In Western Canada, the quarantine and lack of travel of 2020 has, against all odds, turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable affair. Initially disappointed that we weren’t able to zoom off to London, Ibiza, and Greece, my partner and I found ourselves relegated to the borders of beautiful British Columbia, which turned out to be, perhaps the best place we could have imagined ourselves in. It’s no secret that we are wine aficionados – him hailing from the restaurant industry, and myself from the champagne wholesaler hustle – but even we were surprised at the exceptional talents of Canada’s wine country. Posited from the southernmost point of Osoyoos to the tip of Nʕaylintn (McIntyre Bluff), Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country brings to the fore some of the Okanagan region most award-winning wines – and the most fantastic opportunity for a weekend away.
On a Friday afternoon in mid-September, just around the moment of Harvest, my partner and I packed our bags early and drove 4 and a half hours South West out of Vancouver towards the Okanagan Valley for a two night trip. With the drive bordered by mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes, the majestic scenery was enough to calm the nerves after a long week and awaken the wanderlust vibes. We had nearly arrived into Oliver, a sleepy, quaint town of endless vineyards punctuated by fruit stalls and tiny hotels just before dinner. We’d found endless fresh produce en route, including the most delicious homemade fresh bread, local cheeses and salami, and so it was the time to select our wine. Luckily, just before entering Oliver, lies Liquidity Winery. Established in 2008 by Ian Macdonald, a businessman and art collector, this stunning winery prepared our palates for the pleasure to come with its spectacular terrace overlooking the Oliver vineyards, avant-garde art, and wonderful wines. Wandering through the beautiful white expansive space, we took in the interesting artworks around us, before making our way to the terrace where our kind host prepared our tasting for us.
We tried three whites and three red wines. Pinot Gris was the first wine we tasted. This wine is 100% estate grown planted in 1998. On the nose you immediately get green apple, pears and melon. Light in body yet full of flavours this stainless steel fermented Pinot Gris has great acidity and minierality. Second, a viognier from Blind Creek Vineyards in the Similkameen valley. This was such a pleasure and excited our palate, ripe peaches, mango, and hints of jasmine on the nose. On the palate it was full flavoured with apricot, citrus, yellow plums and a hint of white pepper. The finish is delightfully long, an excellent start to our tasting. Last of the whites was the 2018 Chardonnay Estate. A pleasantly full bodied Chardonnay with exceptional fruit on the nose — ripe citrus, pear, nectarine, and praline. As you sip away you get lovely passionfruit and white flours with a well balanced creamy finish. Onto the reds, the Pinot Noir was much anticipated. On the nose aromas of cherry, raspberry and earl grey tea excite the senses. Flavours of cherry, vanilla, a hint of spice, some savoury earthy notes and a nice long finish. A fantastic Pinot that can be enjoyed alone or with some duck, smoked meats, or some saute mushrooms. Last, the Merlot was a memorable end to our tasting. We described this Merlot as medium to full bodied, on the dry side with some pleasant tannins. Flavours of black fruits, hints of vanilla, tobacco and earthy notes. The fruits are present till the end as the flavours dissipate smoothly until your next sip.
Much to our sadness, the bistro that Liquidity is so famous for was closed due to Covid-19, but we made a mental note to return as soon as we can. Picking up a couple of bottles from the winery, we made our way back to the car to continue driving into Oliver. With the cicadas singing in full force, the September night was upon us when we made our way to our hotel and wound down the night with an outdoor picnic of Liquidity’s Merlot and the delicious Okanagan delicacies we’d picked up.
On Saturday morning, we woke up excited for another day of wine-tasting. Our first appointment was on the Golden Mile Bench, with Culmina Family Estate, the newest venture of Don, Elaine, and Sara Triggs. Bringing his 40+ years of experience, Don launched Culmina in 2006 with the aid of exceptionally talented Viticulture and Oenology professionals all hailing from France. Culmina sits high up on the Western hills of the Okanagan valley as a stunning gated property with a minimalist tasting room and intimate patio overlooking its vineyards. We met our host, the assistant winemaker before taking a seat on the patio to enjoy their flagship tasting.
We started the tasting with the 2019 Gruner Veltliner from Margaret’s bench vineyard. Not your classic Okanagan grape, a native grape of Austria we became fans as soon as we stuck our noses in. A burst of passion fruit aromas, lime sorbet, lemon curd and white peaches. Exceptionally balanced, Asian pear and tangerine lingered elegantly on the pallet. A delicate mineral finish left us trying to code this grape in our memories. The second wine tasted was the 2018 Riesling. As the Gruner, the Riesling come from Margaret’s bench where its terroir shines. On the nose, we got mineral wet rock, hints of lemon, honeycomb, and floral notes, with great acidity, crisp Gravenstein apple, pink grapefruit, and lime zest on the tongue. The finish was long with apricot notes and muskmelon. If you want something to excite your palate with great acidity then this is the wine for you. We left some in the glass to come back to later. Continuing with grapes from Margaret’s bench, next up was the 2016 Chardonnay. Not your heavy buttery Chardonnay, we described it as the perfect combination of tasty light cream butter and fruit. On the nose, aromas of ripe citrus, stone fruit, fresh chamomile flowers, Soft peach flavours were at the forefront, with fresh acidity and subtle chestnut flavours. A beautifully toasty oak finish cleansed the palate nicely. This summer we tasted a plethora of rose, so Culmina’s Saignee Rose comes with great anticipation. The 2019 vintage had expressive aromas of stewed rhubarb, raspberry and subtle notes of plum, and white peaches. On the palate, there were creamy textures of raspberry, red licorice, and plum. Due to the “bleeding” method of wine making this rose has great colour and flavours. We knew we were definitely not leaving without a few bottles of this rose.
