The Okanagan Valley, with its easy access to mountains, lakes, and more intriguingly, Canada’s only true desert (complete with cacti, rattlesnakes, and even tarantulas), has long been considered a holiday playground by British Columbia residents
But more importantly, at least to me, it’s also one of the northernmost serious wine regions in the world.
Enticed by the chance to sample some award winning wines, I recently flew half way around the world to attend the annual Wine Bloggers Conference (this year located at the Penticton Lakeside Resort and Casino on the banks of Okanagan Lake) and check out a wine region that, while incredibly popular with locals, is not all that well known internationally.
I arrived in Kelowna, a small town at the northern end of the Okanagan Valley a couple of days before the conference started to take part in a pre-conference excursion organized by Tourism Kelowna that would take us to three amazing and fascinating wineries.
Fresh off the plane from Vancouver, I checked into the lakeside Manteo Resort – minus my luggage that, according to Air Canada, was on a later flight. Unable to change, I did the next best thing. I took a walk down the street, found a beauty salon and booked in for a manicure.
When Bernie from Distinctly Kelowna Tours, arrived a few hours later to take us to Summerhill Pyramid Winery for dinner, I was still luggage-less and resigned to spending the evening in my well traveled tee shirt and jeans. But at least my nails sparkled and shined.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery, overlooking Lake Okanagan, is one of the regions most popular attractions, mostly because – yes, you guessed it – the pyramid that dwarfs the rest of the buildings on site.
But it’s not just a gimmick. According to Eric Von Krosigk (winemaker) and Gabe Cipes (resident permaculture and biodynamic expert), the pyramid offers near-ideal temperatures and a sense of stillness that seems to, somehow, enhance the quality of the wines. And after sampling a number of their reds, whites, and sparkling wines, I’d have to agree.
The next morning marked the arrival of my luggage and a divine breakfast with a view at Tantalus Vineyards. Tantalus quickly became my personal favorite for a number of reasons: the winemaker David Paterson’s New Zealand connection, the bottle labels that display Tahltan-Tinglit carver Dempsey Bob’s series of masks, and the winery’s honey connection.
First we sampled it on the waffles, then we wandered down the vineyard to the hives, where beekeeper Helen Kennedy from Arlo’s Honey Farm put on a demonstration, lifting a comb from hive, clearing it of bees, and letting us sample the unrefined product.
It was magic. And also very informative – turns out that almost three-quarters of our food depends on honeybee pollination. But the bees are dying, in large part due to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides (not a good thing! Look it up)
With full stomachs, a complimentary jar of honey, and an example of simple maths: no bees = less to no food, we departed for our next stop, Cedar Creek Estate Winery.
One of the first eight wineries established in British Columbia and owned by Canadian politician Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, Cedar Creek is picture book perfect, with stunning lakeside views, slopping vineyards, and featuring a couple of unique concrete ‘egg’ fermenters (video). Interesting fact: as a porous substance, concrete actually acts like oak and lets the wine breathe.
Winemaker Darryl Booker took us on a hike up the hills, amidst the vineyards, following the paths of the planned and soon-to-opened Senators Walkway. I’m not sure all visitors will be as lucky as we were, to have food and wine tasting stations established along the path. But even without the food and wine, the hike is worthwhile for the spectacular views in provides.
During the Wine Bloggers Conference over the next couple of days we visited a few more wineries but barely made a dent in the nearly 200 wineries scattered around the Okanagan Valley, almost all of them with spectacularly scenic views, overlooking lakes, hidden amongst and, in some cases, at top of hills.
Thanks to the myriad of microclimates that exist in the Okanagan Valley, these wineries offer a complex and exciting selection of wine varietals. .
But it turns out if you want to drink the wines of British Columbia, you have to go to British Columbia. There’s actually no other way around it. Unlike New Zealand wines, which can be found all over the world, most of the wine produced in British Columbia are consumed within the province.
Thanks to Catherine and Jenny from Tourism Kelowna, our hosts at Manteo Resort, Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Tantalus Vineyards, and Cedar Creek Estate Winery, as well as our enthusiastic bus driver Bernie from Distinctly Kelowna Tours to sharing your region with us.
(image credits: Cedar Creek Estate Winery courtesy of www.tourismkelowna.com – Bergeron 2011; Summerhill Pyramid Winery courtesy of www.tourismkelowna.com; all other images by @lizlewis 2013)