Nestled in the southern-most part of British Columbia, the breathtakingly beautiful Okanagan Valley is looking unlike most other wine-growing regions around the world.
Taking centre stage are the valley’s simmering blue lakes, long stretches of white sandy beaches and a backdrop of gently sloping mountain ranges. It is a landscape in part almost looking desert-like, something that you would usually expect much farther south.
Indeed, the weather in this small part of British Columbia is quite different from the rest of the country. Summers are usually hot and dry with many days of sunshine, and winters are cool but by no means extremely cold. These perfect climate conditions have made the Okanagan the fruit basket of Canada, growing apples, peaches, apricots and cherries alongside a large range of vegetables. Testimony to this are the many fruit stalls lining the highway throughout the valley.
More recently, however, the Okanagan has become synonymous with wine production. Though the Okanagan wine industry is only in its infancy, local wines have already won many accolades. There are now around two hundred wineries (up from just 17 in the 1990s) and more are still popping up every year. And whilst most visitors still come because of the beaches, wine tourism in the area is growing rapidly. In fact, in 2013, the Huffington Post declared the Okanagan Valley the number one wine-tasting area in the world to visit. I could not agree more.
Many of the local wineries operate a tasting room, often with beautiful outside patios and a growing number is adding dining options. That said, the Okanagan so far remains something of a secret amongst international wine tourists. One reason might be that Canadian wines are rarely sold outside of the country. Due to the usually small size of most wineries, their production is often limited. Thus many of the wines do not even make it out of the valley.
Wineries are located throughout the valley, that stretches for around 180 kilometres from Lake Country in the north right down to Osoyoos on the US border. There are not many that are not worth a visit, especially given the great attention that is given to visitors in the tasting rooms, from knowledgeable staff and often the owners themselves.
However, if you go, make sure to explore the fabulous Naramata Bench on the eastern shore of Lake Okanagan, a few kilometres north of Penticton. The very specific topography and terroir makes the Bench ideal to grow a wide range of grape varieties. No surprise the area has the highest density of excellent wineries across the whole region, allowing you to move easily from one to the next. Exploring the wineries, be prepared to drive up and down small, winding and often steep roads.
You cannot drive by Hillside Winery without noticing the imposing wooden structure inspired by a gristmill design. The 22 metre tower it not there only for stylistic reasons though, it actually serves as ventilation shaft to cool the wine cellar during the hot summer months.
Wines to try: There is no questions that you should go for the award-winning Bordeaux-style Mosaic, aged for 14 months in French oak barrels and rich with complex flavours of plum, cherry and chocolate, and aromas of vanilla and cigar box. Also very good are the white Muscat Ottonel, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, all offering crisp and refreshing flavours, along with the red Old Vines Gamey, Reserve Merlot, Syrah (peppery), Pinotage (black cherries and coffee).
In case you are also hungry, the Bistro at Hillside Winery was voted ‘Best Restaurant Associated with a Winery in the South Okanagan’ and ‘Top 100 Outdoor Restaurant in Canada’ in 2017, though it has inside seating as well.
Open daily from April to November, 10am – 6pm and December to March, 11am – 4pm
1350 Naramata Road, Penticton
Approaching the winery form the parking lot above, your first impression will be that of a Tuscan country house. Nestled within a beautiful little garden, the site overlooks rows and rows of vines right down to the glistering lake.
Lake Breeze has been producing wines since 1995, which makes it one of the oldest wineries on the Bench, and over the years has won many awards for their excellent wines.
Wines to try: definitely the Viognier which is one of the best in the Okanagan, the outstanding Pinot Blanc, the Bordeaux-style Tempest and the Poplars Pinotage.
Stay for lunch at the Patio Restaurant. It’s offering outside seating only on a first comes first serves basis (unless you are a group of eight or more, in that case a reservation is required).
