Exploring the BC Wine Trail – South Okanagan & Similkameen

British Columbia has five wine growing regions: Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, Fraser Valley, the Okanagan, and the Similkameen Valley. According to www.winebc.com, three more regions are emerging: Kooteny, Lillooet, Thompson/Shuswap.  In April 2013, I travelled to the southern Okanagan Valley and visited several wineries in the Golden Mile and Black Sage/Osoyoos sub-regions. I also spent some time in the Similkameen Valley, a 20 minute drive west of Osoyoos.

For the past 20 years I have focused my wine exploration on wineries in and around Kelowna and Naramata but an invite to attend the Oysterfest in Osoyoos this spring gave me the perfect opportunity to chart new territory.

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The drive from Kelowna to Oliver should take about an hour and twenty minutes depending on traffic. Expect it to take longer in the peak tourist months from July 1 – September 1, or if you get stuck behind a tractor like I did south of  Vaseaux Lake.  Going 30 km/h gave me time to appreciate the rural countryside complete with weathered fences and shaggy donkeys.  There are no big box department stores, no fast food chains, no Starbucks on this strip of highway. Instead, fruit trees with gnarled branches appear mile after mile after mile. The trees show blossoming buds thanks to a blast of heat around Easter, but now the weather is cool and the valley hangs in suspension, waiting for the sun to return. By the time the first wave of summer holidayers appear, the trees will be heavy with fruit.

From Summerland south to Oliver, and west to the Similkameen Valley, there are almost 100 licensed wineries. Considering that the trip from Summerland to Osoyoos takes about an hour to drive, you have to accept the fact that you will never make it to all the wineries in one visit — unless you are visiting for a few months.

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You can explore free-style, stopping in at whatever wineries appear before you, or you can use the following websites as references to help plan your itinerary: www.winetourhandbook.ca, www.winebc.com, www.winetrails.ca and www.winebc.org.

Or, you can use my list as a rough guide. I have listed wineries from north to south in the Okanagan Valley first, followed by the wineries in the Similkameen. This list represents only a portion of the wineries in these two BC wine regions.

Summerland, BC

8th Generation – Tasted (offsite) the Confidence Frizzante, a delightful, slightly sweet sparkling wine (Dunkelfelder, Pinot Gris and Syrah). This is a rhubarb-hued, strawberry-scented, summertime sipper and should be a mainstay of any patio—with or without food.  The Integrity Frizzante is a crisp, clean, refreshing white (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc). It is recommended for brunch, lunch, dinner, or to drink it on its own. Let’s not kid each other, if it’s good for brunch, it’s good for breakfast. I’m just saying what you’re thinking.

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If these two frizzantes are any indication of the quality of the rest of their portfolio, this is a winery to put on your itinerary.

Okanagan Crush Pad (OCP) & Haywire Wines – OCP, also in Summerland, is a small-lot custom winemaking facility where vineyard owners or other wineries wishing to establish their own wine brand use the facility’s equipment to produce and market their own wines.

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One of the wines you can find here is Haywire’s “The Bub”, a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes grown near Oliver. This is another incredible sparkler from the Okanagan. In fact, it’s so incredible that it sold out in three days of being released. The winery has a second release ready but you need to be on the contact list so check out their website and contact Alison. Better yet, stop by the crush pad, sip, sample and sign up.

Okanagan Falls, BC

Blue Mountain Winery – Here comes the brut! The Brut Sparkling Wine, that is. This multi-layered, lemony bubbly might outshine the bride, but don’t save it for a special occasion. Once you taste it you’ll want to have it as a regular guest at your table.

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I was introduced to Blue Mountain wines a few years ago when a friend gave me a bottle of their Pinot Blanc as a gift. Blue Mountain consistently makes great, complex wines reminiscent of wines from Alsace and Burgundy.  I tried catching Christie Mavety (daughter of the founders) at the winery on a Sunday but ended up on a goat trail (literally) in a forest a couple of kilometers away. By the time I was able to safely turn the Ford Flex around on the narrow, rocky path I had missed my appointment with Christie. Not sure how I missed seeing the winery on my way up. Must’ve been looking at donkeys again.