Onto the reds, first up was the 2016 unfiltered ‘Jeunes Vignes’ Malbec. This wine had intense floral aromas, red current, plums, and dark chocolate notes. On the palate there you get blueberry, some light oak and incredibly smooth tannins. Much like the previous wines, the finish is long and pleasantly delightful. On to the next, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. When you think of Cabernet you tend to think bold and juicy. This Cabernet Sauvignon is that but elegant and very refined. There are subtle aromatic sage notes with savory leather accompanied with excellent fruit while on the palate you get black dried fruit and toasted oak. You can tell it’s a Cabernet but it is not a try hard, fantastically balanced. Last, one of Culmina’s signature reds, the Hypothesis. A Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc blend, bring bold flavours of dark cherries and black cracked pepper. On the palate you get exceptional flavours, fruits, chocolate, cloves, a subtle mint hit with elegant tannins and long finish almost as long as the driveway up to the vineyard. We absolutely loved the tasting, the view was perfect, and the wines will stick in our memory forever.
Our second stop of the day was with Black Hills Winery, a winery on the East side of the valley. Driving a deceptively short 28 minutes to get there, the vineyards and fruit trees whirring past us with their array of colours, we climbed our ascent to the famous Black Sage Road, notorious for being home to weighty wines. Known for their Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, we knew that Black Hills marked no exception – though we weren’t expecting to discover such luscious whites. Upon arrival, our host took us to the back of the winery where we set eyes upon an immaculate swimming pool and garden, set up with cabanas for wine-tasting. Redolent of a European retreat rather than a small-town winery, we sat down to enjoy our first glass. We started the tasting with the 2018 Alibi, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The nose delivered toasty notes and citrus fruit. On the palate, the fruits linger in a medium bodied fashion with excellent complexity. Next, the Voignier was well balanced and full of fruit. The aromas of peach immediately came to mind as we had some fresh peaches for breakfast that morning. Other notes included nectarine and hints of floral notes. The palate was crisp and creamy in texture. This wine had great acidity throughout with ripe stone fruit and citrus notes. Thirdly, the Chardonnay was elegant, approachable and beautifully balanced. Aromas of caramelised sugar cane, rich tropical fruit, and lemon peel. The palate, juicy green apple, citrus fruit and great acidity. This 100% French oak Chardonnay was definitely a stand out. Next a grape that most may not be familiar with, Roussanne originally grown in the Rhone Valley of France. This wine picked from the Black Sage Bench was excellent. Hints of hazelnut, butter with hints of lemon meringue pie. The flavours are rich – apple, lemon, and pear. Roussanne mimics a Chardonnay but as it may be a similar animal but is a different beast. Onto the reds, Addendum a blend mainly Merlot (86%) and Cab.Franc (14%) has aromas of red currant, raspberry and dark cherries. A delightful mint flavour lingers with milk chocolate on the palate. A wine for now or cellar and enjoy later. The Syrah was next, a rich, bold wine with intense black cherry aromas. Dark Chocolate, baking spice and fresh berries round off the palate. This wine shows great acidity and silkiness. We leave a little bit in the glass to come back to it later. Last, The Nota Bene. A bordeaux blend with marked aromas of blackberries, mulberries, and plum. Strong tannins with blackberries, mocha, dried spice are present throughout the palate. This is an exceptional red, winemaker Ross Wise has done a fantastic job. Black Hills agricultural techniques make it ideal for Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. The tasting showcased just this and their commitment to sustainable, environmentally conscious farming and winemaking practices resonates within every bottle.
After Black Hills, we wrapped up the day with a few more wineries, stopping by for quick tastings and picking up occasional bottles as we drove through the valley. Before long it was time for dinner, and we enjoyed another picnic on our hotel patio with the cicadas, this time enjoying a bottle of Culmina’s Riesling – a fresh and light wine for an early night.
After a restful night’s sleep, cradled by the cicadas’ songs, we woke refreshed and ready to make the most of our final day. With a trunk full of wine bottles, backseat full of peaches, nectarines, apples, plums and local cheeses, we slowly began our sad drive back to Vancouver. As we drove through the winding mountainous roads, the mid-September sun still high in the sky, we found ourselves talking eagerly about the potential of this phenomenal wine region. With just a few years of experience under its belt, and none of the restricting laws of the Old World, we wondered excitedly – how far can the Okanagan valley go?