For most folks, BC wine country is the southern Okanagan, meaning Oliver and Osoyoos off of Highway 97 South. But don’t forget one other winery up at Okanagan Falls as well; you have to backtrack and/or make a detour for it, but it well worth the trip.
1. Blue Mountain
Yes, this is the one you have to backtrack for! And, yes, you can’t taste their best wine there, because the Reserve Pinot Noir sells out in a few hours upon release. But Blue Mountain is still well worth the effort, both for the beautiful drive through the vines (you will think you are in California) and the chance to taste some of their other very good wines.
White, red and sparkling are usually available for tasting and I recommend all of them. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris (regular and, sometimes, the Reserves) for the whites, Pinot Noir and Gamay (the latter perhaps the best in the province) for the reds and the best non-vintage sparkling wine as well.
Even though the Reserve Pinot Noir isn’t available to taste, a few words about it. You need to get on the mailing list for this beauty and then act quickly to get some of what is – along with Kettle Valley’s Hayman Vineyard – the best Pinot Noir in BC. A wine that tastes like California when young and Burgundy as it ages, it is just beautiful, full of dark cherry fruit, spice and earthy overtones. I like it best after 2 – 3 years in the bottle, but it drinks beautifully on release as well. And, in good vintages, it can age 8 – 10 years.
My other favourite wines at Blue Mountain are the sparkling ones, both non-vintage and vintage. The former – they make both a Brut and Brut Rose – are classic Cava-style sparklers, with ripe green apples (for the regular Brut) and strawberries (for the Rose). Both are medium bodied and bone dry, with beautiful, small bubbles. I haven’t tried to age them, but they are great on release and will impress any sparkling wine lover, especially for about $25.
The vintage Brut Rose, Brut and Blanc de Blanc aren’t always available, but are worth purchasing for those who like Champagne style sparklers. I have had the 2008, 2006 and 2005, respectively, and they would easily compete with Champagnes that are more than twice the price! You get that toasty/yeasty component characteristic of real Champagne, with the fruit older and complex. Definitely special occasion wines, and at less than $50, they easily rival real Champagne that costs $20 or $30 more.
2. Church and State
Okay, now it’s just down Highway 97 towards Oliver and Osoyoos, tasting along the way! First up on the eastern side of the highway is Church and State winery. The headquarters is actually based on Vancouver Island, but the majority of their vines – and best wines – come from the Coyote Bowl site in Oliver. A brand new, fancy tasting room is evidence of the winery’s success, which recently included “Wine of the Year” for their 2009 Coyote Bowl Syrah.
There are three different levels of wines to taste – Coyote Bowl, Church & State and Church Mouse (in descending order of quality and price). For whites, there are Rhone varietals as well as Chardonnays; I like the latter, made in a Cali-style. For reds, a full spectrum of Bordeaux varieties and blends, as well as Pinot Noir and Syrah. May favourites are the Coyote Bowl Syrah, C&S Hollenbach Pinot Noir and the Coyote Bowl Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Coyote Bowl Syrah is made in a Rhone style with smoky, peppery black cherries, this is the wine that made C&S famous when the 2009 won Wine of the Year in Canada. While not as good as the Nichol Syrah (and on par with the Burrowing Owl), it is still a very good wine for medium term drinking.
The Hollenbach Pinot Noir is made in the Cali-style, with ripe red cherries, earth and a touch of spice. It is smooth and medium bodied, meant for consumption over the first few years. At $27 it is more expensive than Eau Vivre, but cheaper than reference points like Kettle Valley and Blue Mountain. Quality wise it lags behind all of these, but the price is fair compared to California.
Finally, the Coyote Bowl Cabernet Sauvignon is actually more Bordeaux in style than California, although much riper (which is why I like it). Black currants, vanilla, herbs and cedar are the flavor components, and it can be a bit tannic when young, developing over 3 – 5 years. At $35 it is getting up there in price, but for the style it is price competitive with wines that are $10 – $20+ more.
3. Cassini Cellars
This winery on the west side of the highway was a revelation on my last trip to the Okanagan! Not only did the quality of their wines blow me away, but the prices had come down, making them extremely competitive. A big, spacious tasting room makes for a nice visit as well.
A full range of whites are available, including two Chardonnays (oaked and unoaked), Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. I really like the Reserve Chardonnay, which is made in that classic buttery California style. For reds, there are the Bordeaux varieties and blends, Pinot Noirs (two of them) and a Syrah. All are worth tasting, although my favourites are the Syrah and Merlot (the latter sees little or no oak, is incredibly fruity and, at $18.95, may be the best BC red wine value!).
