Canada, Penticton and the tiny town of Naramata. Naramata roughly translates into “My wife’s smile” in the native dialect.

The scenery is lush, the people are friendly and the wines are for real.

Vancouver is the largest big city for miles and its thriving and highly critical restaurant scene has tapped into the Okanagan wines.

“Although the wine program at West offers a wide variety of selections from the world’s best wine growing regions such as France, Italy and California, I often suggest wines from the Okanagan Valley of British Colombia,” said Owen Knowlton, Wine Director at West Restaurant + Bar.

“It is definitely still an up-and -coming wine region – but the wines are exciting! Most of the wineries in BC are small boutique artisan operations, offering quality and value. The wines have vibrant fruit flavors balanced with minerality and refreshing natural acidity.”  West is recognized as one of Vancouver’s leading restaurants devoted to farm fresh ingredients and worldly styles.

Executive Chef Executive Chef Quang Dang and his sommeliers wouldn’t offer Okanagan wines to their guests unless the wines were spot on.

Fear not, it’s not all grapevines.  Okanagan farmers still grow plenty of fresh apples, pears, apricots and cherries – and vegetables. There’s a strong farm-to-table culinary tradition here too, but wine-grape growing has really taken root – today over 7,000 acres are devoted to vinifera.

Naramata Ranch vineyard

Naramata Ranch vineyard

Mission Hill is perhaps the most celebrated and visited winery, producing many excellent wines while displaying its “big boy” combination of modern and Baroque styled architecture.  Their Oculus is the winery’s signature Bordeaux inspired wine.  Complex, elegant and delicious.  Mission Hill is a must visit, mountaintop beauty.

Other wineries of note dotting the landscape include: Sumac Ridge, Summerhill, Pyramid Winery, Quails’ Gate, Jackson-Triggs, Cedar Creek, Gehringer Brothers, See Ya Later Ranch, Nk’Mip Cellars, Osoyoos LaRose and Burrowing Owl among others.

BC wineries have begun bringing home major international awards for whites and red wines, plus of course, their very famous and delicious ice-wines.

One particularly interesting Okanagan sight is that of the massive train trestles (train bridges) from the old Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) near the town of Naramata.  The Myra Canyon portion of the Kettle Valley Trail is a 12 mile round trip ride, offering breathtaking views of Okanagan Lake, and the forest way below.  Twelve huge trestles, (train bridges) all of which have been entirely restored, cut right through magnificent forests, with well-groomed trails providing effortless hiking and biking.

The KVR trains gave way to roads many years back, but the tracks themselves were only pulled up in 1976.  The path is gentle and those imposing old wooden train trestles standing silently in the forest make for quite a sight.

Renting a bike is a fantastic way to explore the KVR trails while also stopping in at many of the Okanagan wineries.   Various companies offer bike rentals, as well as guided walking and wine tours.

Many small hotels, motels, B & B’s, Inns and a few modern resorts, such as the one at Nk’Mip Cellars – a First Nations luxury property and winery provide visitors with various lodging and dining choices.  The largest city in the area is Kelowna, which is actually quite fun and cosmopolitan.

Owen Knowlton from West says: “Right now, my favorite wines from the Okanagan Valley are from Foxtrot, Laughing Stock and Painted Rock wineries. Foxtrot on the Naramata Bench is making world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; if you are looking for power, I love the Portfolio from Laughing Stock and the Icon from Painted Rock, two Bordeaux inspired blends of Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.”

Getting to the Okanagan is simple.  Air Canada flies directly to the main city of Kelowna and from there it’s easy to rent a car and drive.  Or, it can be a stunning drive all the way from Vancouver.  As an alternative, the Okanagan region is about a 5 hour drive from Seattle.  This wine region is intriguing, the wines are on the cusp of greatness and this area is certainly not what one might expect above the Canadian border.  Check it out.

c. Bob Ecker 2013

Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association

Tourism Kelowna

Monashee Tours – Bike Rentals

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About Bob Ecker