Leah Spooner shares her insider knowledge on wineries to visit and where she stayed, ate and drank in British Columbia’s sprawling and rugged Central Okanagan. Plus, find out what wines Leah highlights as her favourites from her experience.
While the fertile ice age clay has allowed the Okanagan to create rugged and charming red wines, it was my most recent visit to British Columbia that allowed me to see and taste the Okanagan’s talent through its wide range of styles.
From fragrant riesling, to Provence-style rosé, to rich and earthy red blends, the rich volcanic soils provide the Okanagan with everything it needs to produce high quality wines. The pristine land here, combined with the determined mindset of winegrowers to bring Canadian wine to the forefront, will be sure to capture the attention and heart of any wine lover who comes across it.
On the first day of my travels, I arrive at the cozy guest cottage at Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery in Penticton, B.C. – at the heart of the Central Okanagan and home to the Okanagan’s famed and picturesque Naramata Bench – and I am thrilled. The view is stunning! Double French doors open onto a patio that overlooks the vineyard, winery, and Okanagan Lake, with a backdrop of tree-studded mountains. There are even perfectly situated bright red Adirondack chairs at the brink of the hill to enjoy the view from. Unsurprisingly, this place is already booked up for the summer season.
The cottage provides a well-stocked kitchen that includes coffee and tea, spices, and all the cooking supplies you could need, including their customary Four Shadows wine glasses. The cottage is filled with helpful wine tour guides, maps, quality toiletries, and one extra comfortable queen size bed.
It’s still early in the day so I waste no time getting on the road to get my wine tour started. First stop: Bench 1775. The patio here is famous for having the most stunning and broad view of the Okanagan Lake with surrounding mountains. Inside, Joshua, the tasting room manager, provides me with an exploratory tasting of six wines.
The first wine that stood out to me happened to be the first wine poured. It was a 2018 White Meritage, a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc that had a smooth, creamy texture, with counterbalancing acidity. Complex notes of peach, lychee, melon, almond and nutmeg on the nose and palate.
Joshua also poured me their 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the winery’s Osoyoos vineyards. Osoyoos is the southernmost tip of the Okanagan, where thick skinned red grapes do exceptionally well. I liked that this cabernet sauvignon was well-structured with firm tannins, ripe fruit flavours (without being over-extracted), and had pleasant spicy and steel notes with a fresh mouthfeel thanks to the cooler 2017 vintage.
After several selfies and Instagram-worthy videos on the patio, I walked next door to Moraine. They have a large portfolio here to please all palates. Moraine’s 2020 Chardonnay was fantastic. This chardonnay by winemaker Amber Pratt is sourced from 37-year-old vines on the Naramata Bench. An oily textural mouthfeel with notes of croissant, baked apple and almond. There’s a full force of admirable and impactful chalky minerality, and a long finish. Other standouts were their 2020 Reserve Pinot Noir and a white port style Ratafia NV.
The next day I head north-west to Summerland, a 20-minute taxi ride from Penticton, to continue my tasting tour. Summerland happens to be the home of Lightning Rock, a winery that is making some of the most exciting wines coming out of Canada.
Winemaking couple Jordan Kubek and Tyler Knight have an impressive worldly winemaking resume that includes vintages in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Europe. With a background in biology and etymology, Tyler works Lightning Rock’s vineyards literally from the ground up. He uses an all-natural environmental approach to create minimal intervention wines that are a true representation of the terroir. Tyler and Jordan’s dedication and passion for their overall vision is certainly reflective in the wines.
I admire the consistency of quality throughout the entire portfolio of Lightning Rock and find all of their wine to be absolutely purchase-worthy. The sparkling wine of Lightning Rock is intensely focused, with a mineral forefront and pristine acidity. The 2020 Blanc de Noirs Elysia Vineyard and 2020 Blanc de Noirs Canonview Vineyard should be highlighted for their impressive structure, with the latter having a richer and riper profile. The still wine pinot noir, from both vineyards, are intriguingly complex, showing balanced red fruit, floral and earthy nuances.
