Situated at the edge of the winemaking world between the 49th and 50th parallel north (the same latitude, incidentally, as Champagne and Rheingau), the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, is the most stunning wine region you’ve never heard of.
Immaculate sunlight glints off a deep blue denim lake, fringed by verdant vineyards that run through cuttings of milky grey soil. A few autumnal leaves rustle in the breeze, adding contrast, depth and motion to the picture, as the resonant screech of a red-tailed hawk circling high on thermal air pierces the still silence. In the distance, a backdrop of rugged mountains lined with ponderosa pine and sagebrush are gently dusted with snow, signifying a shift in seasons. Their peaks shelter and protect the brilliant long lake and its patchwork of vines beneath a wide open sky.
This place will make you fall in love with wine all over again.
The Okanagan Valley is defined by the steep and sheltering Coastal Mountains to the east and the great Rocky Mountains to the west. It is a stunning landscape of ancient glacial lakes, ice dams and calderas; various volcanic and metamorphic rock, and silty, sandy, gravelly, and stony soils. Vines are subject to a marginal, very dry, cool to cold continental climate – think Central Otago, New Zealand. Some 3,500ha of vineyard are planted upon the sloped terraces, benches, and dramatic hillsides all along the deep and narrow Okanagan Lake. This important body of water acts as a great thermal mass, influencing much of the region’s vineyards by tempering the valley’s climatic extremes, cooling air down on hot days and warming it up on cold nights. The lake helps mitigate potential frost and sunburn, allowing the nearby grapes to ripen more evenly, crucially retaining their natural acidity. This is what gives the emerging wines of the Okanagan Valley their hallmark freshness and vitality.
“A signature of the Okanagan is bright, refreshing acidity, which is found in many of the wines from here,” says Christina Hartigan, wine director and head sommelier of Wildebeest restaurant, in Vancouver. “It’s not a huge region by most standards, but within its relatively small area, the Okanagan boasts a great diversity of varieties and wine styles.”
The valley is a winemaker’s playground. Pinot gris, chardonnay, and gewürztraminer are the most widely planted white wine grape varieties, while merlot, pinot noir, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon are the most common red varieties. Within 130km, or, say, two hours’ drive, there is a remarkable 2-3˚C difference in terms of temperature between the northern and southern ends of the valley.
The sub-alpine towns of Kelowna and Penticton are much, much cooler than the warmer, southern reaches of Oliver, and Osoyoos – classified as Canada’s only desert, complete with rattlesnakes. Thus, more delicate, aromatic varieties tend to be grown in the cooler, northern parts of the Okanagan, while more robust, full-bodied reds are predominately found further south.
“The region is known mostly for its reds and red blends, but there is a growing interest in aromatic whites, like riesling, which I think is the most exciting grape being grown in Okanagan,” Hartigan adds. “I guess the point is there is so much more to Canadian wine than just ice wine.”
The history of winemaking here is well over 100 years old. The first wine grapes were planted in 1859 by French Catholic missionaries. However, the industry remained fairly primitive for quite some time – thanks, in part, to a lack of decent vine material and any real working knowledge of high-quality winemaking in such extreme conditions.
Prohibition in the early 20th century didn’t help much, either. Throughout most of the 1900s, most ‘wine’ was made from native North American Vitis labrusca grapes and some French hybrids, as well as orchard fruits, such as berries and stone fruits.
The shift towards finer wines began in the late 1980s, when the Canadian Government initiated a vine pull program to ensure local winegrowers were able to compete on quality, in particular, with their southern cousins in the US.
The outcome was a 30-year explosion in Vitis vinifera plantings, winemaking experimentation, trial and error. The number of wineries grew from 17 in 1990 to more than 300 today, which are spread throughout this unique and still relatively unknown wine region.
“The Okanagan is absolutely beautiful, just gorgeous,” remarks Olivier Humbrecht MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. Humbrecht consults to one of the valley’s newest and most ambitious winery’s, Phantom Creek Estate.
