Blend your wine tasting with a trip to the beach, a peach or two, and a picnic
Thomas J. Story
Eye openers on the Okanagan wine trail
You’ll find all kinds of surprises along the road. Here are some of the wilder ones
1. Sideways was wrong
In this part of the world, Merlot is not the flabby beverage you may often have spurned. The cooler growing conditions brighten it and give it spine and structure and panache. Many Okanagan winemakers think of it as their "muscle wine" ― and curiously, it's Cabernet Sauvignon that tends to be the juicy, softer partner in Merlot–Cab Sauv blends.
2. Is that a saguaro?
No, but if you're in the southern end of the Okanagan, you are in fact in a desert. Grapes that do well in blazing weather ― like Zinfandel and Syrah (known here by its Australian name, Shiraz) ― thrive in this part of the valley, where temperatures can reach 105° in summer.
3. And yet frost is fine
Incredibly, the same patch of land can do ice as well as fire. In late November, frost settles over the vines, freezing any fruit left there. Pressed quickly, the grapes (usually Riesling, but sometimes Vidal or other varietals) yield ice wine, the intense, sweet golden wine for which Canada is famous. Because it's so labor intensive to produce and yields are so low, it's the most expensive wine you'll buy in the Okanagan, upward of $26 U.S. for a slender 150-ml. bottle. A nifty cocktail you'll see in the valley: ice wine topped with sparkling wine.
4. Blasts from the past
Not all those funky old hybrid vines were pulled out, and some of their grapes can produce good stuff. Keep your eyes open for loamy, dark red Maréchal Foch, Baco Noir, and Vidal.
5. More grapes you've never heard of
Besides Baco Noir, the Okanagan is a living treasury of little-known grapes from far-flung corners. How about Michurinetz from Russia? The light and delicate white Ehrenfelser? Take a sip of Austrian Zweigelt or Blau-fränkisch, and how about Sieger-rebe ― a super-aromatic German creation? Here's one that exists only in the Okanagan: Sovereign Opal, a white grape created at a local research institute. Calona Vineyards makes a deliciously floral wine from it for about $12 U.S. a bottle.
6. Speaking of price
In the past five years or so, price tags of up to $60 U.S. have started appearing for reserve wines or skillful Bordeaux-style blends. But in general, Okanagan wines are a great value, with most bottles less than $20 U.S.
7. Wine grows on trees
The Germans who immigrated here in the late 1800s grew such good fruit that the valley became renowned for it. Right away, enterprising winemakers began bottling this fruit, and what you'll find now is often elegant, subtle, and delicious. Top producers include Forbidden Fruit Winery, which grows eight kinds of peaches (some of them heirlooms) for its peach wines, and Elephant Island Orchard Wines, which makes a knockout cherry wine.
8. A piece of the Punjab
The all-organic Kalala vineyards, one of the Okanagan's newest wineries, is owned by an engineer from the Punjab region of India and is named after a village there.
9. Biggest vineyard owner in the valley?
No, not Vincor, the giant Canadian company that is the fourth-largest wine producer in North America. Instead, it's Vincor's
partner: the indigenous Osoyoos Indian Band, which has lived here for centuries. They own 25 percent of the total vineyard
acreage in the valley, leasing most of it to Vincor and other producers, and have their own winery, Nk'Mip, next to their
stunning desert museum built of rammed earth.
10. Weird wine-buying roadblocks
Although you can take a few cases of wine home to the States as checked luggage (or drive it across the border for a fee of a few cents per bottle), thanks to a thicket of U.S. Customs regulations it's nearly impossible for wineries to ship their wines to you ― and the laws say you can't ship to yourself, either. All the more reason, then, to visit this lovely valley and taste the wine in its natural setting.
More: Download and print our Okanagan Valley winery map and guide