After a quick stop at a couple more wineries in Summerland, I head to Poplar Grove Winery for their highly recommended restaurant and award-winning wines. I’m seated inside their large lakefront glass-wall restaurant that allows another breathtaking view of Okanagan Lake.
I’m welcomed with a beautifully aged 2014 Sparkling Chardonnay (with plenty of life left in it!), that sets the tone for my following tasting with Kelsey, their tasting room manager in their members only Legacy Room. She showcased Poplar Grove’s top wines, including two that won a 96-point badge from Decanter. One of these top-scoring wines was their 2018 Syrah – full of ripe fruit, chocolate, sage, and dried herb notes. It was full-bodied, with firm tannins and wrapped up with a long finish. Another favourite of mine from this tasting was their 2017 Legacy, a member exclusive wine that is a merlot dominant Bordeaux blend.
For my final day on the Naramata Bench, I decide to walk between wineries as my last stops are all relatively close together. I began my morning just down the hill from the guesthouse at Four Shadows Winery. Joka, the owner tells me how they now craft zweigelt from vines that were almost originally ripped out upon purchasing the winery.
The riesling in the Four Shadows portfolio shows impressive complexity, with tropical fruit notes of guava, ripe mango and pineapple, with encompassing chalky minerality. The steep slopes from which the riesling vines grow allow deep root penetration and optimum sun exposure, which results in an off-dry wine with balancing acidity and structure. I particularly enjoy the 2019 Reserve Merlot for the same reason: complexity and lifted, cradling acidity around ripe, dark fruit and dried herbs.
A short walk up the road from Four Shadows has me at Three Sisters. I especially enjoy their 2020 Gamay that flaunts incredible structure with a piercing vein of acidity, chalky minerality, bright red fruit flavours, and a never-ending finish. Winemaker Matt Mikulic brought back an interesting wine style that I was excited to try – Cane Cut Riesling. It’s a style that’s made similarly to icewine but the canes are cut and left to hang. This helps maintain the natural acidity leaving a sweet wine, with palate cleansing acidity and freshness.
After Three Sisters I pop over to a couple more wineries (Township 7, Upper Bench) before heading to Da Silva Vineyards and Winery. I came for the cab franc and stayed for the pinot noir… and cab franc! Also, the charismatic owners Twylla and Richard da Silva were refreshingly down-to-earth people with a passion for farming and good wine.
The Da Silva Pinot Noir was a highlight of my tasting tour. It was rustic and savoury, with layers of earthy notes, red fruits, and baking spices wrapped up in tantalizing acidity. But that Cabernet Franc really captivated me. Truly unique and seamless, with purple licorice, wildberry, and allspice notes. It was well structured and had an exceptionally long finish. Instantly a new favourite!
My last stop of this amazing trip had me at Roche, a winery owned and run by sixth generation winemaker Penelope Roche and her husband Dylan. Both Penelope and Dylan have French wine backgrounds that influence the winery they’ve created on the Naramata Bench. They have started a collaboration with Canadian artists for a series called “Vig” that have the artists design labels based on the particular taste of the wine they are designing for. One of the wines from the Vig series that I loved was their 2021 Zweigelt Rosé from 25-year-old vines. It possessed vibrant rhubarb and watermelon notes with flourishing chalky minerality.
Distinct and diverse
The rosés from the Okanagan on a whole really struck a chord with me. Although they all had their unique attributes, the overall style and representation of the Okanagan terroir was evident in all of them. The same could be said for the chardonnay. They obtained a desirable ripeness, while keeping balanced and energizing acidity from the diurnal range in the region, as well as being able to reflect the sense of place in each exhibition.
Of course, the Okanagan’s reputable full-bodied reds charmed me with their ruggedness and complex, distinctive character. However, on further examination of another one of our famed wine regions, I am only more convinced that Canada doesn’t have one single wine style that represents the country. Instead – and in true Canadian fashion – diversity is our signature.
When to visit
Penticton weather in May through September is warm and pleasant, making this the best time to visit Penticton and anywhere within the Central Okanagan. The days are sunny, and the average temperature is 64℉ which is just perfect for putting on those sneakers and going exploring.
-Leah Spooner is a contributing editor for VineRoutes.