Open May to October 11am – 5.30pm, weekends in November 12pm – 4pm,
April: Friday to Sunday 12pm – 4pm
930 Sammet Road, Naramata
Expect to find excellent wines and perhaps the most stunning view over Lake Okanagan from the gorgeous patio, overlooking rows of vineyards reaching right down to the valley floor. Grab a glass of the refreshing Bench 1775 Brut Rose while feasting on their absolutely delicious wagyu flatbread. Alternatively, you can bring your own food and settle down in the dedicated picnic area.
Other wines to dry: crisp and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc are excellent. For those liking sweeter wines, the winery is also renowned for their Icewines.
Open daily Aprial to November, 11am – 5pm
1775 Naramata Rd., Penticton
La Frenz Winery
Founded as recently as 2000, the winery’s portfolio of elegant wines has already won many awards.
Go for a wine tasting on the patio (availability of place permitting) to enjoy the beautiful view with your wines. There will be no rush to go through the fleet of wines, and staff will take all the time to expertly explain the wines.
Wines to try: Be sure to taste their fruit-forward oaked Chardonnay, it’s absolutely fabulous. Apart from this, all other wines are also outstanding but my pick would be: the Viognier, Shiraz, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Open daily April to October, 10am – 5pm; weekends in November, 10am – 5pm
1525 Randolph Road, Penticton
If the stunning minimalist elegance of the winery and its beautiful, glass-walled tasting room are not already enough reason, the breathtaking views over Penticton and its two lakes from the tasting room and its adjacent patio should be convincing enough.
Wines to try: There is not one that’s not really good but go for the Merlot Bordeaux blend Legacy which is outstanding. Otherwise, the CSM a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, or the Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay.
For the hungry, Vanilla Pod Restaurant is constantly mentioned as one of the best winery restaurants in the area. It is open for lunch and dinner, February to December.
Open daily April to December, 10am – 6pm; weekdays November to March, 10am – 5pm
425 Middle Bench Road North, Penticton
Built into the side of a hill, the winery is tucked away into the rolling hills above Penticton. The first thing that will capture your attention while approaching the winery are the enormous wooden doors with the winery’s wrought iron logo. The best views over the rolling vineyards surrounding the winery are from within the rectangle tasting room offering a round-about view over the vineyards; although warm days definitely invite to sit down and have a tasting on the lovely patio.
Serendipity is open since 2011 only but its wine have already claimed several awards. It was named BC winery of the year in a New York wine competition and the only BC winery in 2013 invited to present its wine at the Calgary Stampede.
Wines to try: A full flight of tasting costs a moderate $3 only so there is no question to go for it all. The winery’s signature wine is their Bordeaux-style Serenata blend.
Open daily May to October, 10am – 5pm
990 Delbeck Road, Naramata
Most definitely not your usual winery. Though the structure is fairly basic, Therapy’s fun way of presenting their wines around the ‘pharmaceutical’ angle will capture you right from the start. Add the dramatic views over the rolling vineyards right down to the simmering Lake Okanagan and Cascade Mountains in the background and you are sold.
It is also one of the few wineries in the Okanagan with on-site accommodation in their own self-catering guesthouse.
Wines to try: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Shiraz and Merlot and off course Super Ego blend which is mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon filled out with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz. Also, try their red bubbly ‘Fizziotherapy’.
Open daily May to October, 10am – 6pm
940 Delbeck Road, Naramata
Misconduct Wine Co.
Run by a husband-and-wife team, this down-to-earth wine farm produces a small range of excellent wines. Owning no own vineyards, the winery sources its grapes from a range of growers across the Okanagan and Simikameen Valley from whatever vineyard offers the best grapes for any given season.
Wine to try: go for the Misfit, a white blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Viognier and the Misfit upper tier, the Suspect series.
Aptly named ‘The Kitchen’ Misconduct’s on-site restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday for lunch, and on Thursday stays open for dinner as well. Or bring your own food and go to the picnic area.
