You’d be hard-pressed to find a wine region more fascinating than British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Thanks to its north-south alignment, between the 49t and 50th parallels, and temperatures that transition from warm to cool, it nurtures a spectrum of wines. These range from aromatic whites and pinot noir up north to big reds in the warmer south. And cool nights let them all retain relatively high acid levels. The Okanagan Valley is also a region that you really have to visit to appreciate. Because many of its most-talented producers are boutique wineries that don’t ship outside of Canada. Several sell out in B.C. and Alberta alone. These are just a few of the things I learned on an Okanagan Valley wine tour, hosted by the BC Wine Institute. And here’s a look as some of the particularly memorable wine and food tasting experiences I discovered along the way.
A battle of the senses at Quails’ Gate
I’ll start off with the cool new tasting at Quails’ Gate, one of the region’s best-known and most-revered wineries. The production facility, tasting room and on-site restaurant sit on 125 vineyard-covered acres along the shore of Okanagan Lake, in West Kelowna. The winery recently introduced its Black Out Blind Tasting. The seated experience begins in a private space. When you enter, samples of three reserve wines await in black Riedel glasses that conceal their appearance. It’s up to you to evaluate the aromas and flavors to determine each varietal. You’ll be surprised what your nose and taste buds pick up when you can’t see what’s in your glass. The 45-minute session ends with a dessert wine in the tasting room.
For a more immersive experience, try the winery’s new five-course Reserve Paired Lunch, prepared by its on-site Old Vines restaurant. This is a great way to sample Quails’ Gate wines the way they were meant to be enjoyed: with food.
Dazzling wine and architecture at Mission Hill
You’ll feel time slow down as you pass through the arched entryway to the courtyard at Mission Hill Family Estate. This is another of the region’s flagship wineries. And it is also set along the shore in West Kelowna.
The grounds include an 85-foot-tall clocktower, column-lined terraces and other old-world inspired structures. But their clean lines and minimalist embellishments give them a modern look. The winery was redesigned by Seattle’s Tom Kundig, a principal at Olson-Kundig, in the late-1990s. And his work reflects proprietor Anthony von Mandl’s old-meets-new-approach. Among von Mandl’s many claims to fame, he created Mike’s Hard Lemonade. His family also owns three other Okanagan Valley wineries: CheckMate Artisanal Winery (more on this later), CederCreek Estate Winery and Martin’s Lane Winery.
Mission Hill raised the profile of Okanagan wines in 1994, when it won the award for world’s top chardonnay at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London. With vineyards in the valley’s five major growing areas, it sources its varietals from sites where they tend to grow best. These include pinot noir, Bordeaux varietals, riesling, pinot blanc, viognier and other whites, plus ice wine. Drop-in tastings are available. But a guided tour (several options are available) provides a better opportunity to admire the architecture and scenic grounds. You can also enjoy its wines by the flight, glass or bottle in its on-site Terrace Restaurant.
Keeping up with the Kitsches
With hip-hop setting a lively tone in the garage that serves as the tasting room, Kitsch Wines feels a little like a house party. And this is just one of the reasons to head to this fun spot in East Kelowna. After selling their successful SAXX underwear company, Trent and Ria Kitsch returned to East Kelowna and converted their 2.5-acre orchard into a vineyard. They also helped Trent’s parents plant a 10-acre vineyard on the neighboring property. After that, they hired sommelier/winemaker Grant Biggs and began producing wines at Kitsch’s parents house in 2015. (Trent Kitsch’s construction company managed the job of building the 15,000-square-foot mansion that houses the winery and tasting room—it’s a sweet pad.)
Their mostly estate-grown varietals, including chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling and pinot noir, reflect the setting’s ability to ripen grapes—without robbing their acidity. And Biggs, 35, is one of the most charismatic winemakers you’ll ever meet. His eyes light up when he describes foot-stomping grapes at harvest. And he wears his love for riesling on his sleeve, proclaiming it the “best white wine grape in the world.” His lineup includes separate dry and off-dry versions of his favorite varietal. And his 2017 pinot noir, a dark-ruby colored gem that offers bright notes of ripe cherry, is bound to put a smile on your face.
Sparkling lakeside sippers at Fitzpatrick and Evolve
Peachland and Summerland sound like the types of towns you would read about in fairy tales. And in real life, they exude charm along Okanagan Lake’s western shore, between West Kelowna and Penticton. Near Peachland, Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards sits on a 100-acre strip of shoreline, with about 40 acres of vineyards. The estate winery specializes in pinot noir, chardonnay, méthode-champenoise sparkling wines and aromatic whites, such as riesling and gewürztraminer. The airy, modern tasting room leads to a bistro, which serves locally sourced cheeses and charcuterie, delicious pizzas and other wine-friendly bites. And this is where I fell love—with their Big Leap Chardonnay. The lightly oaked beauty offered caramel notes that tasted like bits of candy in a spoonful of ice cream.
