Napa Valley conjures up images of grand hillside chateaus, opulent tasting rooms, dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, and perhaps a little celebrity spotting, all factors that have contributed to its anointing as America’s most celebrated wine region.
Plucky Napa pinned its place on the global wine map by beating French wines in blind tastings at the 1976 Judgment of Paris. To say this was unexpected is an understatement and it proved to be a turning point in California’s wine industry.
The number of wineries in the Napa Valley increased from a few dozen in the 1970s to approximately 475 today—good news not just for the wine industry but also for the state’s tourism industry. Napa became a major attraction, creating a market that supports some of the country’s poshest restaurants and hotels—the French Laundry and Auberge du Soleil to name two—and, in turn, crowds, particularly evident in late summer and fall. There are still workarounds: You can avoid weekends or head for wineries off the jam-packed main road. Or you could go north to Canada instead.
The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is a roughly 155-mile-long valley that stretches from Osoyoos on the Canadian border with Washington State to roughly Vernon, British Columbia.
It’s located approximately 240-miles east of Vancouver, BC, between the 49th and 50th parallel. That puts it on the same latitude as Champagne in France and the Rheingau in Germany.
The region has a continental climate, but its extremes are moderated by the presence of a series of deep, interconnected lakes—Okanagan Lake, Skaha Lake, Vaseux Lake, and Osoyoos Lake.
This is a largely desert region that averages less than 12 inches of rainfall a year. The valley gets progressively drier from north to south with roughly 16 inches of rain at its northern end around Kelowna to less than 10 inches a year around Osoyoos.
One of Canada’s sunniest areas, the fertile basin has long been known as the country’s fruit basket. If you visit in summer, you can stop at roadside stands to fill up on just-picked apples, cherries, apricots, and peaches. Cycling or hiking the Kettle Valley Rail Trail which is part of the province’s longest trail network is a popular pursuit as is skiing the deep powder at Big White Ski Resort and boating on Okanagan Lake. But today, the Okanagan is better known for its wine.
Its northern latitude also means that the region’s vineyards experience more daylight during the summer growing period—roughly 14 hours of direct sunlight. Compared to Napa Valley, for example, the Okanagan receives about two hours more sunlight a day and has markedly hotter temperatures.
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The northern latitude, however, also means that the onset of cool autumn weather can often come quickly reducing the amount of hang time that grapes can receive.
The steeply-sided slopes and surface geography create a range of aspects and produce varied microclimates across the valley. The resulting wines vary from Mosel-style Rieslings to concentrated Bordeaux-inspired red blends.
The result is powerful, concentrated wines that have high alcohol levels but also offer remarkable fruit concentration and a smooth velvety texture while avoiding the jammy character typical of warm climate Pinot Noir. Many wines also have faint vegetal notes reminiscent of Burgundian Pinot Noir, a characteristic that is usually lacking in Pinot Noir wines from the Northwest.
Unlike Napa, few of the Okanagan’s 186 wineries export their wines: Around 90 percent of British Columbian wine is sold within the province. So if you want to drink Okanagan wine, you’ll probably have to go there and the experience the personal touch that makes it worth the trip.
As a younger wine destination, the Okanagan also still offers a wallet-friendly experience. Tasting fees are typically less than $10 (compared with $58 in Napa) and are often, though not always, waived with a purchase of a bottle. It’s easy to hit up multiple wineries in a day by following a wine trail or downloading the Wines of BC Explorer app.
Although it’s about 155 miles long, the Okanagan is surprisingly diverse, climate-wise. In the Lake Country subregion the province’s oldest continually operating winery, Calona Vineyards, was established in 1932. Wineries here are known for such varietals as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir. At one of the best, Quails’ Gate, you can visit the lakeside tasting room, have a wine-paired meal at Old Vines Restaurant, and sleep it all off at the adjoining guesthouse.
At the valley’s southernmost tip which is surrounded by a shrub-steppe semidesert and is one of Canada’s hottest spots, conditions are ideal for reds such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Nk’Mip Cellars near Osoyoos Lake is North America’s first Indigenous-owned and operated winery. Next door, in the Spirit Ridge Resort, the Bear, the Fish, the Root & the Berry serves Indigenous-inspired cuisine, and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre describes the history of the Osoyoos people.