Oliver, BC

Covert Farms – Wines tried: 2010 MDC (Cab Sauv/Syrah/Zinfandel), 2011 Rosé (Sauvignon Blanc/Viognier Roussane/Malbec), and 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon

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 The winery is located at the foot of the McIntyre Bluff and is part of the 600-acre property of Covert Farms Organics. The wines are organic and produced from 100% estate grown grapes. You can’t go wrong with any of the wines here. Is it possible to taste pride in a glass of wine? I think I did.  This property has a lot going on: an organic farm, a winery and a country market as well as a venue for some amazing food and wine events. Make this property a must-stop; the people, and the wine here, are wonderful.

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Fairview Cellars – part of The Golden Mile (west side of Highway 97). Fairview Cellars is a gem of a winery tucked away on a road past the Fairview Mountain Golf Course.

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Part of the charm of this winery is the little rustic cabin that serves as the tasting room; the other part of the charm is the owner, Bill Eggert.  Seems everyone has a favourite story to tell about Bill. I was told he was a character.  I think that fits. Bill is just someone with whom you want to set a spell and drink good wine – his, preferably.  Fairview’s portfolio contains mostly reds, with one Sauvignon Blanc on offer. Make sure you walk away with a bottle of the Two Hoots (named for the Great Horned Owls that return to the property each year to nest), and if you want to splurge on an absolutely spectacular red, grab a bottle of the 2005 The Bear. I tried it, loved it, and walked away without it, and am now regretting that move. I was right there. The 2005 Bear is a gorgeous, beast of a wine, and it was a huge mistake not purchasing it.

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 Tinhorn Creek – In 1993, a couple of friends began making wine and storing the barrels in their basement. That was the start of what is now one of the biggest and best-known wineries in The Golden Mile area of Oliver. The property sports a beautiful tasting room, gift shop, trails to explore, and the fantastic Miradoro Restaurant.

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Ken and Sandra Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek are humble, hospitable, shining examples of  the wine industry. From their website:

“We grow grapes and we make wine. There are many steps between the field and the bottle, but at the end of the day it’s about farming the land responsibly, having fun, and making wines to share with family and friends. Because that’s what we are: friends, family – and friends who become family.”

I want to be a Friend of Tinhorn. Kind of like a Friend of PBS, except with tastier benefits.

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Photo Credit: Chris Mason Stearns
chris@chrismasonstearns.com

Go to this winery. Eat, drink and take in the magnificent views.  You can follow Sandra Oldfield on Twitter @SandraOldfield.  She’s wine-savvy and witty, and she can multi-task like no other. Every Wednesday night, Sandra hosts #BCWineChat from 8-9 p.m. PST.  Always entertaining.

Hester Creek – Here’s another beauty of a winery on The Golden Mile. I attended a private dinner at Hester Creek in April. It remains one of the best times I’ve had in the Okanagan to date. The people, the food, the wine…Hester Creek holds a soft spot in my heart. Like Tinhorn Creek, its neighbor to the north, Hester Creek has a lovely gift shop, a gorgeous tasting room, a great restaurant (Terrafina), and divine wines.

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The people at Hester Creek are as approachable and memorable as the product they make. I walked away with a case of their wine. That probably makes them good salespeople too, now that I think about it. Their wines, though, really are some of the best. Cabernet Franc is not a grape that usually wows me but Hester Creek’s Block 3 Reserve 2010 Cab Franc not only wowed me, it outright seduced me right there on the terracotta-tiled floor. I felt a little violated, actually, and I won’t even tell you what the 2009 Judge did to me. These people should be arrested.

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Cut east across Highway 97 to the Black Sage Bench.

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Le Vieux Pin‘s website states,  “Our goal is to make wines that capture the essence of French winemaking tradition, but with the fruit and character of the New World. We are dedicated to making wines that are elegant and focused, with great intensity of fruit.” They do that in spades.

