Introducing Canada’s Okanagan Valley: A one-of-a-kind wine lover’s paradise

The Okanagan Valley mightn’t be the first stop travellers think of when they are planning a trip to Canada, but in many ways it should be top of the list for any lovers of beautiful scenery, and locally produced wine. An hour flight from Vancouver – or a four hour drive – heading east across the Provence of British Columbia, it’s a destination close enough to the entry port Australians are used to, but far enough a way to ensure you’re entering a whole other world. And there really is no where else on earth like it.

The hour flight from Vancouver is a beautiful journey over lakes and rivers and snow covered mountains, even in summer time. The airport you arrive in is quaint but surprisingly well equipped – even the tiny aircraft that gets you to Kelowna enjoys a drawbridge, which is something I’ve never seen before… Even in Vancouver you had to board via the stairs!

Kelowna has a vibrant arts scene, and a surprisingly sizeable downtown area (over 42 square blocks), and a lot of places to eat and enjoy the sun around the boardwalk (look out of the Kelowna Yacht Club with a Cactus Club Cafe). I was told all of this has particularly opened up over the last decade. You’ll find a beach of sorts, lot of restaurants and shopping on Bernard Avenue (where they have a Farmer’s Market on Saturdays). There are pianos around town as part of the “Pianos in Parks” program, and an arts district, with the Rotary Centre for the Arts, and an indoor arena that had Bob Dylan taking the stage the night we were there. There are free shuttle buses to help get you around, too.

The region is essentially a desert, with the Okanagan Lake sitting at its centre and wineries surrounding it, producing some of Canada’s most talked about drops. Beyond the wine, the whole region (Kelowna plus Okanagan Valley) is considered a “chef’s playground” due to the ability to grow high quality food, and the disposable income of the people who live here (not to mention the tourists).

From Kelowna, you’re within an hours drive of a hundred lakes, no less than 40 wineries in the immediate area, and an incredible 175 in the overall Okanagan Region. Indeed, this region which used to be known for orchards and fruit, is now known for wine, with 130k people living here and 1 million annual visitors – numbers which interestingly peak in the Summertime, in spite of the ski mountains close by. A look at these Summer attractions will quickly show why tourists flock to the area over the Summer – and why many locals no doubt have their holiday homes in the area.

One of the most popular destinations in the area, particularly for locals, are the Davison Orchards in Vernon. There are three generations of Davisons who are currently running the farm, having been in operation for 84 years, starting off almost entirely growing apples over 34 acres – they now have some 120 acres of produce. The retail side of the operation has only been running for 34 years, but has gone from just one building, into what is now a full blown country market, selling everything they grow at the farm. They make no less than 15 types of jams and salsa in house, offer fresh pressed apple juice, sell 25 different varieties of apples across 60,000 trees and have no wholesale for any of their product. This is the only place you can get it – and they’re only open six months of the year (they sell a bit of frozen product to compensate for their months out of operation). Still, they attract no less than 300k visitors across that time.

If you want to get a tour of the facilities, you can jump into actual apple bins which have been converted into a train, for $6 ($4 kids), running every 30 minutes. For part of the tour, the driver gets out and walks us through the baby cucumbers and watermelons, being drowned out slightly by the working tractor nearby. You learn a lot about the operations on the tour, too, like some of the ways they avoid wastage: apple mash often being used instead of grain at local craft distilleries, using the apples that can’t be sold. It’s worth noting there are 5 official craft breweries in Kelowna on the “ale trail”, with 15 craft producers, including cideries who no doubt enjoy the use of their mash. They also grow crops that love intense heat, like tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, eggplant and more.

Open from May 1st to October 31st, they have an apple festival every weekend in September and a pumpkin festival every weekend in October. And while you’re there you can get a meal at Auntie May’s Deep Dish Cafe with soups and sandwiches they make right there on the farm. There’s also a new and improved barn, with farm animals, which is free and fun for the kids. Say hi to this guy for me!

If you want to spend more time with mother nature, around the corner you’ll find the Planet Bee Honey Farm (5011 Bella Vista Rd, Vernon, BC), where you can learn just about everything you could possibly want to about bees and honey – and of course buy honey, and even Mead honey wine – which is not as sweet as you’d expect (and like me you probably didn’t even know this existed). But it’s a thing – with an 11% ABV, made of 40-50% honey, fermented with yeast and water and then things like blueberries are added to the “Blueberry Bliss” – one of five varieties they produce.

Speaking with the owner and manager of the store, his “hope is that everyone (who comes to Planet Bee) leaves with a better understanding and less fear of bees”, and goes on to talk about his high mortality rate of bees in recent years, “We find more innovative ways to manage our bees”, he said, and it starts with helping people get a better understanding and appreciation for the bees, which is why he started educational facilities at his farm.

But we’re here for the wine aren’t we? Sitting on the Okanagan Lake, the first winery we visited was the Summerhill Pyramid Winery. Their restaurant, which is open year round, is among the finest in the region, offering organic, farm to table dishes, with the staff personally foraging locally for a lot of what you’ll find on the plate; while fish like the Arctic Char (a favourite of the menu) is sustainably farmed in nearby Osoyoos. As with many wineries we’ll visit in this article, you’ll see that beautiful views is part of the selling point – and that is no exception here. But what they cover their land with seems to put this winery in a class of its own.

