With the May long weekend marking the unofficial start to the season — and most BC wineries now open for public tastings — I thought I would do a series of blogs on self-guided wine tours. I will start with my favourite region – Naramata!
Naramata – the isolated little conclave on the eastern side of Lake Okanagan – is an idyllic spot. Only five minutes outside of downtown Penticton, it seems like you are miles away from urbanity! It is also all about wine up there and, in my opinion, perhaps the best wine in B.C. (if not in Canada).
1. La Frenz
As you drive up the long, winding road into Naramata, the first place to stop is the best – La Frenz! Jeff and Niva Martin are from Australia and have been making great wine – that offers ridiculous value – since the mid-1990s. Having been tasting, drinking and cellaring their wines for over ten years now, I can confidently say the produce the best wines in Canada – red, white, rose and sweet. Their tasting room is small but nicely laid out, with a constantly changing selection of almost all their wines to try at a small cost (which is reimbursable with any purchase.
Tasting at La Frenz easy – just try everything that is offered! My favourite whites are the Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Small Lots Riesling, Viognier – all easily the best in BC, and between $20 – $22 a bottle! The Reserve Chardonnay is also a beauty, like a baby Beringer Private Reserve. For reds, they have Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (again, the best in BC) as well as Shiraz, Malbec, and Pinot Noir (check out the Reserve…wow!). And don’t forget their Rose in the summer – an explosion of ripe strawberries and grapefruit – as well as three sweet wines (non-vintage Tawny Ports and Muscat, plus a Vintage Shiraz Port).
The next winery I recommend for a short stop as you drive through Naramata is Hillside Estate. They have a nice tasting room as well as a bistro that is open for both lunch and dinner.
A full range of whites and reds are available for tasting at Hillside, with the standard small fee that is refunded if you buy anything. I recommend tasting the Gewurztraminer and Muscat Ottonel for the whites and the Syrah for the reds (the rest of the reds are made in more Bordeaux style).
Marichel Vineyards is next up. Richard Roskell, the winemaker and proprietor, makes only Syrah and Viognier and has a small tasting room, but don’t let that fool you – these are artisanal wines well worth stopping to taste and buy.
Syrah and Viognier are the red and white offerings here, two versions of each (one more “serious” and the other less expensive and designed for immediate consumption). Both are Rhone style, although the Syrahs are fruitier than most in Naramata. The estate Syrah is particularly worth checking out – not cheap at $40, but a beautiful cross between Rhone and Australia!
4. Kettle Valley
This beautiful vineyard is at the bottom of a long, winding road that has a great view of the lake. The tasting room is about as minimalist as you can get – the back part of a house! But, once again, don’t let that fool you – Kettle Valley makes arguable the best Pinot Noir in B.C. (if not in Canada). And although you rarely get to taste their two best Pinots on site (because they are made in such small quantities), you can buy them directly from the winery’s website.
I stick to reds for tasting here…Pinot Noirs first, (whatever they have available to taste, and if they have the Hayman Vineyard or Reserve, well, enjoy! They are flagship Pinot Noirs for BC and Canada. I also like the Merlot, which is more fruit-forward than most, and they make an interesting Marechal Foch-based wine (Extra 4079) and a version of port called Caboose, both of which are worth tasting.
4. Howling Bluff
Another relative newcomer to the Naramata winescape, Howling Bluff burst on the scene a few years ago by winning a couple of prestigious Governor General awards for their Pinot Noir. It remains their best red wine, made in a cross between California and Burgundy with spicy cherry fruit.
There are now three whites – a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. All are very nice and great bargains at under $20. Another unpretentious tasting room in the back of their house, but amazing wines to be tasted.
5. Nichol Vineyards
Always the last stop in my Naramata trip, because it is the literally the last winery before
the road winds down into the town. Ross Hackworth purchased this winery from the Nichol family a number of years ago and – with it – the oldest Syrah vines in Canada (which is the reason I come to taste and buy every year!).
For whites, there are Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris to taste, and both are worth it, especially the latter. It is made in a true “Gris” style, with the skins left on for a while so that the white wine ends up a shade of pink (how deep a shade depends on the year). But it is always bone dry.
With respect to reds, it all about Syrah for me. This is the best Syrah in Canada (don’t just take my word for it – British critic Jancis Robinson says so too!). Made in the classic Rhone style, it is nice young but after 4 – 5 years – well, it would embarrass many a Crozes-Hermitage, let me tell you!
6. Naramata Wine Restaurants
If you want to stop for dinner in Naramata (either after a day of tasting or a drive up from nearby Penticton), definitely check out the Naramata Inn and Spa restaurant. It may have the best BC wine list in the province, including some hard to find bottles (like the Kettle Valley Hayman Vineyard Pinot Noir and Nichol Syrah Reservare) and the prices are very reasonable. The food is very good to – California/French, served either inside or on a beautiful patio.
So if you are in Penticton or the area, head up to Naramata for the afternoon and taste some of the best wine in BC…and Canada!