If an Okanagan Valley trip is on your to-do list this summer, make sure you have a plan of attack when it comes to visiting the ever-expanding list of British Columbia wineries.
The valley boasts more than 70 producers, and they stretch some 180 kilometres from the U.S. border to the southern end of Shuswap Lake.
The scenery is incredible and includes the pristine, 111-kilometre-long, blue-green Okanagan Lake that occupies the lowlands, leaving some spectacular raised benches on both its east and west flanks that are now home to most of British Columbia's vineyards.
There has never been a better time to visit Okanagan wine country, at least since Major Hugh Fraser arrived at Okanagan Falls and Hawthorne Mountain in the early 1900s. Legend has it his mail-order English bride had a quick look around and didn't stay long, pinning a note to the door that said, "See you later."
A century later, See Ya Later Ranch would become a thriving winery surrounded by a plethora of accommodations and dining establishments designed to entice visitors to stay for a few days.
The only question now is how to plan your visit.
Wine legislation doesn't officially recognize any sub-appellations of the Okanagan, but we recommend you carve up any visit and settle into one of four major sub-zones or regions. Key centres could include the Similkameen Valley, Oliver-Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls-Skaha-Penticton-Naramata-Summerland and Kelowna-Lake Country and north.
Today, we look at a trio of Okanagan sub-zones and tie it all together with a selection of labels you can pick up as you explore the sub-region, winery to winery. It's a good exercise in geography, and spending more time in a smaller region can help you get to know its people, terroir and wine in a manner that is difficult to duplicate in an urban wine shop.
At the southern entrance to the valley, the picturesque Hope-Princeton-Keremeos highway (Highway 3) passes through the spectacular Similkameen Valley before it empties out into the east end of the valley, over the mountains into the south Okanagan.
Just a glance at the accompanying list will tell you that regional touring is the only way to go, and we've barely scratched the surface. Add to this list The Villa at Hester Creek, Carmelis Goat Cheese Farm, Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel & Villas, The Hooded Merganser on the lake in Penticton and the new Summerland Waterfront Resort in Summerland. It's all happening in a valley Major Fraser could only have dreamt about a century ago.
Where: 1060 Poplar Grove Rd., Penticton
THERE is a new landmark on Naramata Bench, and it's going to be very popular, or dare I say "poplar," as in Poplar Grove Winery.
The winery and general manager Ian Sutherland have been around since 1993, when they were among the first five wineries on Naramata Bench and Poplar Grove was a small facility, with 2.5 acres. Later, a utilitarian box of a winery went up to better accommodate the winery's growing Monster label production.
Over the years, Sutherland managed his wines tightly, some may even say cannily, crafting a brand that was making a name for itself among the trade and aficionados, yet one that never had a lot of bottles to sell.
All that changed in 2007, thanks to a huge injection of enthusiasm and cash from new majority owner Dr. Tony Holler. Holler and his wife Barbara bought three-quarters of the business, along with friend Barrie Sali. Sutherland has the remaining share and remains general manager and executive winemaker, working with Stephan Arnason, who joined the winemaking team in 2008, along with renowned Bordeaux-based wine consultant Alain Sutre.
The Holler family brought 110 acres of vineyards to the deal that is the cornerstone of the Poplar Grove strategy moving forward. As their plans unfold, production will jump from 2,000 cases to 25,000 cases a year by 2013. The majority of that fruit will be sold under the winery's second label, Monster Vineyards, referencing Lake Okanagan's famed, if imaginary, Ogopogo water serpent.
The good news is the huge jump in vineyard land (60 per cent on the Naramata Bench and 40 per cent on the east bank of Osoyoos Lake in Oliver) means the original Poplar Grove labels have a world of grapes to choose from, including much warmer sites down south in the Oliver region, where Syrah and Cabernet have the best chance of ripening most years. The production of the Poplar Grove home-estate brand will increase modestly, but most of the desired change should be an increased jump in quality from the larger vineyard base.
For consumers, the most immediate benefit is a beautiful new showpiece visitor centre and production facility tucked into the southern end of Munson Mountain above Penticton. The gorgeous concrete-and-wood facility (check out the beautiful doors made from reclaimed wood from the Osoyoos fruit-packing plant) officially opened last July.
If you stop by, and you should, you may be surprised to find only six wines, but as it is with most things in life, it's not the quantity that counts. Two whites -- a Chardonnay and a Pinot Gris -- set the stage for the winery's four red labels: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and a stand-alone Bordeaux blend labelled The Legacy.
Over the years, the wines and the winemaking have grown to produce cleaner wines and mostly, softer tannins. The reds are held back a considerable time compared to the valley average, and like most Okanagan reds, they benefit from extra time in the bottle.
The winery boasts a long list of awards but, from my point of view, the future is now. Judging by the new 2009 Reserve Chardonnay and its fresh, mineral demeanour and the 2008 Syrah that was the only Canadian wine to capture a gold medal at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards, Poplar Grove is well on its way to establishing itself as a mid-valley must-stop winery and a leading producer on the Naramata Bench.
IN THE ZONE
Each sub-region has its own charms.
THE southern Okanagan has really pulled up its socks in the past five years, with major restaurants now open at Burrowing Owl (The Sonora Room), Tinhorn Creek (Miradoro), Nk'Mip Cellars (The Patio), and Hester Creek (Terrafina). Add to that the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa and its wine-country-inspired restaurant, Passo Tempo, and you have a lot of choice. It's the dry, warm south that is responsible for some of the biggest reds in the province.
MOVING north of Oliver and McIntyre Bluff, considered by growers the true dividing line between the north and south Okanagan, you begin to enter the central Okanagan and its many sub-zones.
At Okanagan Falls, See Ya Later Ranch has a patio view to die for. To the northeast, Blue Mountain, Wild Goose, Stag's Hollow and Meyer Family Vineyards beckon. North of Okanagan Falls on Penticton's Skaha Bench, Blasted Church, Painted Rock, Pent¢ge and more await your visits.
There are now plenty of dining options on Naramata Bench at Hillside Vineyards Bistro, Lake Breeze The Patio and The Restaurant at Red Rooster Winery, and you can take your pick of several hotels, including the Penticton Lakeside Resort, Convention Centre & Casino, the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa and the Ramada Inn.
KELOWNA, LAKE COUNTRY
ACROSS the lake and moving farther north, the heat moderates and the vineyards are home to British Columbia's cool-climate varieties. The three Pinots: Blanc, Noir and Gris, compete with Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Ehrenfelser, offering classic aromatic wines. Summerland is quickly becoming a wine town, with its Bottleneck Drive wine route and covey of wineries, including 8th Generation, Dirty Laundry, Silkscarf, Thornhaven and the original Sumac Ridge. The Vanilla Pod and Local Lounge and Grille are must-stops for food and wine fans.
No Okanagan visit is complete without a stop in West Kelowna, where Mission Hill Family Estate and Quails' Gate wineries are fixtures. The former boasts a terrific al fresco lunch or dinner at The Terrace, and the latter offers lunch and dinner year round at the Old Vines Patio & Restaurant. Both set valley standards for tasting-room experiences. Kelowna proper boast the likes of Tantalus, CedarCreek, Summerhill, Camelot and Gray Monk. While you are in the 'hood, be sure to visit two of the best restaurants in the valley, RauDZ Regional Table and the Vineyard Terrace Restaurant at CedarCreek.
-- Postmedia News