California, Oregon, and Washington State are well-known for their variety of wines and wineries. Now follow the vine north and you’ll find a new world of wine just across the border in British Columbia’s wine country.
It is believed that the very first vineyard planted in the southern Okanagan region of British Columbia was the Oblate Mission in Kelowna in 1859 but its only purpose was for preparing sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. Other vineyards began popping up but many were uprooted during prohibition.
It wasn’t until 1932 that Calona Wines became the first commercial winery in British Columbia. It took much longer for the idea of producing quality wine in the Okanagan to catch on.
After dabbling for decades in easy-to-grow hybrids and labrusca (native American varieties), the Okanagan wine industry got its real launch in 1988. In a move designed to counter the North American Free Trade Agreement’s negative effect on the Canadian wine industry, the government began paying growers to pull out labrusca and hybrid vines and replant them with the more desirable European (Vitis vinifera) grape varieties.
Today, over 180 wineries are operating in the Valley. From large estate wineries to small mom-and-pop shops, wine is available everywhere you turn. For wine lovers, the Okanagan should most definitely make your vino bucket list.
The best time to visit the Okanagan is up for debate. The summer is by far the most popular as everything is in full swing and the vineyards are green and lush. But it is also the busiest, so planning is important. Oh, and it’s hot! (The Okanagan is Canada’s only desert area, after all.) The crowds are much smaller during the spring and fall, but tasting room hours are more limited. However, you’ll have a better chance of meeting a winemaker during these times, as well.
Related Article: The Okanagan Valley: A Special Place
Everyone has their favorite winery for various reasons but I have detailed four that offer my favorite experiences. Visit each of the wineries’ websites for the most up-to-date information and reserve your tasting experience online. Some will waive the tasting fees with the purchase of wine.
Black Hills Estate Winery
Location: 4318 Black Sage Road, Oliver
Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, Malbec
Currently available Wines: 2019 Tempranillo, 2020 Chardonnay, 2020 Roussanne, 2020 Alibi (blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon), 2021 Rosé, 2019 Ipso Facto (blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon), 2020 Viognier, 2019 Per Se (base of Cabernet Franc,), 2018 Syrah, 2018 Addendum, 2020 Bona Fide, 2020 Nota Bene (signature wine; available at Release Party, June 18, 2022, 5-9 pm)
Master of Wine: Ross Wise
Description: Black Hills Estate Winery vineyards have some of the most favorable grape growing conditions in the country resulting in exceptional terroir. Located on Black Sage Bench, Black Hills’ Wine Experience Centre offers wine tastings year-round. The modern facility offers tastings on the dining balcony around their water feature and under a few covered gazebos.
Experiences: The Portfolio Wine Flight ($20) offers an array of the winery’s current releases. It is a combination of red and white wines. The Red Wine Flight ($30) showcases Black Hills’ most popular red wines including the rare Carmenere wine as well as new releases.
Related Article: Taste Your Way through the Okanagan
During the summer months the tastings get better as the Tapas Kitchen is open providing bites that pair nicely with the 2 oz. samples.
Location: 1400 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos
Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir
Currently available Wines: Nk’Mip wines available in 3 tiers: Winemaker Tier: 2020 Chardonnay, 2021 Pinot Blanc, 2021 Dreamcatcher, 2020 Rosé, 2019 Merlot, 2019 Talon; Qwam Qwmt (Premium Tier): 2019 Chardonnay, 2020 Riesling, 2020 Riesling Ice Wine, 2019 Merlot, 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018 Syrah, 2019 Pinot Noir; Mer’r’iym (Premium Blends): 2020 White Mer’r’iym, 2019 Mer’r’iym
Estate Winemaker: Justin Hall
Description: Overlooking the town of Osoyoos and its lake, Nk’Mip Cellars is the first Indigenous-owned and operated winery in North America. The culture and history is a part of everything they do and produce. Inside, the building is modern with a tasting bar and retail center. Outside, the patio offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills.
Experiences: Sample a flight of four Nk’Mip Cellars’ wines at the Main Tasting Bar. Choose from the two available wine flights: Winemaker’s Series Flight ($5) and Premium Series Flight ($15). For an enhanced wine tasting experience choose a pre-set flight of 5 wines paired with Chef’s inspired small food bites. Reservations highly recommended. The Four Food Chiefs food and wine experience is available during March and April ($50). The Patio Restaurant offers contemporary North American cuisine in a picturesque location with fresh Farm-to-Table innovations. Lunch and afternoon lounge service Fridays-Mondays, weather permitting.
