Exploring Canada’s Breathtaking Wine Country

If the movie “Sideways”—in which best friends Miles and Jack road-trip through Southern California wine country—ever gets a sequel, screenwriters should consider setting it in a little-known area some 1,200 miles north.

Part of British Columbia’s sun-kissed Southern Okanagan Valley, the scenic Oliver Osoyoos region is home to Canada’s most outstanding vineyards and wines.

Nk’Mip Cellars, Osoyoos, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nk’Mip Cellars, Osoyoos, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite a relatively youthful vintner culture, which began in the 1960s with table grapes, today’s scene is prolific and world-class. About 41 wineries make up Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country, named for the two towns that serve as its anchors. The vineyards there—Osoyoos, located immediately above Washington state’s border, is about 250 miles, or 4½ hours, from Vancouver—grow grapes for the Okanagan Valley’s nearly 200 licensed wineries.

With rare exception, the 1 million cases of wine produced here annually — from pinot gris and chardonnay to cabernet sauvignon and merlot—don’t ever make it to US shelves or restaurants. In fact, they barely make it outside British Columbia due to limited production and locals’ voracious consumption of the stuff.

Hester Creek Winery, Oliver, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hester Creek Winery, Oliver, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among the most picturesque and family-friendly is Tinhorn Creek, which hosts family-friendly all-ages concerts between May and August.

Meanwhile, a fourth-generation family farm and winery, 650-acre Covert Farms, offers a 90-minute tour ($46 for adults) with wine, charcuterie, organic produce and encounters with llamas and adorable, long-haired Scottish Highland cows.

What also sets the region apart from Napa or Sonoma is North America’s first aboriginal owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, as well as a handful of Indian-run wineries. That’s because during the 1980s and ’90s, many East Indian immigrants settled in Oliver Osoyoos as farmers; Punjab-born siblings Sukhi and Balwinder Dhaliwal were among them. After cultivating grapes for other wineries, five years ago they founded a family label, Kismet Estate Winery.

Looking south towards Osoyoos from the patio at Tinhorn Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking south towards Osoyoos from the patio at Tinhorn Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Producing 6,000 cases annually, their cellar includes a delicious, award-winning wine called Safed. The name means “white” in Punjabi, and it’s a citrusy white wine blend with orange muscat and semillon. This year, the Dhaliwals added a four-room guesthouse and the delicious Masala Bistro restaurant.

Visitors to Kismet can do a vineyard-and-winery tour and tasting for $12, while a tasting of up to 10 samples goes for a suggested donation of $4 to the Canadian Diabetes Association.

In fact, tastings throughout Oliver Osoyoos are a bargain. Stoneboat charges a mere $4 for four samples (plus a bonus bubbly), waived with any purchase. Husband and wife Lanny and Julie Martiniuk, a former scientist and pharmacist respectively, started growing grapes in 1979 and produce about 8,000 cases annually, including the world’s only pinotage icewine. A South African visitor gifted the Martiniuks some pinotage vine clippings, and while uncommon in North America, Lanny found they propagated well thanks to western Canada’s dry desert-like climate.

Osoyoos and Lake Osoyoos © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking south towards Osoyoos and Lake Osoyoos © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vino is downright sassy at the sleekly designed Church & State Wines, whose Lost Inhibitions line is distinguished by cheeky labels (e.g. “I’d Swipe Right For You” and “Fancy AF”).

The 6-year-old Platinum Bench, meanwhile, draws as big a following for its toothsome artisanal breads, including an epi (a type of baguette) with baked-in brie and pear preserves, as its superb limited-run rosé. Co-owner Fiona Duncan (husband Murray Jones is the co-owner and vintner) learned breadmaking in San Francisco as a form of stress management, and they easily sell 250 to 350 loaves during peak days. A four-wine tasting with bread is $4.

Oliver Twist Winery, Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oliver Twist Winery, Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tasty poolside pizzas and stunning hilly views can accompany tastings—six two-ounce pours for $15—at Black Hills Estate Winery. Jason Priestley of “Beverly Hills, 90210” fame is a partner, and although famed for a red Nota Bene, Black Hills’ syrah is a super juicy gateway to the varietal. Syrah and a surprisingly plush merlot also win over visitors to Bartier Bros, whose Okanagan-born siblings, Don and Michael Bartier, are especially proud of the minerality the region’s rocks and soil feed the vines.

At Hester Creek, food and wine are in equal focus, with pairings as well as cooking classes by British Columbia’s top chefs. Definitely try the Okanagan’s only Trebbiano, its grapes plucked from the estate’s 50-year-old vines.

Le Vieux Pin, Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Le Vieux Pin, Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver; NK’mip RV Park and Campground, Osoyoos; Walton’s Lakefront RV Resort, Osoyoos

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

Leave a Reply