Travel Canada’s Wine Country
They soar by gracefully, one after the other, gliding, searching, hunting the critters and carrion in the vineyards below our perch at the newly opened Miradoro Restaurant at the Tinhorn Creek winery in the south Okanagan Valley. It’s early spring, and the majestic bald eagles that just cruised by our floor-to-ceiling windows are a sight to behold as they circle, with purpose, above the bare vineyards that offer no cover for the pesky marmots that scurry unsuspectingly below. It’s an “awe” moment taking us away, if only briefly, from the feast in front of us at Tinhorn’s spectacular 4,000-square foot winery restaurant, featuring a wrap-around deck with extraordinary views of the Okanagan Valley.
We’re digging into a plate of pancetta pizza, made in a wood stone oven and cooked Neapolitan style with sourdough and stone ground wheat (it is to die for, by the way), haddock cheeks and marinated octopus all matched with Tinhorn’s delicious Pinot Gris and Syrah. The menu at Tinhorn’s new Miradoro is Mediterranean in style, using seasonal ingredients sourced from local fields, forests and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Miradoro is indicative of the transformation that’s taking place in the Okanagan. Only a few years ago, fine winery dining was limited to the Terrace Restaurant at Mission Hill in the central Okanagan, and the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in the south — both excellent restaurants, with a few others sprinkled throughout the valley. Today, wineries, as well as wine-themed restaurants not attached to a winery, are rushing to create a food and wine culture that will keep visitors busy exploring, drinking and eating for a week or more as the region ramps up development to attract even more committed wine and food travellers.
Next door to Tinhorn, at the Hester Creek Estate Winery, the finishing touches were just being applied during a spring visit to the now-open Terrafina Restaurant — an intimate setting with old brick, wooden pillars and iron chandeliers. It’s an add-on at the winery to entice visitors to stay, as Jackson Browne once sang, just a little bit longer, and enjoy breathtaking views, much like you would find in a villa overlooking the hills in Tuscany, and revel in all that the Okanagan Valley can offer. And it’s happening throughout the Valley, as more hectares of land are planted to grape vines, wineries are expanding, building larger tasting rooms and adding winery restaurants, hotels and resorts are trying to keep up to the demand of an influx of wine-culinary tourists — and a new generation of restaurants is emerging, one that caters to those who want local, well-prepared food and are willing to pay the price for quality.
It truly is fascinating to watch as the Okanagan Valley comes of age. It is no longer just a vacation destination with great beaches, beautiful weather and a diminishing number of local fruit stands. It has become, or is on the road to becoming, a serious wine and culinary destination. Tinhorn Creek winemaker Sandra Oldfield says building a restaurant attached to the winery was a big financial decision, but one that’s necessary. “We at Tinhorn Creek feel our wines show best with food, and that is an obvious match,” she says. Oldfield adds that selling wines at the winery is crucial for survival in the Okanagan because of the low profits made when selling through retail. Adding a restaurant gives consumers a reason to keep coming back, she says. “Giving people a full experience at the cellar door is a really healthy thing for our industry.”
Exploring the Okanagan Valley efficiently, much like any wine region in the world, takes careful planning. The bulk of the visitors come from either Vancouver to the west, a five-hour drive, or Calgary to the east, a tough, six-hour drive. So it’s a good bet visitors are staying for the weekend or longer. The valley is long and narrow and runs north for 160 kilometres from the US border. It’s not like the Napa Valley or even Niagara, where you can hop in your car and find wineries along the side of the road. It takes careful planning for a trip to the Okanagan. There are 125 wineries to choose from, all with different visiting hours, several which are “by appointment only,” and others that don’t even have tasting bars. So arriving with a well-researched plan is crucial.
WHERE TO STAY:
Knowing where to stay begins with where you want to go. The Okanagan is divided (loosely) into several geographic sub-regions (listed below from north to south).
• kelowna/lake country
Key wineries include Gray Monk, Mission Hill, Quails’ Gate, Tantalus, Summerhill, Cedar Creek and ExNihilo. Best grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay.
Key wineries include Sumac Ridge, Red Rooster, Laughing Stock, Poplar Grove, 8th Generation and Dirty Laundry. Best grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, others.
• okanagan falls
Key wineries include Blue Mountain, Blasted Church, Stags’ Hollow, Meyer Family, Wild Goose and See Ya Later Ranch. Best grape varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, others.
Key wineries include Tinhorn Creek, Hester Creek, Inniskillin, Cassini, Road 13 Vineyards, Oliver Twist, Jackson-Triggs and Burrowing Owl. Best grape varieties: Merlot, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, others.
Key wineries include LaStella, Moon Curser and Nk’Mip. Best grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, others.
Each of these areas has its own unique appeal with a mix of resorts, bed and breakfasts and hotels, many of which are right on the lake. Figure out your destination, decide the style of accommodation you want, and book well in advance. Keep in mind that getting from one end of the valley to the other, if you are planning on tasting and eating along the way, just isn’t possible in one or two days. So, staying somewhere mid-way in the valley might be a good option for you. There’s a decent list of the accommodations here: okanagan.com
BEST TIME TO VISIT:
The best time of year to visit the Okanagan Valley is between May and October, as many of the smaller wineries as well as a few of the winery restaurants close after the fall wine festival in October. Visitors looking for a large number of winery events might time their visit with one of the signature Okanagan Wine Festivals found at thewinefestivals.com. Visitors looking to beat the crowds might be more comfortable visiting late May to early June (this is also when the fresh spring whites have just been released) or mid-September.
