uncorking canada’s okanagan

Perhaps one of the world’s most intoxicatingly picturesque places is the Okanagan Valley, nestled in the southern centre of British Columbia is at the heart of Canada’s wine production.  Ontario has some gorgeous vineyards in Niagara that produce some great wine, but it’s true specialty is ice wine.  If you want to get into the regular stuff, you really should head out west.  While living in Vancouver, I made the most of the Okanagan, a mere five-hour, extraordinarily mountainous drive away.  With a few quality visits under my belt, I feel as though I’ve tailored my favourite way to uncorking this underestimated wine haven.

Situated in the spectacular Okanagan Valley, an area dramatised by large mountains and sparkling sapphire lakes, ‘the Okanagan’, as it’s called, produces some really fantastic quality wines.  The Okanagan has a few different areas to it, and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll group them as north (including Kelowna, West Kelowna, Okanagan Centre, Salmon Arm, Armstrong, Vernon), middle (Peachland, Summerland, Naramata, Penticton), and south (Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls, Oliver, Cawston, Keremeos).  I’m most familiar with the north, so that’s where my recommendations will come from.  Before signing off, however, I’ll give you a couple ideas for exploring the rest of the Okanagan.  As for the north, like any area plentiful with nature’s favourite beverage, some wineries are better than others, but there are three vineyards in particular that should top everyone’s list if you really want to understand what’s so special about this region.

Quails’ Gate

Quails' Gate

I’ve been to Quails’ Gate three times now, and it never stops making me love it.  On Mount Boucherie in West Kelowna (also known as Westbank), Quails’ Gate looks out onto one of the most impressive views of the glittering Okanagan Lake.  Their wineshop is the first place visitors go, and you can wow yourself with the stunning background as you participate in a tasting at the bar.  Knowledgeable staff members chat away about the different samples you can try (for a small cost), and tell you about the Quails’ Gate properties, family, and product development.  They’re easily the most friendly hosts of all the vineyards I’ve visited.

Wine with a view

If you’re hungry and have some money saved (which I definitely recommend), you absolutely must reserve a table at Quails’ Gate’s Old Vines Restaurant.  Sitting right next to the wineshop, the rustic-chic restaurant has simply the most delectable views of the Okanagan.  If you possibly can, request a seat outdoors, because this will be a meal you won’t want to quickly forget.  Aside from the view that is impossible to ignore, the food is ridiculously good.  Difficult as it will be to make a menu selection, anything you get will be amazing, so don’t stress too much.  Same with the wine.  Their wine ‘catalogue’ has all of their varying wines, including my personal favourites – the Old Vines Foch and Pinot Noir – and allows guests to choose and customise wine flights of small glasses of different wines.  Do it.  Also, get the cheese platter, and watch the sun set with a glass of port.  You will be so happy you did.  Please trust me.

Must-Try Wine: Old Vines Foch

Cedar Creek

Cedar Creek

Right across the lake from Quails’ Gate is Cedar Creek Estate Winery.  Looking like a Spanish hacienda, without going overboard, this setting feels a little like SoCal, but with far less pretentiousness.

The wine shop and tasting room offers lots of goodies to peruse and three wine samples for a reasonable $5.  You can also take a tour of the winery and enjoy a lovely lunch on the outdoor patio of The Terrace restaurant, which has the opposite, yet just as stunning, view from Quails’ Gate.  Cedar Creek is also a common venue for weddings, and once you visit, it’s very easy to see why.

Must-Try Wine: Gewürtzraminer

Gray Monk

Gray Monk

Not too far north of Kelowna, Gray Monk sits on the east bank of the Okanagan Lake in Okanagan Centre, and offers one of the most impressive locations and settings in the Okanagan.  Their large wineshop has a balcony with a sweeping view of nothing but the lake and mountains, and the rest of the facilities are etched further into the mountain-side.  Gray Monk is one of the largest and most well-known wineries in the Okanagan (probably second only to Mission Hill), and visitors benefit from its popularity with free tours and free(!) tastings.

Down the path from the wineshop is the Grapevine Restaurant, featuring more spectacular views and a varying menu highlighting local Okanagan and BC cheeses, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.  Seeing as Gray Monk is well worth a visit, but also sits a little further from Kelowna, you’re best to arrange a taxi to and from…especially when free tastings are offered!

Must-Try Wine: Gamay Noir

Middle

If you’re going to be in the middle section of the Okanagan, based on word-of-mouth and my personal consumption of the wines originating there, I would have to recommend the following: Township 7 and Poplar Grove.  I’ve also heard good things about Dirty Laundry and Sumac Ridge. 

South

South Okanagan is a place I really wanted to get to, but never had the time.  Separate from the wine, Osoyoos is meant to be one of the most scenic parts of the Okanagan.  What I also like about the south is that they’ve got a high concentration of wineries, and really seem to take it all very seriously, in the most un-serious, relaxed way possible.  I would absolutely recommend Nk’Mip, a winery on a Native reservation, because the wine is fantastic (especially their Chardonnay), and they have a resort, meaning you can drink and eat and then sleep, all in one place.  Also, definitely check out Church and State (I went to a wedding at their Vancouver Island location and it was fantastic), Burrowing Owl, Blasted Church, and See Ya Later Ranch.   

O-mission Hill

If you’re familiar with the Okanagan, you may have noticed that I’ve left out Mission Hill.  Just a few quick words why.  It’s worth a visit, sure, but it’s the most commercial of all the wineries in the Okanagan.  It’s situated on top of Mount Boucherie, imposing its large, modern tower on the landscape below.  While its facilities could be considered by some as impressive, what it really is is cold, formal, and uninviting.  The views are great, as always, but the atmosphere just doesn’t quite fit consistently with the rest of the Okanagan, which is friendly, welcoming, and genuinely interested in their product, not dollar bills.  In my opinion, the wine is definitely good quality, but not outstanding, and there are better experiences to be had elsewhere in the region.  The only thing I really loved about Mission Hill – the resident golden retriever resting happily amongst the vines.

Uncork and Prosper!

Following this brief guide on how to uncork Canada’s Okanagan wine region, I hope you are inspired to get up north, pop the cork, and let the wine flow.  It will be one of the most memorable (or not!) vacations you take.


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