About 6 miles down the highway in Summerland, Evolve Cellars (above) offers a sparkling selection and setting of its own. In addition to aromatic still whites and a few reds, it also offers enticing sparklers, including a delicious frizzante-style gewürztraminer. Both Evolve and Fitzpatrick also offer Como-esque views across lake from their respective patios.
Locavore winery dining
The Okanagan Valley has developed a robust farm-to-table dining scene. And several wineries, in addition to Quails’ Gate, Mission Hill and Fitzpatrick, showcase the local bounty in their on-site restaurants.
In Oliver, the team behind the pioneering RauDZ restaurant group puts its modern touch on northern Italian cuisine at Terrafina restaurant, at Hester Creek Winery. The tasting room, restaurant and nearby six-unit inn resemble a Tuscan villa. And the restaurant complements the motif.
Along Okanagan Lake’s south shore, Time Winery brings the local bounty to downtown Penticton. The winery set up shop in an old movie theater, after giving it a thoroughly modern facelift, and opened its restaurant up front. The menu offers charcuterie, cheeses, spreads and nuts for its “build-your-own” boards. Meanwhile, comfort-inspired entrées, such as a chuck-and-brisket burger, an open-faced steak sandwich and skillet mac ’n’ cheese, cater to heartier appetites. In addition to its own wines, the restaurant offers a full bar. And I’m still relishing the memory of its Shadow ‘N’ Smoke martini. Made with locally produced Shadow in the Lake vodka, vermouth, and olives stuffed with house-smoked garlic, it filled my glass with an umami essence I won’t soon forget.
Back in West Kelowna, the Red Fox Club brings indigenous flavors to wine-country cuisine at Indigenous World Winery (above). Chef Andrea Callan incorporates traditional First Nations’ ingredients, including bison, salmon and huckleberries, into stylish seasonal presentations. On my visit, the choices included sliced bannock covered in melted cheddar and roasted garlic, and a fennel-scented venison pie. The latter was comparable to a meat pie. The cornmeal crust was filled with minced venison, a flavorful gravy and mashed parsnip. And pickled jalapenos and marinated cherries added alternating hints of spice and a savory sweetness.
Chardonnay and merlot soar at CheckMate
As previously mentioned, Mission Hill’s award for world’s top chardonnay in 1994 had a profound impact on the region. And von Mandl’s commitment to the varietal is on display among the vineyards above Oliver at CheckMate, which he established in 2012. Here, winemaker Philip McGahan specializes in small lots of chardonnay and merlot, sourced from 40-year-old, hand-tended vineyards in the warm southern valley. In the winery, McGahan employs partial wild-yeast fermentations, ages the wines in French oak for 16 to 22 months, and bottles them unfiltered and unfined. I have to confess: Chardonnay and merlot are rarely the first, second or third choices in my wine purchasing decisions. But these are no ordinary incarnations of these varietals. The chardonnays, in general, provide tantalizing combinations of vigor, barrel spice and ripe fruit. And the bright acidity and dried cherry notes of the Silent Bishop merlot made me hear angels sing.
Von Mandl is teaming with Kundig once again in renovating the site, the former home of Antelope Ridge Wine Estate. For now, a “pop-up” tasting room is set in a glass-encased jewel box of a kiosk. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer 360-degree views of vineyards down to Lake Osoyoos, the southernmost of the valley’s chain of lakes. Rather than describe the location of each wine’s vineyard source, staffers can just point. The tasting options include a four-wine flight for $20 (for walk-ins) and a six-wine flight for $35 (by appointment). And after you try the wines, which retail for $80–$125 per bottle, you’ll consider the tasting fee a bargain. Because they offer a chance to discover the heights that chardonnay and merlot can achieve.
About the Okanagan
The Okanagan Valley is located about 250 highway miles east of the coast, stretching north from the U.S. border for more than 100 miles. It became a leading producer of peaches, cherries, apples and other orchard fruits in the first half of the 20th century. But winemaking didn’t really take off until 1990, when the government established BC’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards.
Thanks to Okanagan Lake and a chain of smaller lakes to the south, the area has been a recreational mecca for decades. In addition to beachfront resorts and watersports, the valley offers more than a dozen golf courses, and myriad road cycling and mountain biking opportunities. You’ll find the most, in terms of hotels, restaurants and lively beaches in Kelowna, the valley’s largest city. And Penticton, on Okanagan’s south shore, offers a more laid-back resort-town vibe, as does Osoyoos, on Osoyoos Lake. Expect throngs of sun-worshippers, from families to festive bachelor/bachelorette groups, from across Canada in summer. Fall brings smaller crowds and weather that typically stays pleasant through October. Alaska Airlines, Air Canada and WestJet are among the carriers that serve Kelowna International Airport (YLW), about 10 miles north of downtown Kelowna. See it on a map.
[Photos: Top, courtesy of Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards; Black Out Blind Tasting, courtesy of Quails’ Gate Winery; Mission Hill and Evolve Cellars, courtesy of BC Wine Institute; Red Fox Club courtesy of Indigenous World Winery]