A five-storey, 600,000 cubic feet industrial space is transformed for this walkthrough exhibit.
Wine speaks. Pop the cork, pour it into your glass, breathe in its aroma and savour that first sip. A tale is soon being told; how the sunlight, rain and subtleties of the terroir nurtured the grape from vine to bottle. In British Columbia’s Oliver Osoyoos wine country, there are a variety of interesting stories being told. With soil conditions changing from one kilometre to the next, and valley slopes bathed in sunlight and protected from the elements, it’s little wonder that this area of the province is home to more than 43 wineries—and some unexpected varietals. It’s this delightful blend of conditions that makes the region a must-visit destination for wine-lovers.
Former accountant Murray Jones and his wife, Fiona Duncan, retired to Oliver from Winnipeg, in 2011 to try their hand at winemaking. “There’s no place like this anywhere else in Canada,” says Jones. “It’s magical.”
The couple spent two years searching for a property where they could grow and produce “big reds,” before deciding on a plot of land on the east side of the Black Sage Bench south of Oliver. Helping them was Richard (Dick) Cleave, one of the most celebrated viticulturalists in Canada, who quickly became their friend and mentor. They called their new winery Platinum Bench, a name that Jones credits to Cleave. It is a nod to the Golden Mile Bench, located across the valley from their vineyard. Benches are long, narrow strips of level land edged—above and below—by steeper slopes formed through different geological processes, such as retreating glaciers. They are also great places to grow grapes. “Dick joked, ‘If that’s the Golden Mile Bench, then this is the Platinum Bench,’” says Jones.
While Jones takes charge of the wine side of the business, overseeing the production of varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Gamay, Duncan’s domain is the creation of artisanal breads that compliment Platinum Bench’s vintages. It’s a passion she discovered as part of a stress-management program she took while working as the vice president of design for a women’s sportswear company.
Daily tastings at Platinum Bench see its wines expertly paired with Duncan’s fresh loaves. The gorgonzola and fig is accompanied by the Meritage, its complex bouquet of ripe plums, blackcurrants, blackberries and cherries accentuating the loaf’s light, blue cheese flavour. The sharpness and saltiness of her asiago cheese bread pairs nicely with the Gamay Noir’s notes of raspberry and light pepper.
Location: 15 acres on the Black Sage Bench
Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Gamay
Must try: The Gamay is light, with a bright finish. Served slightly chilled, the wine pairs well with tomato-based dishes. Gamay is most commonly found in France’s Beaujolais region and Loire Valley, but thrives in the sandy soil of the Black Sage Bench.
Bill Eggert honed his winemaking skills working on his uncle’s vineyard in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula before moving to B.C. in 1983 armed with a University of Guelph diploma in agriculture. In 1989, he bought Fairview Cellars—a 10-acre property located next to the first green of the Fairview Mountain Golf Course—and harvested his first grapes four years later.
“When I planted my Cabernet Sauvignon in 1993, there were just 10 acres of it in the Okanagan,” he says. “But, that year, hundreds of acres were planted, and the wine that hit the shops in 1996/97 was dynamite. We’d always made great aromatic white wines here, but we realized that we could do really nice reds, too.”
Arriving at Fairview Cellars’ tasting room, housed in a rustic log cabin, you’ll likely be greeted by one of the winery’s two dogs, Marty and Honey. After your tasting, take a glass of your favourite wine outside to one of the picnic tables or stand at one of the reused oak barrels on the patio located over the wine cellar’s flat roof. The barrels are recycled after four or five vintages.
Eggert shies away from the term “pioneer,” but he is something of a legend in the valley, with a reputation as an exceptionally good grower. He enjoys talking to visitors about the region and the wine it produces. “It’s so much fun being in this valley. The diversity of the wine is our strength,” he says.
Location: 10 acres on the Golden Mile Bench
Varietals: Grüner Veltliner, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Verdot
Must try: Grüner Veltliner is most commonly grown in Austria, but Eggert has had success growing this varietal at his second property, Eagle Bluff Vineyards, which is between McIntyre Bluff and Eagle Bluff, just north of Oliver.
Located on the southern edge of the Golden Mile Bench, Rust Wine Co.’s main vineyard features some of the oldest vines in the valley—the rows of Gewürztraminer you pass on your way to the tasting room were planted in the 1960s.
Most of the Golden Mile faces due east, so the vines get plenty of morning sunlight, but here the grapes receive a more southern exposure, resulting in a beautiful distribution of heat. The stony soil also helps. “There’s a cooling effect from the sun going down behind the mountains, but the rocks continue to heat up the vines from underneath,” says hospitality manager Kane Morgan. “You get ripe fruit, but the preservation of acidity, as well.”
