While it seems like there’s news coming out of the Okanagan on a weekly basis about yet another winery opening or the release of the next hot wine, the region is still quite small by global standards. Virtually all of the wineries in British Columbia could be described as “boutique” wineries.
But, while Okanagan winemakers may not produce hundreds of thousands of cases per year, what they are producing is exciting, well-thought-out wines, and they’re doing so with a profound understanding of their vineyards.
The approval in 2015 of a sub-region called Golden Mile Bench is one of the most significant things to happen to the Okanagan in recent years, and wines labelled as such have already started appearing. After several years of planning, consultations and effort, the unique characteristics of the 21-kilometre stretch of terrain south of Oliver were identified – including the soil, elevation and frost-free nature – making it the first wine sub-appellation in B.C.
It’s expected that more sub-regions will follow, but they won’t (and shouldn’t) appear overnight, as the process, by design, takes years. “It should be grounded in the ground,” says Sandra Oldfield, president and CEO of Tinhorn Creek. “It has to be meaningful.”
Wineries to visit this summer
For those with Okanagan wine touring in their sights this summer, the practice of cramming in as many winery visits as possible (or until the trunk is full) might not be the best way to spend precious vacation days. Wineries have more to offer now, including exceptional restaurants – Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek, the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl, the Vanilla Pod Restaurant at Poplar Grove and the Bistro at Hillside winery, to name a few – as well as concerts, cooking classes and guest accommodations. Pick a handful of wineries to visit over a few days, then relax, eat, relax, drink, and I promise the wine will taste even better.
Wineries worth a visit this summer are a mix of new and old. The more established picks include Van Westen Vineyards, Poplar Grove, Hillside and Laughing Stock on the Naramata Bench, while further south near Oliver, Le Vieux Pin and Burrowing Owl are great visits, along with Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland and Painted Rock Estate winery near Penticton.
Noteworthy new wineries
Newer (and worthy) additions to the valley include 50th Parallel, north of Kelowna, Liquidity, the microscopic winery of Tyler Harlton in Summerland and Culmina Family Estate and the new facility at Bartier Brothers in Oliver. Always phone ahead to confirm opening hours and to ensure the best possible experience as some wineries accept visitors by appointment only.
If your budget permits, consider booking a winery tour by helicopter, such as those offered by Valhalla Helicopters (rates start at $1,575 for up to four people). I’ll tell you from experience there is nothing quite like pointing to a waiting chopper and saying, “Yeah, that’s my ride.”
While the larger or more-established wineries may offer the most polished experiences, the smaller, newer wineries are often the most genuine – you might find yourself tasting with the owner or the winemaker and discovering a unique and surprising wine. In other words, don’t skip a winery because you might not have heard of it (yet).
Insider’s tip: Bringing it all home (legally)
The rule for Albertans regarding buying and bringing back liquid libations is that you can bring as much as you want home with you – as long as you are accompanying your purchase. If you are planning on shipping wine home or ordering once you get back, that is still against the rules (if you don’t like it, by all means tell your MLA).