Open daily May to October, 11am – 5pm
375 Upper Bench Road North, Penticton
Township 7 Vineyards & Winery
Located at the beginning of Naramata Road, it’s one of the few wineries on the Bench that does not offer a spectacular view over Lake Okanagan. Still, it’s excellent wines are worth to detach yourself for a short moment from the sheer beauty of the area and concentrate on the wine only.
Wines to try: The crisp, herbal Sauvignon Blanc and the oaked and unoaked Chardonnays, the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Also, do not miss the ‘Seven Stars’ a crisp sparkling that is made in Township’s sister winery (also named Township 7) at Langley close to Vancouver.
Open daily April to October, 11am – 6pm (on weekends and holidays 10am – 7om)
1450 McMillan Avenue, Penticton
If you still have some time left done with the Naramata Bench, head off to Okanagan Falls and Oliver to pay a visit to a couple of other great wineries.
Nestled on a slope above Lake Vaseux, enjoy the sunning vistas of the Vaseux and Shaka Lakes from the winery’s patio or indoor restaurant. The winery is known for its beautiful art installations that you can find throughout the estate and in the vineyards (and of course its excellent wines).
Wines to try: Without question the Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the Champagne-style ‘Bubbly’ (yup, that’s actually the name).
The Bistro at Liquidity boasts a no-frills farm-to-table menu with produce sourced strictly locally.
Open daily June to October, 11am – 6pm
4720 Allendale Road, Okanagan Falls
The winery is named after the Tinhorn Quartz Mining Company, which was in operation on the winery’s site from 1896 to 191. If you are in the mood for a steep hike up the mountain, you can still find some remains of the old stamp mill behind the Gewürztraminer vineyard.
If it’s more for the wines that you are visiting, than try: the refreshing fruit-forward white Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The spicy Cabernet Franc is said to be the winemakers favourite and the elegant Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir are very good as well.
The Miradoro Restaurant is open daily for lunch, afternoon tapas and dinner.
Open daily May to October, 10am – 6pm; November to April, 10am – 5pm
537 Tinhorn Creek Road, Oliver
Nobel Ridge Vineyard & Winery
This little family-run winery not only has a range of outstanding wines. The beautiful tasting room including a little outside patio and a picnic area offer gorgeous views over lush green vineyards and the simmering lake.
Wines to try: really all of them are great but don’t miss the Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Meritage, Pinot Noir and ‘The One’, the estates elegant sparkling.
Open daily May to October, 10am – 5pm; and mid-October to April on Friday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm
2320 Oliver Ranch Road, Okanagan Falls
Wild Goose Vineyards
Vines were grown her since the early 1980s, although in the early years the harvest was sold to one of the larger wineries in the Okanagan. Finally starting to produce and sell their own wines in 1990, Wild Goose was winery number 17 to open its doors in the valley.
Owing to the German roots of its founder, Riesling and Gewürztraminer remain the flagship varietals.
Wines to try: definitely the Pinot Gris and the spicy Autumn Gold along with the Red Horizon Meritage, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and the powerful Dunkelfelder.
The ‘Smoke and Oak Bistro’ is open from Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner with a menu based on BBQ-style meat.
Open daily April to October, 10am – 5pm; and November to March Monday to Friday, 10am – 4pm
2145 Sun Valley Way, Okanagan Falls
And finally, other than wine …
While in Okanagan Falls, make a detour from the wineries and have some ice cream. Looking like a shack that some kids have painted as a school project, Tickleberry’s is in fact an acclaimed institution in the valley. The flavour list of their ice creams is quite extraordinary (and long). You will have a hard time choosing.
An finally, make sure that you drive through Keremeos either on your way in or out of the Okanagan. The area is boasting with fruit stands, literally one next to the other, offering everything what is grown in the valley.
Have you already been or are you planning a trip to the Okanagan? I would be curious to hear about your experience.