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I stopped in, tasted everything, and bought 12 bottles of exquisite wine. Big, blockbuster reds come out of grapes grown on the Black Sage Bench. Le Vieux Pin’s 2010 Syrah is a serious, strapping wine absolutely meant for roasted, seasoned hunks of lamb or peppery charcuterie and stalwart cheese, but then, there’s Vaila, a delicate rosé just released, and a perfect summer wine with hints of rhubarb, pink grapefruit and snappy ripe apples.

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Ava is a deceptively smooth, yet interesting, white blend, and 2011 Equinox Chardonnay is described as having strength, complexity and finesse. It also has the chops to cellar well, but just try keeping your hands off this beauty. She’s hard to resist.

Stoneboat Vineyards –  lower Black Sage Bench. Stoneboat’s way of farming is one reason why I love this little winery. They state, “In growing grapes, we must consider the plant’s point of view- if it’s happy it will perform optimally.” I like happy wines.

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The name, Stoneboat, refers to a flat sledge used to carry stones off the fields. We called them “drays” on our farm in Saskatchewan. Clearing stones is backbreaking work, but the upside is that those stones in the calcareous soil of the vineyards are what make the wines of Stoneboat so unique. The stones retain the heat of the sun and radiate it towards the vines; the minerality of the rocky soil contributes to the qualities and characteristics of the grapes. If you like old world wines in a new world style, you’re going to love Stoneboat.  Big news for the winery: they are celebrating the first release of their Piano Brut, a sparkling wine made by the Charmat method, using Pinot Blanc and Müller-Thurgau grapes. The end result is fruity, fresh and crisp sparkler.

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Strike the ivories, this wine will have you singing its praises.  Champagne, you better check yourself…

Church & State – When I arrived at the winery, two people were working on the outdoor tasting bar. The man on his hands and knees with screwdriver in hand was Kim Pullen, the owner. He came into the tasting room and poured himself a glass of chardonnay. Who needs water when you’ve got wine? The contrast was lovely: a disheveled, dirt-smudged owner against a pristine, aesthetically stunning backdrop.

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Maybe what makes the people in the wine industry so approachable and genuine is the large dose of reality that hits them every morning they walk out the door. It’s hard to get too full of yourself when weeds need pulling, vines need pruning and things need fixing. Therein lies the balance; one struck between calluses and awards.

North side of patio
North side of patio

The new, west-facing, outdoor tasting area at Church & State has chillers to keep wines at optimum temperatures and misters to keep guests cool on days where the temperatures can hit 35 Celsius (or more).  Inside, the tasting room’s architecture mimics the wine profiles: sleek and clean with impressive construction.  My favourite wines of Church & State: 2011 Coyote Bowl Chardonnay, 2010 Coyote Bowl Merlot, and the 2012 C&S Cuvee Blanc.

Black Hills Estate Winery

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Black Hills Wine Experience Centre
Photo Credit: www.blackhillswinery.com

I call this winery The Bruiser of Black Sage Road. Whenever someone says its impossible to produce big, bold red wines from Canada, I want to knock that person over the head with a bottle of Black Hills’ Nota Bene, or the Syrah, or the Carmenere. Yeah, it’s possible – totally possible.  In the heat of summer though, consider a glass of chilled, citrusy Alibi and grab a seat, poolside on the patio. Sit back, relax; you might be here for a while. Black Hills has been a favourite of mine for almost a decade.

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Osoyoos

Moon Curser Vineyards – This winery is located on the Osoyoos East Bench, 3628 Hwy 3.  Although I didn’t make it to the winery, I had a chance to try some of Moon Curser’s wines at the Oysterfest in April. One sip of the 2012 Afraid of the Dark (a blend of Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne), and I was a goner – a happy goner, falling head over heels in love with this wine. They also have a scrumptious rosé, “Nothing to Declare”, and a succulent Viognier.

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I love Moon Curser first and foremost for their wines (they are knockouts), and secondly, for their sense of humour.

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There is nothing pretentious about this winemaking family. Just have a look at their website to see what I mean. Although they come across with a comical front on their website, when it comes to making wine, they don’t fool around. Check out what wine columnist, John Schreiner, has to say about Moon Curser.

