Sipping, cycling in B.C.'s South Okanagan wine country
OSOYOOS, B.C. -- The mountains are lined with pine trees, which give way to cactuses, tumbleweeds and fragrant sage brush. The harsh, greyish landscape is the rattlesnake's northernmost territory. The South Okanagan -- geographically considered a semi-desert -- is the hottest and driest place in Canada. And looking around, this wine region's unofficial motto could be: "This ain't Niagara."
But these sandy slopes are the foundation of an ever-expanding industry that is producing world class, award-winning wines.
There are more than 2,000 hectares of vineyards in the area of Oliver and its southern neighbour, Osoyoos. Most of the wine made here is consumed in province. To try most of it, you'll have to stop by.
A wine tasting tour by bicycle is an exciting -- and convenient -- means of experiencing this stunning region up close.
WINE COUNTRY ON TWO WHEELS
Pedal up and down the windy, winding hills overlooking the vineyards and you'll quickly see that pinot gris and merlot are the defining grapes of Oliver.
Every vineyard seems to grow one or both, and the wines speak volumes about the region's unique terroirs. There are two: The Golden Mile, west of the lake that bisects the valley, and the Black Sage Bench on the east side.
Heatstroke Cycle at Watermark Beach Resort offers a three-to-four-hour tour of Golden Mile wineries ($99.99 including bicycle rental) but if you aren't an athletic type primed for the challenging topography, fast and fun electric bikes are also available ($139.99). See Heatstrokecycle.ca.
At each winery stop in Oliver, there is sipping and listening -- tastings are paired with tales of wine making in the South Okanagan, which was once regarded as a gamble.
Grapes have been grown here since the 1970s, starting mostly with French hybrids. Since there's an average of only about 320 mm of rain each year, and the sandy soil doesn't retain water very well, heavy irrigation is essential. And it has transformed the landscape.
Lush green orchards, farms and vineyards have taken over a lot of the original antelope-brush ecosystem -- home to the aforementioned snakes, as well as badgers you don't want to mess with and lots of at-risk and rare species.
Small-and-medium wineries are the heart of this relatively young industry. On a Sunday visit, many winery owners are busy at work on site.
Adrian Cassini, the man behind Cassini Cellars in Oliver, was a successful businessman in Vancouver but when that fell through he and his wife moved to town and dedicated all their efforts to a vineyard he had previously bought.
"We moved here and we never looked back," Cassini says.
These days Cassini produces almost 8,000 cases of wine annually. He won more than 50 awards in 2013.
"We had vineyards back home," Cassini says, adding that he's originally from Romania. "It's in my DNA, I guess."
His sauvignon blanc -- an up-and-coming grape in the area -- pairs nicely with fresh dishes made from local products and seafood. Visit Cassini.ca.
Nearby is a winery with a wooden "Tasting Saloon" sign.
Outside, two affectionate dogs -- a retriever-lab mix and a scruffy old English sheepdog -- greet winery visitors.
Inside, the saloon is cloaked in trinkets of the old West -- antlers, horns and other kitschy frontier-style knick-knacks.
Conceptually, Rustico Farm and Cellars is a tribute to the area's mining, farming and ranching history. The centrepiece is log cabin bunkhouse -- reportedly a home for silver miners in Beaverdell, B.C., in the late 1800s. The story goes that the bunkhouse was discovered by an eccentric, who dismantled it and transported it on a specially built trailer to land that eventually became the winery.
"It became our icon," says owner Bruce Fuller, who is on duty behind the bar and clad in a cowboy hat and neckerchief complete with a concho. "Everything we do here, it kind of ties into the history of the house."
In a place where many wineries seem to aim for sophisticated, yet safe, Rustico's marketing is a breath of fresh country air.
"It's not all about the theme either," Fuller says. "And I need you to know that, because we make some really nice wines."
He starts the tasting by pouring a fruity semillon across a flight of tumblers, like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, and later demonstrates proper "tumbler-tasting" technique.
If you go, ask to try Rustico's Threesome -- a cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend. Rustico also produces a peppery old vine zinfandel, a rare grape for the area. See rusticowinery.com.
ROOTS OF WINE MAKING
It's hard to believe that just a generation or two ago, this region was really only known for its fruit orchards.
In 1990, there were fewer than 20 wineries in British Columbia. Today there are more than 120 in the Okanagan alone.