Open year-round, Nk’Mip RV Park and Campground offer more lakefront, beach access, and view sites than any other park in the Okanagan. Big rigs welcome.
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Below are tasting notes on a selection of Okanagan Valley wines from some of the region’s leading wine producers.
Quails’ Gate, 2020, Okanagan Valley Dry Riesling, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, 12% ABV, 750 ml
Quails’ Gate sits below the extinct volcano of Mount Boucherie in West Kelowna on the west shore of Okanagan Lake. The area is characterized by deeply decomposed, ancient, mineral-rich volcanic soils that date back roughly 60 million years. This Riesling is produced from 30-year-old vines that reflect the region’s signature minerality as well as its characteristic intensity.
The fruit is whole-cluster pressed and then subjected to long, cool temperature fermentation in a steel tank. The result is a very fruit-forward wine with pronounced aromatics.
On the nose, there are notes of green, stone, and tropical fruit including, in particular, apple and apricot, along with some lemon zest, a hint of grapefruit, and melon with just a touch of pineapple. On the palate, the wine is dry with notable acidity.
The finish is long, with lingering green apple and crisp lemon-lime notes. Stylistically, this seems a little less dry than your typical Alsatian Riesling but lacks even the hint of sweetness that is typical of German-style Rieslings. It’s a great food wine that will pair well with a variety of foods, especially seafood, cured meats, and soft cheeses.
Black Hills, 2019 Nota Bene, VQA, Okanagan Valley, Black Sage Bench, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml
Black Hills’ vineyard sites have been recognized as having some of the best terroirs in Canada. Located on Black Sage Road, their microclimate provides one of the hottest, driest, and sunniest sites in Canada. The southwest-facing aspect and moderate slope combined with deep desert sand yield intensely flavorful and complex grapes.
Their twenty-first vintage of Nota Bene brought a rare opportunity to return to the wine’s origins. For just the third time since the very first vintage (1999), the blend is headlined by Merlot, rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. The moderately cool 2019 vintage produced outstanding Merlot from their Sharp Rock and Double Black vineyards and it was impossible to ignore these barrels in the final blend. The beauty of Nota Bene is that it always represents the best of its Estate vineyards in a given year and quality drives the final blend, rather than a recipe.
The 2019 Nota Bene opens with intense and ripe black cherry, strawberry, and plum on the nose. On the palate, the ripeness and richness of this fruit are beautifully balanced by crunchy red currant flavors while a subtle yet warming layer of cinnamon and clove spice weaves effortlessly into the wine. There is also a savory element to the wine showing through as dried herbs, sage, and cigar box. The tannins are elegant and velvety and the wine finishes strongly with refreshing acidity and a fine silky texture
Tinhorn Creek, 2019 Cabernet Franc, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, Golden Mile Bench, 14% ABV, 750 ml
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.
The 2019 vintage provided a vibrant, natural acidity with fresh, elegant, and ripe flavors from their South Okanagan vineyards. The grapes are harvested, destemmed, and gently crushed to release the juice and color from the skins. The grape juice or must is pumped over twice a day until fermentation using natural yeast begins to take place. A steady fermentation helps preserve the fruit flavors.
Once fermentation is complete, the juice is drained off the skins or called ‘free run’ juice. The wine is placed into a variety of French, Hungarian, and American Oak barrels where it will age for 12 months. The barrels are stored in our temperature and humidity-controlled barrel cellar until bottling. On the nose, there is lots of ripe red fruit mingled with a hint of black pepper.
Hester Creek, 2019 Old Vine Merlot, BC VQA, Okanagan Valley, Golden Mile Bench, 14.4% ABV, 750 ml
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.
On the nose, the wine offers up fruity aromas of ripe plum with hints of prune, black cherry, milk chocolate, vanilla, and some dry, brushy herbaceous notes.
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On the palate, there is more plum and black cherry, along with notes of cinnamon, a hint of clove, and a bit of well-seasoned oak.
This is a robust wine, with a notable palate weight and mouth coating character that offers up ripe, well-integrated tannins and good acidity.
The finish is very long with lingering notes of black cherry and plum.
The Okanagan produces the northernmost Pinot Noir in North America. Although located some 300 miles north of Oregon’s famed Willamette Valley, this region is much hotter and receives more sunlight over the summer.
If you are not familiar with the wines of the Okanagan, they are certainly worth exploring and often represent exceptional values.
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