Whenever I travel in wine-producing countries I find there’s no better way of getting “beneath the surface” of my surroundings than seeking out and sampling the finest wines I can afford. So while in Canada I make tracks for the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to sample “the best of the west”.
From the air I get a good idea of why the Okanagan is special. As our flight from Vancouver descends into the valley’s hub city of Kelowna I have spectacular views of silver water twinkling in the sunshine. Okanagan Lake spreads for 135 kilometres through a glacier-scoured landscape. It’s an amazing 230 metres deep at one point and is one of five interconnected lakes within the valley.
The Okanagan countryside is fertile, productive and diverse. Around the town of Osoyoos in the valley’s south is Canada’s only true desert. It’s the northern wedge of the Sonora Desert that runs all the way up from Mexico. The north of the Okanagan Valley is lush country with fabulous golf courses with green fairways flanked by majestic firs. And in between the valley’s two extremes are stone fruit orchards and British Columbia’s finest vineyards.
The wineries are nearly all small production. And because top restaurants in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto snap up most of the finest wines, a valley visit is likely to be your only chance of tasting a range of styles – or even seeing some of the top drops. You can expect to pay $25 to $40 a bottle or a lot more for a particularly prized label.
The best-known Okanagan wine estates include Mission Hill, Cedar Creek and Burrowing Owl, But because two of these wineries are at opposite ends of the valley – a three-hour drive – it’s advisable to first decide which wineries you most want to visit and also, perhaps, stick to one region rather than try to see too much.
We stay a night at Burrowing Owl, in the valley’s south. In addition to truly superb wines enjoyed in the excellent restaurant, Burrowing Owl also has luxurious guest rooms beside a swimming pool. And while in the south, we also visit the nearby Nk’Mip Cellars, owned and operated by the Osoyoos Indian band.
Some of the finest Okanagan wines are found along the Naramata Bench, in the central valley Penticton region near Kelowna. The Bench is a stretch of high ground above Okanagan Lake’s eastern shore on which prime rows of merlot and pinot gris soak up the maximum amount of afternoon sunshine. The Kettle Valley Trail from Penticton provides fantastic views of the Naramata vineyards.
Mission Hill Family Estate in Kelowna is a no-expense-spared exercise in wine tourism. The estate is grand in every sense of the word. The bells in its iconic tower come from Annecy in France and first pealed over the Okanagan on the evening of December 10, 2000.
Mission Hill runs conducted tours, is on every tour bus schedule and hosts many special events. It’s probably the most commercial and tourist-oriented winery in the Okanagan.
I was soon seeking an antidote, something more intimate, and didn’t have to go very far to find it.