The Syrah, given the combination of quality and price (under $30), makes it a great choice for buying and drinking over a 4 – 5 year period. Very French, with peppery black cherries and a touch of licorice, it is ripe and shows little or no oak overtones. It sells out quickly though!
The Merlot is no herbal/mocha Merlot – instead, the dark plums literally jump out of the glass and there is almost no oak (half of the wine is aged in stainless steel). For drinking over the first few years of its life for its freshness, and even available in BC government liquor stores!
Finally, the Reserve Chardonnay isn’t cheap at $29, but the fruit is buttery, ripe but not sweet, medium bodied and has a great mouth feel. Drink it over the first few years to make sure the oak doesn’t get it!
4. Burrowing Owl
One of the most iconic (and beautiful) BC wineries, and the one that first showed me how good our red wines could be with the 1998 Merlot (which is still the best BC wine I have ever tasted!). Although the style of the red wines has changed since then – moving more towards Bordeaux and away from California – it is still a place worth visiting, tasting and – for the Syrah – buying!
A full range of red Bordeaux varietals are available for tasting here, although over the years I tend to focus on the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (the Cabernet Franc and Meritage have become too herbal and tannic for me). For the whites, the Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are both nice and still fairly reasonable priced.
The one wine that I recommend year in, year out, for buying at Burrowing Owl is the Syrah. It is make in that Rhone style, with peppery black cherries and an intriguing smokiness on the nose. The fruit is ripe but not jammy, and while it drinks nicely on release, it can develop in the bottle over 4 – 6 years as well.
5. Moon Curser
A relative newcomer to the BC wine scene, the former Twisted Tree Vineyards winery is producing reasonably priced, good quality red and white wines, including some intriguing white Rhone varietals you don’t usually see in the province. The winery is conveniently located just outside of Osoyoos, making for a quick and easy visit and tasting experience.
Stylistically, I prefer more of the Moon Curser red wines, specifically the Syrah, Malbec and Border Vines (their Bordeaux blend). The whites are worth tasting as well, although I am not a huge fan of Rhone varietals like Roussanne and Marsanne because of their resiny overtones. Having said that, the blend “Afraid of the Dark” – which mixes these varietals with Chardonnay – is both fruity and refreshing
The Syrah, at $25, offers excellent price/quality ratio here for a Rhone-style Syrah that features pepper, black cherries and more tannin than is normally found in this varietal. But there is also little or no wood evident and enough ripe fruit to let it develop for 4 – 5 years.
The Border Vines is the same price and offers the same value proposition, although it is perhaps even more impressive to me because it is a Bordeaux blend that is riper – and way cheaper – than most. Look for black currants here, plus some wood and herbs, but not enough of the latter to overwhelm the fruit. It is a bit tannic when young, so either decant for an hour or so, or give it a couple of years in the cellar.
Last but not least is Nk’Mip, a First Nations winery in Osoyoos that has made major strides in quality over the past few years to add to it’s great price structure. It is well worth a visit for both the white and red wines and – like Moon Curser – is conveniently located just outside of downtown Osoyoos.
I like both the Chardonnay and Riesling for the white wines, both attractively priced (at around $20) for regular drinking and widely available in BC Government liquor stores. Pinot Noir and Syrah are my picks for the reds, as the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Meritage are more Bordeaux in style (although a new, more inexpensive blend called Talon was riper). There is the regular line of varietals, as well as reserve wines labeled Qwam Qmpt, which are the ones I buy for my cellar.
The Qwam Qmpt Pinot Noir, at $30, is a beautiful California style Pinot Noir that combines vanilla from the oak barrels with ripe red cherry fruit. Enjoyable on release, it also seems to age well from 3 – 4 years.
The same can be said of the Qwam Qmpt Syrah ($30), although I have only had a couple of vintages of this wine. Made in the classic Rhone style with peppery, black cherries and little or no obvious oak. Again, enjoyable on release but seems to age well for a few years.
Finally, the Qwam Qmpt Chardonnay ($25) is very well priced for reserve Chardonnay made in the Cali style. It has lovely buttery/vanilla citrus fruit, a luscious mouth feel and creamy finish. Not for long term cellaring, but it is gorgeous on release.
So there you have it – 6 wineries from the heart of BC’s Okanagan wine country to visit. There are many more along the way, but if you tight for time and/or looking for an efficient way to “do” wine country, you won’t be disappointed with these choices.