“When I first came to the Okanagan, I was struck by the energy of the people and their pioneering spirit… and, when I tasted the wines, I thought, ‘there is potential for greatness here’.”
Humbrecht is helping to develop Phantom Creek’s vineyards – transitioning them to an organic and biodynamic farming regime – and to guide their white winemaking style, which places great focus on familiar Alsatian varieties, pinot gris and riesling.
“We spent a lot of time literally walking around in a lot of places, trying to identify potential vineyard sites to plant these Alsatian whites, because, obviously, the location of the vineyard is very important,” Humbrecht says. “My other mission is to ensure we can grow the grapes as naturally as possible, using biodynamics, which has been a great challenge, but an absolutely fascinating one for me to be a part of in such a new wine land.”
The 2017 Phantom Creek Pinot Gris (CAN $30) is quite charming, which is not a word that’s often associated with this much maligned wine grape. Alluring aromatics of gently spiced stone fruit, firm flesh of pear and subtle citrus flavours are conveyed by brilliant acidity, and a ghostly phenolic grip; crafted by a textually enhancing stay on gross lees for some 10 months.
Humbrecht works closely with ex-Carrick, New Zealand winemaker, Francis Hutt, who recently moved to the Okanagan with his family to take on the role as Phantom Creek’s winemaker. Hutt says he sees great potential in the Okanagan.
“The opportunity to make great wine here is fantastic,” he says. “Between the sites and the climate, it’s like stepping back in time to this untouched, unexposed, totally unique area. And the people here are all super enthused to achieve great things with respect to wine.
“They know they’re capable of achieving it, too, and that it won’t come without its challenges. It’s going to take time and quite of lot of communication to push for that extra level of precision. The journey won’t be as fast as some people may expect, but it’s already happening, and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Canadian winemaker Ted Kane has been a part of the Okanagan scene since 2001. He’s been taking little steps towards a bigger picture since he first became captivated by wine, when was just 17 years old. These steps eventually led him to the south Okanagan town of Oliver, where he planted vines in the spring of 2003, on what he says is “the perfect piece of land” alongside the even flow of the Okanagan River.
Enamoured by the wines of Bordeaux, his River Stone vineyard consists mostly of Bordeaux red varieties – cabernet sauvignon, franc, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot – plus some sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer.
“When I started out, I had a real vision for Bordeaux reds. That’s what I wanted to grow, so I needed to find a place I could grow them,” Kane explains. “And, of course, a lot of people are surprised that you can even make red wine in Canada, but the southern end of the Okanagan is absolutely the best place in Canada to grow red grapes, because of our climate … the heat and the dryness, and the rock and gravel soils.”
Initially, Kane sold his fruit to larger wineries in the region until he was able to establish his own brand, River Stone. His wines sell out with ease to loyal members of the River Stone wine club, especially his highly regarded Cabernet Franc, and the Bordeaux-inspired blend, Cornerstone.
The 2016 River Stone Cornerstone (CAN $37) is full of ripe and fleshy fruit, of deftly peppered plums and juicy blackberries, of savoury herbs, woody incense and hints of violet florals crushed beneath big tannins, and smooth, velvet textures.
“When I say Bordeaux-style, I’m not trying to emulate the Right Bank or anything like that. I’m more talking about grapes that really go and grow well together, here. They’re grapes that suit the environment and naturally showcase their structure and vibrancy of fruit, which is something we really can do well. In terms of wine, this is a special part of the world,” he explains.
There is definitely something special about wines grown in marginal environments. Whether it's semillon from the Hunter Valley, syrah from Marlborough, or riesling from along the Rhine, vitality in wine shines when vines are subjected to uncertainty. When mindfully managed and made well, a grapevines’ struggle to endure less-than-textbook growing conditions at such difficult sites can instill wines with a rare sense and sensibility of restraint and emotion, often expressed in the glass as elegance and grace.
That may be the secret to Okanagan wines as most grapes here are grown on the periphery of accepted validity.