It’s the largest organic winery in Canada, with all their wines vegan, with incredibly low levels of sulphate. Of their 80 acres of land, only 44 see vines, with 20% of property a nature reserve to ensure they meet the standards of a biodynamic organic site. With this, as well as the grapes they have off site (only a quarter of their grapes are here, the rest are further south), they produce about 30-40k cases a year, plus 6k of sparkling. Sparkling, aromatics and ice wines are what they’re most known for. Pinot noir is the main red (though my favourite was the Baco Noir a beautiful, rare hybrid red), Svigelt for ice wines and Viognier a popular white… they do a lot of German varietals. And between those vines, they grow some of the produce you’ll find in the restaurant – like lentils. The smells of manure are quite pungent in some areas – and you know this is where they’re producing a particularly strong mix of produce.

But the heart of the vineyards is the pyramid. Made as a 1/8th scale replica of the Great Pyramid, precise down to the alignment, it took took about a year to build and was made entirely of granite. This is essentially the winery’s cellar and is what gives Summerhill its name. Owner Stephen Cipes believes in sacred geometry, with a Quartz crystal at the top, and he says that blind taste tasting does suggest it benefits the flavours. There’s no electricity to interfere and different ionisation in the pyramid. All wines they sell make it through here at some point before they are put on sale. They also do things like full moon meditations in the pyramid with the community, yoga and even live music performances.

Moving further around the Lake Country Wineries, you’ll see an ongoing trend of wineries which punch above their weight given the short amount of time they have a year to grow and harvest crops, thanks to the long winters that Canada suffers. But the fact that the days they do have to grow offer more light, and longer days, than in other parts of the world, seems to work in their favour. A lot of wineries also source some grapes from other properties to allow them to produce more than what their acreage might otherwise permit.

50th Parallel Estate Winery is spread across 61.8 acres, and started in 2009 as a red shack, sitting on a property which once grew cherry orchards. Now it’s a long, linear, “parallel” and monolithic structure which exclusively grows red grapes (Pinot Noir taking over 40% of the property), though they produce a Chardonnay too. They offer a “grape to glass” tour, which shows off the gravity fed vineyards, with the grapes growing from the top of the mountain all the way down to the water. When we visited, they were building a new transparent tasting room, events space and restaurant, and they were promising an infinity water wall in 2018, and were even looking ahead to accommodation and a spa in 2020. You can keep up to date on what the winery is up to on their official website.

Ex Nihilo, which means “out of nothing” in Latin, has been in operation slightly longer, and already offers a fully functioning restaurant, which includes unique flavours on a “farm to table” menu like the peach and ham pizza – which was surprisingly good. Their house salad with goats feta, almonds and tomatoes was also a find.

Jeff Harder, clearly a passionate winemaker and proprietor, joined us for a sit down tasting, as he talked us through the history of the property. Purchased 14 years ago, the vines are now 12 years old and sit in calcium rich soil – comparable to what you’d find in Burgundy, France. They currently run over 25 acres, with 10 acres purchased five years ago – so some of those vines remain quite young. They also purchase grapes from other properties – allowing them to offer additional varietals and sees them access over 100+ acres of grapes, producing some 12,000 cases of wine annually. Jeff also pointed to their use of square tanks which allowed them to produce more wine.

Grey Monk Estate Winery in Okanagan, BC

And moving from youngest to oldest, we take you to Grey Monk, a property which has been operating for 35 years as a winery, with vines growing for 45 years, and its owners – George and Trudy – celebrating 55 years of marriage (in 2017). Those are some impressive numbers. Feeling less like a property on lake in Canada, and more like a Tuscan villa against the Mediterranean, the Winery is stunning – and the older vines are producing much more complex drops that some of its competitors (take their Latitude 50 House Red Blend, for instance, which is surprisingly complex for a $12 House, offering a striking peppery finish).

And as the oldest family run estate winery in BC, this fact should come as little surprise. And they’ve grown a lot in those years. Starting with just 175 cases of wine 35 years ago, they now produce over 100k cases a year, with 27% Prino Gris (which is where the name Grey Monk comes from) and some 25 varietals across 25 types of wine. You’ll find their wine all over Canada, though the majority is sold here in BC. They offer complimentary tours and tastings, and many will stay to enjoy a beautiful meal in their restaurant, as you look over the estate and take in everything that the region has to offer.

One of the beautiful dishes at the Grey Monk restaurant

With almost 200 wineries in the region, this barely scratches the surface of what you can enjoy in the beautiful Okanagan Valley – but it gives you a good taste of just a few of the many highlights this desert destination has to offer.

While in Kelowna we stayed at the comfortable, spacious four floor Manteo Resort Hotel, which offers lake activities, a pool, massive comfortable beds, H20+ bathroom amenities and very fluffy robes. I should also mention some great food on offer at their on site restaurant Smack Dab (which had breakfast pizza amongst its buffet options!). Our room enjoyed a private balcony with water views, too. For more details about the hotel, head HERE.

The author travelled to Kelowna and stayed in Okanagan Valley as a guest of Destination Canada, Tourism Kelowna, Destination BC and flew with Air Canada. To learn more about the Okanagan region, head to the Tourism Kelowna website.