Top tips for touring Canada's wine country
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The Okanagan valley in British Columbia is home to more than 100 wineries that pull in plenty of tourists in summer. But other seasons have advantages for wine-loving tourists too
If your ideal vision of a wine-tasting tour goes hand in hand with leafy vines laden with plump grapes, summer is the best time to visit British Columbia’s Okanagan valley. The only problem is that you’ll run into a lot of other people with the same postcard-worthy picture in their heads. So be prepared for lots of tourist traffic on the highways and in the tasting rooms, as well as high-season hotel rates and withering temperatures in the southern part of the valley. If all that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, consider a winter trip to the Okanagan, one of Canada’s top wine-producing regions. Vineyards look almost as nice with bare vines and a dusting of snow as they do when they’re lush with foliage, and there are a number of other perks that should make bundling up worthwhile.
For starters, you’ll find little competition for spots at the tasting bars and a lot of attention from the people pouring the wine, who at small wineries may well be the owners or winemakers themselves. So rather than just gulping and running, you’ll be able to ask questions and find out a lot more than you could in a crowd about the wines you’re tasting.
Hotels and resorts will welcome you with open arms and bargain rates, and you’ll have no trouble getting a table at a well-reviewed restaurant. And as late as December or as early as February, the weather might be nice enough to sneak in a round of golf at one of the area’s many public courses.
If you’re really lucky, you could be on hand for the icewine harvest. But no amount of advance planning will guarantee you a ringside seat for that — it’s entirely dependent on the weather, which has to drop to minus eight degrees Celsius before the harvest can take place.
Genuine British Columbian icewine is spelled as one word, so be wary of labels that say “ice wine” or “iced wine” — it’s likely made from grapes picked when they’re ripe and then commercially frozen, rather than left to freeze on the vine. The latter process is said to produce sweeter, more intensely flavoured grapes, ideal for turning into icewine, which is often served as an after-dinner cordial.
In terms of exported vintages, BC is best known for its award-winning icewines, which are particularly popular in the Asian market. But there’s more than just icewine to taste in the Okanagan, whatever time of year you decide to visit. The Thompson Okanagan region alone, as it’s officially known — which stretches roughly from Osoyoos in the south to Valemount in the north, and Lytton on the west to Sicamous on the east — has more than 100 wineries. The two largest clusters are between Penticton and Kelowna in the central part of the valley, and Osoyoos and Oliver in the southern area, which touches the border with the United States.
In these areas, you can easily tour several wineries in one day — on a guided tour or with a designated driver, of course. There are so many excellent ones that it’s hard to single out just a few, but some are notable for reasons other than the quality of their products.
For instance, Nk’Mip (pronounced IN-ka-meep) Cellars in Osoyoos is North America’s first winery owned and operated by an aboriginal band. The Osoyoos Indian band owns not only the award-winning winery, adjacent vineyard and Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre nearby, but it has partnered with Bellstar Hotels and Resorts to run the luxurious Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa steps away from the winery.
In Kelowna, you won’t find anything else like the Summerhill Pyramid Winery, notable not only for its fine organic wines, icewines and sparkling wines but for its signature pyramid, a scale model of the Great Pyramid of Giza. All the wines spend time in the pyramid, which winery owner Stephen Cipes believes has special powers that enhance the wine’s character.
Across Okanagan Lake from Kelowna, Mission Hill Family Estate is one of the province’s largest and most successful wineries, and it’s also well known for its bell tower, its underground wine cellars blasted out of volcanic rock and its outdoor amphitheatre, which hosts plays and concerts in the summer. And nearby Quails’ Gate Estate Winery can claim bragging rights to the wine served to US President Barack Obama during his first official visit to Canada in February, just a month after his inauguration.
If you like what you’re tasting, you can buy a bottle — or a case — right at the winery. But if you don’t and later wish you had, the Wine Country Visitor Centre in central Penticton has an excellent wine store that stocks vintages from many of the local wineries. There’s also a well-stocked small wine store at Kelowna International Airport to make sure you don’t fly home with any lingering regrets of wines you’ve loved and left behind.