And while it's romantic to think about the province's wine industry as evolving into what it is now out of pure passion for the grape, that's only part of the story. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) posed a serious challenge to Canada's wineries. It led to more favourable import conditions for American vintners, who at the time were making higher-quality wines.
B.C. growers had a choice: Take government incentives to rip out those old hybrids and plant vitis vinifera to stay competitive, or risk having their businesses wither on the vine, so to speak.
After the Okanagan pioneers experimented and demonstrated that truly great wines could be made in the area, other entrepreneurs started their own ventures. New wineries are still popping up.
As the wine industry grew in the South Okanagan, so did the numbers of the people who wanted to experience it up close.
In Osoyoos, the amenities are sure to please wine connoisseurs in search of both comfort and recreation.
Watermark Beach Resort faces about 300 metres of beachfront on what's known as Canada's warmest lake. It boasts pet-friendly suites, a full-service spa, a gelato shop, yoga and pilates, plus a wine and tapas bar with Executive Chef Jonas Stadtlander at the helm.
For an evening of local wine paired with the spectacular bounty of local farms, the Mediterranean-styled Miradoro Restaurant in Oliver is open seasonally. Miradoro -- named one of the world's best winery restaurants by Wine Access magazine -- is a partnership between Tinhorn Creek Vineyards and Manuel Ferreira, owner of Le Gavroche in Vancouver.
Tinhorn is one of the most established players in Oliver, having started up in 1993. After that many growing seasons, you can almost taste the wealth of experience behind those sumptuous cabernet franc tannins.
AGRITOURISM FUN FOR GROWNUPS
On a tour of the 284-hectare Covert Farms in Oliver, the abundance of fresh produce is astonishing: Succulent heirloom tomatoes, sun-ripened strawberries, and of course, hectares of stunning red and white wine grapes ready to sample straight off the vine.
"Anything you see, you can eat," guide Derek Uhlemann says.
In between bumpy rides around the farm in a 1952 Mercury pickup, Uhlemann talks sustainable farming and explains the promise of agritourism as a way to get people to connect with their food and where it comes from.
His tour ends with tasting of Covert Farms Family Estate wines paired with delectable organic veg and charcuterie. See Covertfarms.ca.
WORTH THE TRIP
Other area wineries worth visiting:
-- Silver Sage Winery specializes in unique dessert wines, including Flame, a late harvest gewurztraminer with apricot, peaches and hot- pepper flavours and a long, spicy finish.
-- Hester Creek is one of the area's older wineries. Try their 2012 Character White estate blend.
-- In Similkameen Valley, just south of Osoyoos, John and Virginia Weber own Orofino, Canada's only straw-bale winery. For something different, try their refreshing citrusy Moscato Frizzante.
-- It sounds near-impossible, but the South Okanagan can do icewine, too. Inniskillin's tempranillo is unlike any other dessert wine in the region, and it's the gem of the company's Okanagan estate. No, it's not cheap.
-- LaStella is a Tuscan-style winery that embraces organic and biodynamic practices (what they call "non-interventionist wine making") to produce some of the finest dry reds and crisp whites the South Okanagan has to offer. The yields are low and price point is higher, but you can't go wrong with the 2012 Leggiero unoaked chardonnay ($25).
-- Try the 2010 Carmenere -- the so-called lost grape of Bordeaux -- at Black Hills Estate Winery on the Black Sage Bench in Oliver. There's also a great tasting bar (with a pool!).
-- A visit to Osoyoos demands learning the story of the award-winning Nk'Mip Cellars (pronounced Inka-Meep). Canada's first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery is on Osoyoos Indian Band land. (As our guide joked: "All our wines are reserve wines.") Big reds are king on this side of the lake, but the aromatic riesling is also a stand-out.
NEED TO KNOW
Osoyoos is about 60 km from Penticton Regional Airport and about 140 km from Kelowna International airport. Air Canada provides daily service to both airports. See aircanada.com.
-- Contact Destination B.C. at hellobc.com for more on travel and attractions in the region.
-- For more on the area's landscape and environment, check out the Osoyoos Desert Centre, which also offers tours. See desert.org.
-- The Watermark Beach resort offers golf, spa, and cycling vacation packages as well as a "complete Okanagan experience" that includes a guided eco-tour and a trip to Covert Farms. See watermarkbeachresort.com for prices and availability.