The silvery tinkle of a bell brings us to table.
This particular table is set atop a hillside of vines that plunge down to sparkling Skaha Lake. Fairy lights dance in the tree branches above us as we sip Blue Mountain winery’s bright bubble. Servers carry long planks loaded with charcuterie and tiny pickled vegetables, all of it, from the beets to the brut, grown just up the road. As we take our seats, Chef Dana Ewart reads a passage from her bible, Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food: “Remember, food is precious,” she says.
And so begins another magical night at God’s Mountain Estate in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley
Not so long ago, the Okanagan was known as the land of beaches and peaches, a sunny getaway for British Columbians who couldn’t afford the trip to California. Today, it is one of the world’s most exciting emerging wine and culinary regions.
From the cool, forested Lake Country in the north to the hot, dry Osoyoos desert in the south, the Okanagan Valley boasts a remarkable diversity of terroir, climate and wine styles that range from delicately fragrant Rieslings to lush, opulent Syrahs. Where there is fine wine, there is fine food to match. Here, much of it travels just a short distance from family-owned organic farms to winery restaurants where the only thing better than the food is the breathtaking view.
Until recently, the Okanagan was something of a best-kept local secret. But now everyone from the young royals to world-famous wine critics is discovering it. And if you listen closely, that tinkling bell might just be calling you, too.
From the US border, a series of lakes – Osoyoos, Vaseaux, Skaha, Okanagan – follows the Okanagan River up between rocky bluffs to the small city of Vernon, which is surrounded by even more lakes. Known (not too surprisingly) as Lake Country, this is one of the world’s most northerly wine regions, hovering in the cool climes of the 50th parallel. Pinot Gris, Riesling and Pinot Noir dominate here.
Critics adore the austere Pinot Noirs from the sleek 50th Parallel Estate winery. But for sheer wine-soaked fun, you can’t beat the warm and welcoming Gray Monk, the valley’s oldest family-owned winery. Owners George and Trudy Heiss are known for aromatic German white varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Erhrenfelser. They are even better known for their hospitality: When they join us for lunch on the patio of their casual Grapevine Restaurant, they turn a simple grilled salmon meal into a party.
A half-hour drive south down Highway 97, we reach the city of Kelowna, the booming business centre of the Okanagan. It is also the valley’s culinary centre, home to most of its hotels, shops, wineries and the annual Canadian Culinary Championships. We graze our way through the city’s buffet of delicious things: biodynamic sparkling wines at Summerhill; refined Riesling at Tantalus; tangy chevre from Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan; floral honey at Arlo’s; anise-scented absinthe at Okanagan Spirits; chef Rod Butters’ legendary crab cappuccino at RauDZ Regional Table.
The bell tower high above the west side of the city beckons us across Okanagan Lake to Mission Hill Family Estate. The most famous winery in the valley—think of it as BC’s Robert Mondavi—is as well known for its impressive art and architecture as it is for its award-winning wines, which include lusciously buttery Chardonnays and Occulus, a powerhouse Bordeaux blend that is among the region’s priciest bottles.
But we love our Pinot, too, so we slip next door to the gracious Quails’ Gate Family Estate Winery. The Stewart family has been producing elegant Pinot Noirs here for more than a quarter century; now their young winemaker Nikki Callaway is adding her soft, refined touch to the heartbreak grape. We enjoy a glass—which pairs beautifully with both the charcuterie plate from chef Roger Sleiman’s kitchen and the view down the valley—on the patio at the winery’s Old Vines Restaurant.
Naramata and OK Falls
We keep following the sun down Highway 97 to arrive in Penticton, where we cross the narrow isthmus between Okanagan and Skaha lakes and turn south onto Lakeside Road. It swoops along Skaha Lake’s eastern shore, shaggy mountain sheep clambering out onto the rocky hillsides to watch as we pass God’s Mountain and continue to Okanagan Falls.
At Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars, the Mavety family has been growing exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since 1971 and their traditional method brut is consistently rated one of the best wines produced in BC. Next door, one of the valley’s newest wineries, the minimalist-modern Liquidity, has quickly become one of its most lauded, not just for its elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but for its art-filled bistro, where executive chef Simon Bouchard creates clean, unpretentious, farm-fresh fare.
Both wineries share the same iconic outlook over the rolling vineyards, along the river and past McIntyre Bluff. This massive chunk of gneiss, also known as Indian Head, marks the beginning of the south Okanagan. We might be in Burgundy here in OK Falls, but only a few kilometres down the highway, we could be in the Rhône.
Just on the other side of McIntyre Bluff, Covert Farms grows heat-loving Roussanne, Syrah, Zinfandel and all the Bordeaux grapes, which end up in their dark, raisiny Amacitia blend. We hop in the back of Gene Covert’s cherry red 1952 Mercury pickup truck for a tour of his family’s organic farm and vineyards, rolling past fields of strawberries, tomatoes and a small herd of longhorn cattle. We stop in an orchard to pluck seductively perfumed heirloom peaches straight from the tree. We have never tasted anything so good.
Beyond Covert, the valley widens and temperatures soar. Instead of pine scrub, hills are covered in sagebrush. By the time we reach the town of Oliver, we are definitely in big red territory.
From our prime patio seats at Tinhorn Creek Winery’s Miradoro Restaurant, we watch the setting sun bathe the Black Sage Hills in rosy-gold light. Restaurateur Manny Ferreira pours darkly floral Cabernet Franc into our glasses, while Chef Jeff Van Geest pulls flame-licked pizzas and brown-butter-roasted halibut from the wood-fired oven. Although the inspiration may be Mediterranean, everything here is as local as possible, from the porcini mushrooms foraged in the hills behind the vineyard to the tender char farmed in Oliver.
Further south, near sun-drenched Osoyoos, is Canada’s only true desert, where you find cacti, rattlesnakes and RVs filled with heat-seeking tourists, many of them parked at Nk’Mip Cellars. This is Canada’s first aboriginal-owned and -operated winery, where members of the Osoyoos band oversee the inky black grapes that go into their extraordinary Qwam Qwmt range.
Finally, we are at road’s end, and we check into the Watermark Beach Resort by the warm waters of Osoyoos Lake. We take a seat on the patio and look through the wine list, which features so many of the places we have visited, and so many we haven’t. Yet.
Far off in the distance, I’m sure I hear a bell ringing, already calling us back again.
Both WestJet and Air Canada fly into Kelowna International Airport as well as the smaller Penticton Regional Airport. By car, Kelowna is about a four-hour drive from Vancouver and seven hours from Calgary.
In Vernon: Sparkling Hill Resort