Like the time the 2019 harvest was beginning to draw to a close, and a cold snap rolled into the valley, sending temperatures plummeting deep into the minuses, where no moderating body of water could help to mitigate the extremes. Canopies froze overnight, decimating any further chance for the vines to continue to ripen fruit.
“Every year we’re reminded by certain weather events that we’re making wine right on the edge, at 49, 50 degrees north. So you really have to plan accordingly,” says Australian-born winemaker Phil McGahan, from CheckMate Artisanal Winery.
CheckMate is located in the Golden Mile subregion, in the foothills of Mt Kobau, wedged between Oliver and Osoyoos, and specialises in growing chardonnay and merlot.
“We’re just inside the climatic envelope for merlot,” says McGahan. “It’s the earliest ripening of the Bordeaux varieties and part of the reason why there’s so much merlot planted in the Okanagan. But it’s rare you see that typical sweet fruit ‘jamminess’ that most people associate merlot with.
“There’s actually real complexity to these wines, backed by natural acidity that gives them freshness. That freshness cuts through the fruit to give you nice line and length, and a tannin structure that’s often quite fine.”
The 2015 CheckMate End Game Merlot (CAN $85) is like a rebel without a cause, thanks to the echoes of Paul Giamatti in the film Sideways. Regardless, warm tube-amp tones of dark red and black fruit persist; currants and berries brought back to earth by redolent truffle, licorice and spice. Flavour guided by brilliant acidity and firm tannins of tremendous finesse. Checkmate, Paul.
“I think the future for the Okanagan has to be high-quality wine, because the region’s not big enough to support mass-produced, $10 bottles, which I think is a good thing,” McGahan surmises. “Other than quality, we’re not a region that’s driving to be known for only one type or style of wine. We’re a small region that’s expressive and diverse, from north to south.”
Expressive and diverse, and still so young. The Okanagan is a small region with big ambitions.
“Our vision is to be the most recognised winery in Canada,” declares Santiago Cilley, CEO of Phantom Creek. “But the sites come first. There’s a history and a potential here that we must respect and unlock, and fine-tune in time.
“What we want to do is showcase the ability of the valley to produce world-quality wines, whilst acknowledging that we’re still very much a young and unknown wine-growing region. Ultimately, we want to be compared not just against the best locally, but against the best in the world.”
It’s difficult to detect even a trace of ego in this determined proclamation. After all, these are Canadians we’re talking about. The proof is in the obvious – albeit relatively unknown – quality of wines produced at Phantom Creek, CheckMate and elsewhere.
In this moment, these are the second-generation pioneers still firming up the foundation of their forebears, while also pushing the progression of winemaking method and technique in order to earn the global recognition that this region will, one day, assuredly deserve.
“We want to be recognised for the quality of our wines, but it’s got to be earned,” John Skinner declares.
Skinner is a former investment banker-turned-winemaker; a seriously ambitious winemaker. He is adamant his Painted Rock Estate Winery in Penticton is not an early retirement plaything. It’s his legacy.
“Myself and others built this business, literally, from the ground up, and now I consider myself to be a steward of this special piece of land,” he continues.
“I’m a guardian of this place for future generations, and I want to build a brand that my children, their children, and this region can be proud of. To achieve that, however, I’m a firm believer that it cannot be bought. It’s got to be earned.”
Like Cilley at Phantom Creek, Skinner is at the helm of one of the few wineries within the Okanagan Valley that has its sights set beyond the provincial confines of British Colombia. His Painted Rock vineyard and cellar door overlook the spectacular Skaha Lake, on the south side of Penticton. It’s a vineyard of granite and glacial silt, which was meticulously planted back in 2005, and is now beginning to produce some of the most promising wines in the region. Case in point, the Painted Rock Cabernet Franc.
