Oliver: Canada’s Wine Capital

Oliver is the Wine Capital of Canada—and for good reason.

This is a solid fact that confronts every visitor who drives into this South Okanagan town on Highway 97. Facing both North and South, two big signs broadly and proudly proclaim “Oliver – Wine Capital of Canada.”

Fairview was once home to 15,000 people and site of several mining operations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairview was once home to 15,000 people and site of several mining operations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a grandiose declaration, but there it is. Plain as the luscious grapes on those vines.

Oliver, named after John Oliver, the premier of British Columbia (1918-1927), was first inhabited around the end of the 19th century as a supply station for miners who were working in the nearby Fairview area. While there had been mining activity in the area prior to that, the Cariboo area of Northern British Columbia had pulled many workers away. This turned around in 1892 when the area then known as “Sooyoos” (now named Osoyoos)—translating to “where two lakes come together at a shallow crossing” saw another boom.

At the end of the 19th century, close to 15,000 people lived in Fairview, which was the site of several bountiful ore and gold mines. The neighboring Oliver area boomed around 1921 following the completion of an irrigation canal, an innovation of Premier John Oliver. Newly-irrigated land was made available for reasonable prices to veterans returning from WWI in 1921, and again to veterans returning from WWII in the 1940s.

The Gehringer brothers grow grass between their vines to provide nutrients to the root system. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gehringer brothers grow grass between their vines to provide nutrients to the root system. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the development of the wine industry, most of the agricultural land in the Oliver area was planted to melons, squash, and other ground crops and later to fruit trees such as cherries, apples, apricots, and peaches. Many of the local orchards are owned by immigrants from Portugal in the 1950s and India in the 1980s.

Today the Wine Capital of Canada is one of the best wine-growing areas in North America. Vineyards dot the landscape and provide the necessary ingredients to produce some of the finest vintages in the country.

Approximately 30 wineries are located within 15 minutes of Oliver, the largest concentration of both vineyards and commercial wineries in British Columbia. The sun, the soil, the climate, and the topography have created special and unique terroirs that are evidenced by these thriving vineyards.

Quinta Ferreira makes wines in the Portuguese style. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quinta Ferreira makes wines in the Portuguese style. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winters are short and relatively mild while summers are hot, with average July/August temperatures topping those of the Napa Valley in California. Its northerly latitude accounts for very long hours of intense sunshine during the critical growing season, again, more than Napa. Wineries of The Golden Mile are located south of Oliver on the western slopes of the valley. This west bench is recognized as a separate viticulture area that is rich with glacial deposits formed from the last ice age. Well-drained gravel, clay, and sandy soils produce varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer.

Hester Creek’s grapevines were first planted in 1968, when Italian immigrant and would-be grape grower Joe Busnardo was looking for the perfect spot to plant the cuttings he’d brought from Italy. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hester Creek’s grapevines were first planted in 1968, when Italian immigrant and would-be grape grower Joe Busnardo was looking for the perfect spot to plant the cuttings he’d brought from Italy. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wineries in this area run the gamut from the log cabin tasting room of Fairview Cellars to the upscale Tinhorn Creek complex, which offers a self-guided tour of the demonstration vineyard and barrel room along with concerts and theatrical performances in an outdoor amphitheatre.

From Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, proceed to Gehringer Bothers, Hester Creek, Cassini Cellars, Culmina Family, Road 13 Vineyards, C.C. Jentsch Cellars, Kismit Winery, Maverick Winery, and Gold Hill.

Across the valley and stretching south, the Black Sage bench flattens out. On very deep sand it produces Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. Black Sage bench wineries are somewhat farther apart. Heading south on Number Nine Road you’ll find Silver Sage and Oliver Twist Winery.

Dodging the tumbling tumbleweeds, follow Black Sage Road to Church & State Wines, Black Hills Estates, Platinum Bench, Desert Hills, and Quita Ferrara Winery, until finally arriving at Burrowing Owl.

Quinta Ferreira makes wines in the Portuguese style. Burrowing Owl, probably the best-known winery in this area, hosts guest rooms and an upscale restaurant, the Sonora Room. Take the self-guided tour of the bell tower, interpretive displays, cellars, and viewing platform..

. Established in 1993, the winery is one of the best known from the region and, perhaps, all of British Columbia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

. Established in 1993, the winery is one of the best known from the region and, perhaps, all of British Columbia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are numerous exciting driving routes through the area that will allow you to tour various wine growing regions, wineries, historic town sites, artist’s studios, and the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory.

Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

Leave a Reply