Start by sampling the Gewürztraminer—it bursts with flavours of guava, ginger, rose petal and all-spice—before moving on to a blind tasting of the winery’s three Merlots. While its grapes are cultivated in virtually the same manner, the differences in taste is due to where the grapes were grown. In addition to Rust’s Golden Mile property, the winery has vineyards in West Osoyoos and the Similkameen Valley.
“It’s all about creating an identity and a sense of purpose in this region. The wines are fantastic, the food is great and the people are super-friendly. Life here is very laid-back,” says Morgan.
After sampling its vintages, settle into the winery’s patio to enjoy chef Natasha Schooten’s small-bite dishes, like the build-your-own Duck Confit Tacos served with Mexican cabbage Pico slaw. If you don’t feel like leaving, spend the night in the 126-year-old guest house and wake up to sweeping valley views.
Location: 12 acres on the Golden Mile Bench
Varietals: Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel
Must try: In all of B.C., there are only about 23 acres planted with Zinfandel, so one of the gems of this property is its 20-year-old Zinfandel vines. The wine is savoury, spicy and earthy, and similar to something you’d find from Italy.
George and Winnifred Covert moved to the valley from California after George learned apricots grew in the Okanagan Valley, and, astounded that you could grow fruit in Canada, wanted to see for himself. He purchased an undeveloped parcel of land north of Oliver in 1959 and started growing onions and tomatoes. Later he planted 80 acres of Gala and Ambrosia apples, making Covert Farms one of the area’s leading apple producers.
In 2004, George and Winnifred’s grandson, Gene, and other family members, took over the farm from his parents and soon converted part of the apple orchard into an organic vineyard. Gene now leases out much of the land so he can focus on his 30 acres of organic grapes. They are planted at the southeast of the property overlooked by McIntyre Bluff—the narrowest part of the valley—and also at a cooler section in the northwest.
The northwest mountain provides shade in the afternoon, protecting the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from the intense afternoon heat, while a cool breeze keeps them dry. The farm grows mostly Merlot and Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, but also a number of other varieties, including a light, sparkling Zinfandel. “We make the most of the Zinfandel yield, with both a fantastic table wine but also a very interesting sparkling,” says Gene.
Along with organic farming philosophies, Gene has also introduced biodynamic and regenerative practices that go beyond sustainability to give back to the land for future generations. He describes himself as a “bug farmer” when referring to the microbial element of maintaining the soil.
Established: Farm 1959 / Winery 2005 Locations: 650 acres on north Oliver bench land
Varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Roussanne, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Chardonnay
Must try: The Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend is a summer favourite. In the southernmost part of the Okanagan, Sauvignon Blanc expresses more citrus notes than grassy flavours while retaining its racy acidity.
Two Interesting Vintages
Lanny Martiniuk moved to the valley from Vancouver about 40 years ago. He and his wife, Julie, bought the farm on a handshake and began growing fruit, but switched to grapes in 1983. Today, Stoneboat has nearly 50 acres of vineyards across three sites. It’s a special area known as the Black Sage Gravelbar. “There’s solid gravel under here for 150 feet,” says Martiniuk. “We hit water at 11 feet, and it goes to 60 feet. The water draws minerality from the calcium-coated rocks. It’s the type of soil that is perfect for growing Pinot Noir.”
For a hearty meal, head to Kismet Estate Winery’s Masala Bistro for Indian food made from family recipes. Sukhwinder and Balwinder Dhaliwal immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. They managed various vineyards in the valley before buying a parcel of land to grow grapes to sell. Over the years, they expanded their vineyards to 400 acres. In 2013, they began making their own wine under the Kismet label, Sanskrit for “destiny” or “luck.” About 10 per cent of the grapes they grow—such as Grenache and Mourvedre— are used for their wines, enough for about 6,000 cases.
Kismet Estate Winery is offering free shipping when you buy six bottles or more, plus an additional 10 per cent off 2018 Pinot Grigio and 2018 Lotus Rosé. Order online here. You can also watch virtual tastings on Kismet’s Facebook page.
Splurge-Worthy Vineyard Stays
Nestled on a 140-acre vineyard, this property features 10 rooms and a suite with vineyard views. It is eco-friendly and has electric vehicle charging stations.
The property has six adult-only suites styled after Mediterranean villas with soaker tubs, walk-in showers and geothermal heating and cooling.
British Columbia’s Best Wine Regions (and Where to Sip)
The Okanagan Valley is emerging as one of the world’s most exciting wine regions, thanks to its range of climates and terroirs. Meanwhile, the Thompson Valley’s Kamloops area is on the rise. Sip aromatic whites at the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival (Sept. 28 to Oct. 8) or Pinot Noir at Privato Vineyard & Winery in Kamloops.