WHAT TO BRING:
• A camera to capture the vineyards, landscapes and wildlife.
• A notebook, if you are a wine enthusiast and want to document your tastes and travels.
• A blanket (because many of the wineries have gorgeous settings and encourage guests to stay and enjoy the surroundings with a glass of wine in hand)
• A cooler. If you are driving, remember that the heat of the car could cook your wine if there too long. Keep a cooler in the trunk of the vehicle so your wine purchases can beat the heat!
EATING IN THE OKANAGAN:
The Okanagan is finally realizing that visitors want good, local food to be a part of their experience in wine country. More and more winery restaurants have opened up with talented chefs and amazing views to go with the wines made at the estates. Try the new Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek or the new Terrafina Restaurant at Hester Creek. There are also the more established winery restaurants, including the Terrace Restaurant at Mission Hill, the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, and the recently renovated Grapeview Restaurant at Gray Monk. But don’t forget to include some of the restaurants not attached to wineries in your dining plans. Here are two I can highly recommend.
RauDZ, a downtown Kelowna eatery, is indicative of the culinary revolution taking place in the Okanagan that has migrated beyond the wineries and, finally, caught on in the main towns in wine country. RauDZ is a contemporary bistro that serves up fresh local dishes in a comfortable, casual and relaxed space. From the moment you walk into this trendy spot you are welcomed by staff, seated and presented with an array of fun cocktails to try from the enthusiastic mixologist, and a list of the best local wines from the Okanagan Valley.
The Local Lounge in Penticton is another fine eatery that uses only locally sourced ingredients to match with what is possibly the largest collection of VQA BC wines (175 wines on the list) in the world, as well as a vast local craft beer list. The menu changes with the seasons, and includes delicious pastas, salads, soups, steak burgers, paninis and pulled pork sandwiches served either inside overlooking Okanagan Lake, or right on the water on the 120-seat patio.
The key to dining in the Okanagan, especially in the busy summer months, is to reserve well ahead of time.
• When tasting wine for hours and days at a time, it’s key to taste and spit your wine into the spittoons that are provided at all wineries. You won’t last long if you keep drinking all those little samples. It may seem geeky, but it’s necessary (especially if you’re driving).
• Wineries always have wines to taste at the tasting bar (some charge, others don’t). But don’t be afraid to ask for something else if you don’t see it — tasting staff are only too willing to accommodate every request.
• Research before you go. Different wineries specialize in different wines. There’s no sense going to a winery that has a great white wine portfolio if you’re a red wine lover.
• Have a plan. You won’t get far if you visit every winery you come across. Research your route and stick to it (although there is something to say for pleasant surprises along the way!)
WHERE TO RESEARCH:
To get the most out of your wine country experience, do some research ahead of time. When you’re at the winery, ask lots of questions, talk to the locals about their favourites and do a lot of tasting (take a wine tour or have a designated driver).
TOURING IN NIAGARA:
Most of the rules above for touring in wine country apply to all wine regions you may want to visit, including the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario. The biggest difference between the two regions is the proximity of Niagara to the country’s biggest city, Toronto, and the fact that Niagara wineries are all open year round, nearly every day of the year, with major events taking place all the time.
The bulk of the visitors to Niagara are more apt to make it a day trip or short overnighter, rather than the extended stays in the Okanagan (although Niagara has gorgeous and numerous inns, hotels and bed and breakfasts, mostly in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake, visit niagaraonthelake.com or twentyvalley.ca for listings). But it still requires careful planning to get the most out of your visit. At last count, there were over 75 wineries in the Niagara Peninsula, generally divided by Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Escarpment, which includes Beamsville, Vineland, Jordan and St. Catharines. It’s just not possible to visit any of the regions without careful strategy going into it. The region can be divided into four areas:
This “Bench” region starts at Peninsula Ridge Winery and continues with wineries such as Thirty Bench, Hidden Bench, Rosewood Estate, and Fielding Estate.
• vineland-jordan-st. catharines
A big stretch of Niagara that includes Vineland Estates, Tawse, Malivoire, Megalomaniac, Cave Spring Cellars, Flat Rock Cellars, Stoney Ridge, Creekside and 13th Street, to name but a few.
• niagara stone road, niagara-on-the-lake
Niagara’s largest and most established wineries dot the road leading to the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Some of the big names include Southbrook, Stratus, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs and Pillitteri.
• St. Davids
Technically part of Niagara-on-the-Lake but on the opposite side of Niagara Stone Road. Wineries include Chateau des Charmes, Coyote’s Run, Ravine and the new Colaneri Estate Winery.
Wine Country Ontario, the overarching industry organization for wines in Ontario: winecountryontario.ca
Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake: wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com
Twenty Valley, for wineries in Beamsville, Vineland and Jordan: 20valley.ca