Tinhorn Creek Vineyards
Location: 537 Tinhorn Creek Road, Oliver
Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah
Currently available Wines: Tinhorn Creek wines are available under four groupings: White Wines: 2019 Chardonnay, 2021 Pinot Gris, 2021 Gewürztraminer; Red Wines: 2020 Pinot Noir, 2019 Merlot, 2019 Cabernet Franc; Reserve Wines: 2021 Reserve Rosé, 2019 Oldfield Reserve Cabernet Franc, 2018 Oldfield Reserve Merlot; Library Wines: 2008 Merlot, 2009 Merlot Merlot, 2010 Merlot, 2006 Oldfield Series Merlot, 2014 Oldfield Reserve Merlot
Related Article: The Okanagan has What it Takes to Rival Napa
Head Winemaker: Leandro Nosal
Description: Established in 1993, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards is located just south of Oliver in the famed Golden Mile Bench wine-growing district with 150 acres between two vineyards on the Black Sage and Golden Mile benches. Tinhorn Creek is a beautiful estate vineyard that offers a great visitor experience. It provides tastings and tours seven days a week. You might want to begin your day with a walk along the Golden Mile hiking trail before taking in one of the tours, tastings, or lunch at the Miradoro Restaurant.
Experiences: Bar Tasting ($8).
The Tinhorn Creek Tasting Flight ($20) is enjoyed on the outdoor patio overlooking the South Okanagan vistas. Four wines are sampled and selected by the wine ambassador.
Black Glass Tasting ($25) is led by a wine ambassador who will serve you four wine samples served in black glasses. With the help of your senses, you’ll guess what each wine varietal is. If you guess two of the four correctly, the tasting fee is waived.
The Stemware Tasting ($30) is a private experience where you’ll learn about the importance of varietal-specific stemware while relaxing in the Crush Club Lounge.
The Guided Tour Experience ($35) will take you on a walk through the estate property, be welcomed into the barrel cellar and then return to the tasting room for a bar tasting.
The Private Lounge Experience ($40) offers a one-hour session with one of Tinhorn’s wine ambassadors who will explain the history, what it takes to make a great wine, and the importance of the right glass to enjoy one’s wine.
The Library Lounge Experience ($50) allows you to sit and be surrounded by Tinhorn’s collection of vintage library bottles while enjoying a flight of wines focusing on a particular vintage or particular wine varietal.
The Miradoro Restaurant has been named Vancouver Magazine: Gold Best Winery Restaurant six years in a row. The setting is elegant with a casual feel to it with treehouse-like spectacular views. Led by executive chef, Jeff Van Geest, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients are used with an emphasis on culinary creativity. Open for lunch and dinner.
Hester Creek Vineyards
Location: 877 Road 8, Oliver
Varietals: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon
Currently available Wines: 2021 Pinot Gris, 2021 Pinot Blanc, 2021 Character White, 2020 Chardonnay, 2019 Old Vine Late Harvest Pinot Blanc, 2021 Ti Amo (sparkling wine), 2018 Old Vine Brut, 2020 Rosé Franc, 2021 Select Vineyards Merlot, 2020 Select Vineyards Cabernet Merlot, 2020 Character Red, 2019 Syrah, 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2019 Old Vine Merlot, 2019 Old Vine Cabernet Franc, 2018 The Judge, 2018 Garland
Related Article: Why You Should Explore the Wines of the Okanagan Valley
Winemaker: Mark Hopley
Description: Hester Creek Vineyards date back to 1968, making them among the oldest vineyards in the Okanagan Valley. Hester Creek is located just south of Oliver on the Golden Mile, a sun-drenched bench that slopes down toward the valley floor. Located on the west side of the valley, it gets morning rather than afternoon sun making it one of the cooler regions in the Okanagan Valley. The soils here are fast draining alluvial soils of stony, gravelly, sandy loams.
The Mediterranean influenced setting offers customized tastings, scenic patios, summer barbeques, live music, farm-to-table cooking classes, six Tuscany styled villa suites, and Italian inspired dining at Terrafina at Hester Creek.
Anyone who tries to make you believe that he knows all about wines is obviously a fake.
―Leon D. Adams, The Commonsense Book of Wine