While it’s no secret that the Okanagan Valley is one of the world’s great wine-growing regions, there are still many Canadians who have yet to experience its unique and diverse landscape – and when they do, they come away amazed.
“Visitors cannot believe the quality of the experience and they can’t believe that it’s in their own backyard,” said Ellen Walker-Matthews, the Vice President of Destination and Industry Development at the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association. “We were just talking about an al fresco dinner that happens every Sunday night throughout the spring, summer and fall up at God’s Mountain Estate, which is just outside of Penticton. A member of my team said if you flew to Europe and had this experience, you would think that you had found gold.”
While wine lovers can visit and enjoy the region all year round, the peak experience is in the fall when the grapes are harvested and wine production in full swing. It’s also a time when the crowds have thinned and accommodation prices start to dip. To celebrate the harvest, the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society organizes the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival featuring hundreds of events at wineries throughout the region. Now in its 37th year, the 2017 festival runs from September 28 to October 8.
Stretching from Vernon in the north to Osoyoos in the south, the Okanagan Valley has a climate that is perfect for growing grapes. Wines produced here include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gamay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz, but different areas within the valley are better suited for specific varieties.
“Because the Okanagan Valley is so large, moves are being made to divide the region into sub-geographical indications that reflect the varying climate and grape varieties that are successful in the different parts of the valley,” explained Laura Kittmer, Media Relations Manager at the British Columbia Wine Institute.
“So far, only one sub-geographical indication has been created, the Golden Mile Bench in Oliver,” she said. “But based on climatic studies by scientists at the Summerland Research and Development Centre, the Okanagan Valley includes four unofficial sub-regions. From south to north they are Black Sage/Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls, Naramata/Penticton and Kelowna/Lake Country.”
Knowing where different types of grapes grow best will help you choose among the 174 wineries in the valley, a number that keeps on growing.
“Look at what kind of wines you like to drink and see where that fits in with the various wineries,” suggested Walker-Matthews. “There are some great wine shops here that can help, like the BC VQA store in Penticton. They feature over 120 varietals from the region and have experts on staff who can help you plan your route as well as talk to you about what kind of wines you’re looking for and what experiences you want to have.”
If you want to do a bit of planning in advance, there’s an app for that, says Kitttmer.
“Wines of British Columbia has a new Trip Planner App for web, iOs and Android which allows consumers to select the grape varieties and wine styles they prefer, the region they are visiting, and the kind of wine touring experience they are looking for, and it will recommend wineries in their selected area.”
To help get the word out about their products, neighbouring wineries have teamed together to market and promote themselves. As a result, different winery trails have popped up, helping visitors organize their explorations of the region.
“There are various wine trails that people can pick and choose from. What we see most often is people going with a wine tour operator and breaking up their trip to visit wineries in the north, then some in the central area and a few in the south, or vice versa,” said Walker-Matthews. “Another reason people like to go with a wine tour company is if you’re driving on your own, you can’t taste everything and be sober at the end of the day!”
Kittmer listed five unique wine trails in the Lake Country-Kelowna area as examples that people can explore. These are Kelowna’s Fab Five, Lake Country’s Scenic Sip, Westside Wine Trail, Lakeshore Wine Route and Downtown Grapes & Grains. Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive also offers unique wine trails as does the Naramata Bench or the 42 wineries now located along the east bench of Okanagan Lake just north of Penticton.
“We always suggest people see some of the big wineries, but don’t miss out on those special, unique ones because they are going to offer you a very different experience and the wines they are making are fantastic,” said Walker-Matthews.
While the area is celebrated for the quality of its wine, Walker-Matthews says that what sets the Okanagan apart from some other wine regions is the quality of the food offered and the interesting accommodation options that augment the experience.
There’s no bad time of year to visit the Okanagan, so even if you don’t manage to make it to the Okanagan this fall, there’s always winter.
“Winter months can offer a more off-the-beaten path experience for wine goers,” enthused Kittmer. “More wineries are staying open now during the winter months, offering winter-exclusive winery tours such as snowshoe wine tours and wine and food pairing experiences that might not be available during the peak season due to high traffic.”