Visiting a close relative in Kelowna (British Columbia) on a rainy autumn weekend, my wife and I decided to take a drive through the Okanagan Valley, well-known as an important wine-producing region in Canada.
We thought we'd drive south from Kelowna and visit some of the wineries in the area before heading back to Vancouver.
The OkanaganValley is long and narrow, about 160 kilometres in all, running in a north-south direction from Vernon to the U.S. border. Several deep, narrow lakes fill the valley floor, dominated by the largest which gives its name to the entire valley.
It's ideally suited for wine production because it sits in an area of "rain shadow," between the Coastal and Monashee mountains. Rainfall in this valley is lower than in other parts of the province as most precipitation falls on the western, or Pacific, side of the Coastal range. The long summer days and bright sunlight favour grape ripening, while the lake air limits temperature extremes. The micro-climates along the sides of the valley offer unique wine growing opportunities.
We started off with a visit to Cedar Creek Winery, on the east side of Lake Okanagan, across the water from Mission Hill, the region's biggest winery. Cedar Creek in contrast is a mid-sized operation, producing about 38,000 cases of wine per year. It commands a beautiful view of the lake. Like all the wineries in the area, the owners offer tours and wine tastings. In the vineyard, we admired some bright rose bushes. They serve an important purpose. Roses are the first plants to attract pest infestations and serve as a valuable signal of any impending hazards to the grapes.
Each of the wineries we visited referred to the importance of the aging process in oak barrels. Cedar Creek buys ninety-five percent of their barrels from France, where oak trees have been grown for this purpose for hundreds of years. Janet, our guide, showed us three special barrels that were made from a tree that was planted in France back in 1650. The other five percent of barrels used at the winery come from American oaks. Each kind of oak imparts a unique flavour to the wine. We were told that each barrel holds enough wine to fill 300 bottles. The cellar was filled with many rows of them. The barrels are not cheap. We were told they cost about $1,200 each.
A fire almost destroyed the estate in 2003. Fortunately, the wine maker had previous experience with forest fires in California and he organized men and earth-moving equipment to dig a fire break around the property. Before evacuating, he soaked the buildings and the trees. The fire spared the winery, but damaged the one next door. It was a devastating event for the town, as more than 230 homes in the area were destroyed.
Later we crossed the Kelowna bridge and visited Quails' Gate winery, where we ate an early evening dinner in the restaurant. We looked down the hill at all the vine rows stretching towards the lake, this time on the west bank. Proving the estate's name was not mere fancy, we saw a family of quail strutting between the plants. To the south, the sandy-coloured Mission Hill bell tower rose above the evergreens on the hill.
This part of West Kelowna is also interesting for another reason: the nearby Mt. Boucherie winery sits on the side of a dormant volcano. Boucherie mountain rises only 417 meters above sea level, but tens of millions of years ago it was much higher, standing at approximately 2,000 meters . The combined effects of wind erosion and glacial ice sheets have reduced its size and rounded it's top. However, the volcanic rock is very visible and it's a still favourite spot for climbers and geologists.
The next day we headed south on our way to Penticton. We drove down through Peachland and Summerland and admired the changing scenery on both sides of lake. Since the 1980s, the Okanagan has attracted more investment each year. Over 200 wineries are now located in the region. Daytime temperatures in the northern part of the valley are on average about 4 degrees Celsius cooler than the southern reaches. The soil in the north tends to be composed of clay and gravel, while in the south it's sandier. For these reasons, white grapes grow better in the north, while red grapes, which require warmer temperatures and more sunlight, do better in the south. Common varietals in the north are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. Southern varietals are Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
We learned that all along the valley grapes are grown on geographical features named "benches." These are outcroppings on the hillsides that favour agriculture and benefit from moderate air rising from the lake, afternoon sun and reflected heat off the rocky ridges behind them.
Near Penticton, we visited the small Nichol winery on the "Naramata Bench," rising on the east side of Lake Okanagan. It has a rock face to its back and fields sloping down towards the water. Because of the rain that day we were the only ones in the wine shop, so we had a lengthy chat with the seller and enjoyed the wine tasting. Harvesting this year will be weeks behind schedule because the cool, wet spring and the early fall is retarding grape ripening.
Lake Okanagan ends at Penticton, and a short distance south from there you encounter Skaha Lake on the way to Okanagan Falls. Along the way we saw a large group of aboriginal people performing a kind of ceremony on the banks of a river. We continued on towards Oliver. The country here starts to change, looking more arid. Sage makes its appearance on the hillsides and fruit tree plantations dominate the valley floor. The region between Oliver and Osoyoos on the U.S. border is actually the northern tip of the Sonoran desert. The Sonora, in various forms, starts in the Baja Peninsula and extends all the way up the western part of North America behind the rain shadow of the coastal mountain ranges.
The highlight of the day was a visit to the Burrowing Owl winery, halfway between Oliver and Osoyoos on the "Black Sage Bench, " not far from Lake Osoyoos. This large winery grows over 13,000 acres of varietals. Owned by the Wyse family, this estate commands a great view of the valley and the lake to the south, arid mountains at its back.
The proximity of the mountains sometimes brings surprises. An employee told us that few days earlier a bear cub had visited the fields. "We won't begrudge the bears a few grapes," he said. The area also is home to snakes, so pickers need to be careful. The winery has guest rooms, a pool and a large restaurant, among other attractions.
That evening we headed west again, rising up from Osoyoos to enter the Similkameen Valley. As we drove towards the dimming sun along the Crowsnest Highway, we were treated to extraordinary mountain scenery and unspoiled landscapes. We passed through a string of towns that owe their heritage to the gold rush of the 1860s and now focus on agriculture and ranching. We continued home with our few bottles of wine in the trunk. The Similkameen Valley deserves another trip of its own.
Cedar Creek winery
Mission Hill winery
Quails' Gate winery
Mt. Boucherie winery
Burrowing Owl winery
The Okanagan Valley