Even to someone accustomed to going round wineries, Mission Hill is just jaw-dropping. The 40 specially commissioned sculptures, the 12-storey bell tower, the collection of ancient Greek amphorae, the Chagall tapestry … this is as grand as a wine experience gets, yet it’s not in the Napa Valley but a thousand miles to the north in Canada’s Okanagan Valley.
Wine is booming in the Okanagan. Twenty years ago, there were only 31 wineries in the region; now there are over 130. The area is dominated by the spectacularly beautiful 135km-long Okanagan lake, which runs from Vernon in the north down to the semi-desert region of Osoyoos. It’s even reputed to have its own equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, the Ogopogo.
Although not that well-known to overseas tourists, it’s a favourite summer holiday spot for Vancouverites and a refuge for Canadians from states such as Saskatchewan and Alberta escaping the brutal winter temperatures of the midwest. “As soon as you come out here, you feel as if you’re on vacation,” my guide told me. “There’s so much to do on the lake – sailing, boating, kayaking – or you just pull over and go for a swim.”
Ambitious wineries such as Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate have been fuelled by a tech industry boom that has brought an increasing number of well-heeled millennials to the region. Wineries have always been a plaything for rich entrepreneurs like Mission Hill’s Anthony von Mandl but less flamboyant estates, such as LaStella and Hester Creek (which has its own chef’s table and cookery school), are engaging places, some modelled on Tuscan farmhouses.
The Okanagan, like parts of the neighbouring US states of Oregon and Washington, was until recently an undeveloped rural area, dotted with ranches and fruit farms, and this tradition can be witnessed at first hand through farm-to-plate experiences on estates such as Covert Farms’ sprawling 650 organic acres.
This is the only place I’ve been to where you can combine a tasting tour of the farm with a wine tasting. Owner Gene Covert, the fourth generation of his family to farm the property, drives us around in his pick-up truck, stopping in the vineyards for a glass of sparkling “pét-nat” naturally fermented rosé and to cram our faces with wild blueberries straight off the bush. From the farm, there are hikes up the towering McIntyre Bluff, a 300-metre cliff formed during the last ice age. Maybe before, rather than after, the wine tasting, I suggest.
Another much smaller farm, Backyard, does the farm-to-plate thing by running a chef’s table and cookery school. It’s owned by chef Chris van Hooydonk, who walks us around the heavily laden cherry trees of his two-acre “hobby” orchard before cooking us a simple, impeccably sourced lunch matched with local wines. All the ingredients are conscientiously name-checked: fat, sweet Red Bay scallops, sustainable prawns, organic lentils, home-grown peas and peashoots.
With talent that could easily have made him a shining light in Vancouver, van Hooydonk chose to live in the Okanagan, so he can spend more time with his family and “cook food I’m excited about that week”. It’s not a cheap meal, but it can accommodate 10 people and you can take your own wine. “And I’m there in the kitchen,” says van Hooydonk. “A lot of people say they like shaking hands with the person preparing the food.”
There’s an individuality to the Okanagan that’s not found in Napa, or even Sonoma. Take the tiny Upper Bench Winery & Creamery in Penticton, where UK-born Gavin Miller makes the wine and his wife, Shana, an impressive selection of cheeses. We can taste the two together, and Gavin’s deep pink rosé is a unexpectedly good match with Shana’s punchy Stilton-style King Cole blue.
Upper Bench is just one of a number of wineries along the Naramata Bench, a 14km ridge that was once part of the lakeshore. From a touring point of view, they’re ideal as they’re closely spaced. Practically next door to Upper Bench are Poplar Grove, with a showcase tasting room, and its rock’n’roll sibling Monster Vineyards – an allusion to the Ogopogo – which has all the urban vibe of a downtown Vancouver wine bar.
As you drive further south, it gets progressively hotter and drier. A large part of this southern part of the Okanagan, Canada’s only desert, is owned by First Nation Canadians, who farm some 32,000 acres around Osoyoos. They, too, have a winery and resort called Nk’Mip (pronounced inkameep), along with an absorbing cultural centre which traces the history of the Osoyoos people.
Under an invitingly blue sky, I set out on the Nk’Mip walking trail but have second thoughts when I see the yellow warning signs: “Be alert: watch for rattlesnakes.”
“You rarely see one,” my guide Darlene tells me later, only half convincingly. Rarely is too often for me.
This comparatively unspoilt part of the world seems to be particularly rich in critters, including black widow spiders (eek!), wild deer and bears. These last are a particular hazard for winery owners as they can eat their own weight in grapes in one day.
I can’t honestly blame them.
The Okanagan valley is four hours’ drive from Vancouver, or visitors can fly to Penticton or Kelowna and pick up a hire car.
Where to stay
Hotel Zed (hotelzed.com) is a colourful new boutique hotel in downtown Kelowna with a table tennis lounge and complimentary roller skates. High above the valley floor Observatory B&B (jacknewton.com) in Osoyoos has its own telescope and rooftop observatory. Spirit Ridge at NK’Mip Resort (spiritridge.ca) is First Nations owned, with villas and a couple of pools.
Where to eat
Waterfront Wines (waterfrontrestaurant.ca) in Kelowna is a small bistro run by chef/sommelier Mark Filatow, offering great value for the high quality of food. Miradoro, the restaurant at Tinhorn Creek winery (tinhorn.com) is one of the many classy winery restaurants in the valley offering tapas and pizza as well as a full restaurant menu. Part grocery, part cafe, the Bench Market (thebenchmarket.com) is a homely Penticton institution and great for breakfast or brunch, with epic scones.
Authentically Okanagan (aoktours.com) and Experience Wine Tours (experiencewinetours.ca) offer organised tours of wineries up and down the valley. A cheaper option is planning a self-guided tour on the OK “hop on, hop off” wine shuttle (okwineshuttle.ca). More information from Tourism Kelowna (tourismkelowna.com)
The trip was provided by Destination British Columbia (hellobc.com)