The 2017 Painted Rock Cabernet Franc (CAN $45) is pure potential. It’s a New World-wine that leans towards the Loire, like an echo that has more clarity than its source. Heady red cherry hues, a cool compote of bramble and roasted bell pepper perfumes, mouth-wateringly mouth filling, finessed with a faint halo of oak and firm yet fleshy tannins.
“With time and patience, the wine has now become one of our most promising exports,” Skinner explains.
“It’s on the list at the Clove Club in London and in a few places in New York, too. Recently, we’ve been getting interest from a prominent wine buyer in California. So, that’s what I mean when I talk about earning that recognition on the international stage.
“Keep your head down, stay true to it,” he adds.
So, now you know. Canada’s Okanagan Valley may be the most captivating wine region you’ve ever heard of. It truly is the wine world’s sleeping beauty, replete with stunning scenery, proficient and ambitious people, and brilliant wines. The only way to know if the Okanagan is, indeed, the future of great wine coming from the New World is to visit and see for yourself. A few days is barely enough to scratch the surface, but it’s a start.
Day 1: Kelowna
Summerhill Pyramid Winery
4870 Chute Lake Road, Kelowna, BC, summerhill.bc.ca
Certified biodynamic and organic vineyard and winery.
TASTE: Cabernet franc.
3303 Boucherie Road, West Kelowna, BC, quailsgate.com
Stop for lunch and taste top-quality estate-grown wines overlooking Okanagan Lake. TASTE: Chenin blanc.
Mission Hill Family Estate
1730 Mission Hill Road, West Kelowna, BC, missionhillwinery.com
Stunning scenery, architecture, and wines.
TASTE: Compendium (red blend).
Day 2: Penticton
4320 Gulch Rd, Naramata, BC, bellawines.ca
Specialist in natural sparkling wines, methodé-ancestrale and pétillant naturel styles. TASTE: Mariani CL509 Gamay.
400 Smythe Drive, Penticton, BC, paintedrock.ca
Superb single vineyard wines grown beside the stunning Skaha Lake.
Poplar Grove Winery
425 Middle Bench Road, North Penticton, BC, poplargrove.ca
Spectacular views and wine tasting by day, incredible dining experience by night.
Day 3: Osoyoos
9304 2nd Avenue, Osoyoos, BC, larianacellars.com
Super boutique, outstanding wines of elegance and finesse.
River Stone Estate Winery
43 Buchanan Dr, Oliver, BC, riverstoneestatewinery.ca
Underrated single-estate wines crafted with skill and humility.
TASTE: Cornerstone (red blend).
Phantom Creek Estates
4315 Black Sage Road, Oliver, BC, phantomcreekestates.com
Remarkable estate crafting powerful and justifiably ambitious wines.
From Vancouver, either fly (1 hour), or drive (4 hours) to Kelowna. The drive over the Coastal Mountains is stunning. Once in the Okanagan, driving the lake, north to south, and back is a must.
While it is possible to drive around the lake in a single day, its much nicer to pick a few spots enroute to stay a night or two. There are plenty of quality accommodation choices in Kelowna, Penticton and Osoyoos.
Mariott Grand Okanagan Resort
1310 Water Street, Kelowna, BC; mariott.com/ylwok
Elegant and modern, this is an unparalleled destination for starting your Okanagan Valley vacation.
Penticton Lakeside Resort
21 Lakeshore Drive West Penticton, BC, pentictonlakesideresort.com
The lakefront setting includes deluxe guest rooms and contemporary suites within walking distance of the downtown restaurants and bars.
Watermark Beach Resort
15 Park Place, Osoyoos, BC, watermarkbeachresort.com
The definition of lakeside luxury in the South Okanagan, featuring extraordinarily comfortable and spacious self-contained suites.
➼ EATING OUT
Raudz Regional Table
1560 Water St, Kelowna, raudz.com; Kelowna’s best restaurant.
Wayne & Freda
105-249 Westminster Ave, West Penticton, wayneandfreda.com; Canadian caffeine oasis for fiends.
6060 Station St, Downtown Oliver, BC, olivereats.com; Super friendly.