Featured Food & Drink Travel

Business Class: Sipping Wine in the Dramatic, Indie landscape of the Okanagan

You may not know it yet, but you’ll be headed to this little nook of Canada perfectly, with wines for every palate, soon enough.

Written by Karolyne Ellacott

Osoyoos: Okanagan’s wild, wild wine country

Zipping down Highway 97 from Kelowna to Osoyoos, BC, one thing is imminently clear: this is not Ontario wine country. A valley stretches out in front of the undulating road, with sharp cliffed mountains beyond, while signs point to “fresh cherries” and Peachland — a bona fide town. The Okanagan is something else.

While in Osoyoos for the west coast chapter of Devour! — Nova Scotia’s inspired festival celebrating all things food and film — the excitement surrounding the Okanagan is palpable. Wannabe sommeliers, knowledgeable foodies and the merely wine curious have all gathered at the lakefront Watermark Beach Resort for the third annual fest, but good food and wine is nothing new to the locals.

Anyone who’s spun their way around many a Prince Edward County (or Niagara) vineyard, picked up bars of artisanal soap at wee shops and noshed at the Drake Dev will find the wild west an exciting new region to explore. The landscape is more dramatic, there are wines for every palate and, overall, the spirit is more indie. This is for that person who scarfed down lunch at Famiglia Baldassarre long before everyone was gabbing about it. Plus, donning a cowboy hat wouldn’t look out of place.

Similkameen Valley, a vintner’s haven

Located in the south Okanagan, the Similkameen Valley appellation (also known as the grape growing area) boasts a clutch of indie wineries spread over 28 kilometres. Dubbed the the Similkameen Independent Winemakers, this group is composed of 12 wineries including Orofino, Rustic Roots, Seven Stones Winery and Corcelletes Estate Winery. So, what makes this appellation so special?

Well for starters, the Similkameen desert-like in nature, with high temperatures by day and crisp evenings. Creating something called the diurnal shift, these semi-arid conditions create desirable natural acids that are typically hard to get in hot climates. These highs and lows — combined with other factors from Mother Nature — allow for a wide variety of grapes to settle into the soil. Merlot is the top varietal in the nabe, followed by Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

When it comes to tasting the terroir of the Similkameen, it’s a pretty unique spot; Vancouver Sun wine writer Anthony Gismondi observed that these qualities aren’t easily duplicated elsewhere in the world. Generally speaking, wines from Similkameen — and BC as a whole — tend to have a riper flavour profile than those from Ontario (though this is admittedly hard to quantify). BC vino also tends to showcase more of that sought-after mineral quality. Basically, this little nook of Canada is perfectly suited to growing all sorts of grapes.

It’s all about the wine tours

But more about the tours. Wine tasting tours of the area can be organized through companies like South Okanagan Wine Country Tours. Patrons can choose from a number of regions; we toured the Similkameen, while others jaunts include wineries further afield and may even loop in a visit to Penticton’s iconic farmers’ market.

Given the indie nature of the Similkameen winegrowers, their backstories really come hand-in-hand with their wines. Corcelettes is a labour of love from the super personable husband and wife team Charlie and Jesce Baessler. Swiss by birth, Charlie brings his upbringing into their wines, with a dry and fruity Chasellas in particular drawing up memories of his past life. A Swiss flag peeks out of a flowerpot and guests can tee off on a small patch of grass while gazing into the valley below. (Heckling is absolutely encouraged.)

They also pour a 2017 Oracle rosé that uses grapes that from vines that Jesce, her mom and grandma planted 12 years ago, resulting in a wine that scooped up Gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships.

Over at Seven Stones, the views are even more breathtaking. Winemaker George Hanson bought the land after years of working in the telephone industry in the Yukon. While working on the property, his beloved Vivianne passed away — though not before drawing up specific plans for their temperature-controlled wine cellar, which George made sure to stick to.

Vivianne’s portrait welcomes tasters at entrance to the cellar while strains of baroque music emerging from below. After all, the music is meant to help better age the grapes. It’s safe to say that George is a romantic, and based on the repeat tastings of the Syrah poured, the tunes work.

Those looking for a dose of food, art and wine, should head to Liquidity Bistro located in Okanagan Falls, which sits halfway between Kelowna and Osoyoos. A giant dandelion sculpture greets visitors upon entry and owner Ian MacDonald’s rotating art collection is visible throughout the property. Chef Matt Martin cut his teeth at the Michelin-starred Relae in Copenhagen before hopping over to BC.

His menu adapts to the seasons, celebrating local produce beautifully on the plate with a strong veg lean (a dish centred around broccoli sprouts was a standout). Meanwhile winemaker Alison Moyes’ offerings include a 2016 Chardonnay Reserve, which was listed as the number one wine in the Top 10 Chardonnays to nab gold medals at the 2018 Chardonnay du Monde Awards.

What to do when you’re not tasting wine

Back at the resort, there’s plenty to do with any spare time that can be rummaged up. During our stay, beloved local chef Adair Scott of Watermark impressed the dinner crowd with his honey-glazed smoked duck.

Fortunately those aforementioned desert-like temps also make great poolside lounging conditions — or some kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding on the glassy lake for the athletically inclined. (Pro tip: Don’t head under the bridge unless those one-pound weights in spin class are a joke.)

Additionally, there’s beachside yoga and bicycle tours can be arranged for anyone dead set on weaving a bit of their Niagara experience into BC. Those willing to go further afield can head to the Pentiction river channel — dividing Okanagan and Skaha lakes — where folks pile into tubes and float away with the current.

And, lest we forget, there’s always the Osoyoos watering hole, The Owl, where patrons can get into a game of pool or two. After all, wine tasting is hard work.