 The Similkameen Valley

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The road to the SimilkameenValley

Do not bypass the Similkameen Valley. The valley is west of Osoyoos on Hwy 3 towards Princeton. A 20-minute scenic drive through the Richter Pass and you’ll be sampling wines from twelve wineries in the valley. You can also get to the Similkameen from the north, turning right off Hwy 97 just past Penticton on to Hwy 3A W (you’ll see signs for British Columbia 3A W/Vancouver).  The Similkameen has an intriguing history of gold mining, ranching, farming, and orcharding (yes, that’s a term). In fact, the 30+ acres of fruit trees planted by Francis Richter in 1864 are one of two founding orchard plantings in BC; the other being fruit trees planted by the Oblate Fathers in the Mission area of Kelowna. Things grow well in the Similkameen. There is magic in this terroir…maybe gold dust still lingers in the soil.

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Seven Stones Winery – I had full intentions of visiting several wineries in the Similkameen. Good intentions yes, but I arrived at Seven Stones, and that’s where I stayed. Why? Because the wines were that damn good — and I also got lunch, a tour of the land, and a history lesson from owner and winemaker, George Hanson.

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The winery takes its name from the seven boulders in the area, all of which hold special significance to the people of the First Nations. Each rock formation, it is said, has a legend attached to it. The closest boulder to the winery is Speaking Rock, and is the name of the winery’s first label. George makes some beautiful reds, like the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, a lush and brawny wine that I knew would be killer with a grass-fed steak, but the 2010 Legend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc created from the best barrels of the vintage) really stole the show. At $45/bottle, you want to pair this with something special, which I did when I got home – a 45-day dry-aged rib eye.

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 Don’t wince at the price of that wine; I’m wincing that I didn’t buy more.  If Sophia Loren and Cary Grant had a liquid lovechild, this wine would be it. Sultry, sexy, sophisticated and strapping – legendary attributes. Mind you, I can’t get the 2011 Pinot Rosé out of my mind either.

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 Face it; you’re going to need a bigger suitcase.  You can now understand why I didn’t make it past this winery, and I haven’t even yet talked about the cave.

Yes, the cave.

When I visited, the cave (designed and built by George’s step-son Colin) was about three weeks away from completion but even in its unfinished state I knew this space was going to be spectacular. The project required over 1.5 million pounds of concrete and structural steel to create the S-shaped cave with domed ceilings soon to be laced with a kick-ass Bose sound system. The cave will also have a commercial kitchen and space to store thousands of cases of wine. If the world is going to end, I want to be in that bunker when it does.

Orofino – I did have a chance to return to the Similkameen a couple of days later. Again, a tight schedule limited my tastings and I was able to drop in at one winery only, this time at Orofino, a straw-baled winery, and the only one of its kind in the country.

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Like many who visit the area, owners John and Virginia Weber fell in love with the Similkameen. They purchased the vineyard near Cawston and “took a leap of faith”, says Virginia.  Thank goodness for that leap because the Weber’s wines are magical. Remember that gold dust I was talking about that surely must reside in the soil? In Spanish, Oro fino, means fine gold, and the wines here are, simply, golden – as in stellar.

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Orofino is also known for the 1.6 Mile Dinner, a five-course meal using foods from artisan producers within a 1.6 mile radius of the Winery. The foods are then put in the hands of the ridiculously talented crew from Joy Road Catering who then feed lucky guests with dishes created from those ingredients. Get tickets if you can, you won’t be sorry.

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When I visited the Similkameen Valley in April, Herder Winery (just down the road from Orofino) was not yet open.

Herder Winery Photo Credit: www.herder.ca
Herder Winery
Photo Credit: www.herder.ca

This is a winery I will call on again as their Meritage is one of my favourite wines and one offered at a terrific price of $20. I have yet to try the much-heralded Josephine, but I’ll fix that little problem when I return in September.

More information on Similkameen Valley wineries can be found at http://similkameenwine.com

So many good wines and not enough time to try them all, but man, what beautiful, wonderful fun I had in my exploration. Who knew research could taste so good?

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