To many folks’ surprise, one of the world’s greatest up-and-coming wine regions is in Canada – and it isn’t ice wine. Beautiful British Columbia, with its majestic mountains, rugged forests, and cold oceans is also home to rolling hills of breathtaking vineyards in a region called the Okanagan.
It sits nestled into a spectacular landscape redolent of South Africa with its huge hills, mountains, and dusty desert interspersed with green bushes and gnarly vines. Ancient volcanic and glacial soils make up the precipitous hillsides, and the cool nights with warm days, low rainfall, high humidity and unique latitude make it the perfect backdrop for phenomenal wine.
There are two main wine towns of note, Kelowna and Oliver, though many other smaller hamlets and villages to explore. Kelowna remains the larger town, featuring its own university and airport but still very much a small community, whilst Oliver is a tiny village surrounded by orchards and fruit stalls.
I visited both regions on a whirlwind trip back to this incredible destination, having visited many times when I lived in Vancouver just 4.5 hours away. Returning to the Okanagan is always a joy and one that fills my heart with an aching nostalgia for living there. Having travelled around the wine regions of France, Spain, Italy, and even England, I still stand by the Okanagan being my favourite. Read on to discover more about my three favourite wineries. These are an absolute must-see for when you visit.
Martin’s Lane Winery
The first stop we made was the most spectacular one of all. Situated in Kelowna, Martin’s Lane Winery is a work of art, architecture, and vinicultural beauty. Hands down, this is the best winery I have ever been to – and likely ever will. And I intend to keep travelling around wineries.
This winery is the passion project of the legendary Anthony von Mandl. Who is he? Well, if you’ve drunk a white claw – he’s the billionaire behind the brand. A wine industry mogul, he is behind many of the greatest wineries of the Okanagan and built his wine brands on the back of his success in the spirits industry. This unique creation, an entirely gravity-based building designed by Olson Kundig pays homage to von Mandl’s family and desire to leave a mark on the wine industry.
The winery itself is spectacular. In Kundig’s classic style, it features as site intended to blend in with its natural background. Elements reign with natural materials. The building, a cavernous black entity, looks as if it belongs as part of the rocks it sits upon, whilst the roof, weathered and aged, blends in with the mountains behind it. From afar, one would struggle to see the winery. Surreptitious, elegant, and raw, it fits with the elements around it.
The building’s form has a fracture down the middle opening to create light into the interior spaces whilst the structure follows the slopes down, creating the gravity pull that allows for the wine to be made in its unique way. Outside, are statues – we have Da Vinci’s head with its missing ear as a gigantic sculpture, along with statues meant to symbolise heart, honesty, and truth.
Behind a cavernous Bond-villain like heavy door, which opens ominously onto a darkened room, lies a spiral staircase redolent of a corkscrew, made up entirely of baseball stitched leather (by hand no less) taking guests up to the most delightful tasting room you’ll set eyes upon. A living room style expanse, full of leather armchairs, dappled light, and a stunning balcony opening out onto the vineyard below, it’s inspirational in its design. This is the room we enjoyed our tasting in.
But first, we made our way through the winery’s interior. Entering darkened room after darkened room, we went into the grand dining hall, a magnificent space full of the world’s most prestigious vintages (First Growths from Bordeaux) which von Mandl allegedly opens for guests like Prince William and Kate. We visited the barrel room, as well as the production room, where we saw the wine being made in all its magic.
Shane Munn, the winemaker, is your classic genius working his art with the grapes. Originally from New Zealand, he cut his teeth across Burgundy and Barolo, as well as other parts of North America before he made his way to Martin’s Lane. With a background in mathematics, he is creative, intuitive, and incredibly intelligent, bringing a unique approach to winemaking. The gravity-led approach is unique in the region and ensures that the wine is fully organic, and made to the highest standards.
What is the result? The most fantastic pinot noir I have ever tried. Better than any Burgundy I’ve been able to afford (and I mean wines below the £500 price point), the Pinot Noir’s at Martin’s Lane are world class. Scoring 93 and 97 points respectively by Steven Spurrier, the man who put Napa Valley on the map in 1976, it’s no wonder we were blown away. By focusing exclusively on Pinot Noir as the only red grape varietal Martin’s Lane makes, in some of best micro-climates in North America, the winery is able to deliver world-class wine in a relatively short amount of time – it only opened a few years ago.
It also produces Riesling, with each vintage offering a different rendition of this notoriously hard grape variety. Both were utterly fantastic, and we left a few $100 lighter after buying some bottles to bring back to Europe. With production incredibly low, we were only able to buy 3 per head, but still, at less than $100 per bottle, we were grateful to have this opportunity to take something that would easily retail at 2x that price in Europe. Martin’s Lane, you are an absolute gem.
Red Barn Winery
The following day, we made our way to another von Mandl creation, and this time his newest one. We left Kelowna in the morning and drove down the breathtaking waterfront winding road through Peachland and Summertown, two smaller winery filled little villages, to Oliver. Deep in the Southern Okanagan, here the landscape transformed into a rugged desert. The hills loomed even more powerfully than those in Kelowna, taller, more mysterious, the light dappling across them like a mosaic.
Named Red Barn, after the red barn located amidst its wineries, this winery features a crafted collection of single-vineyard wines from Jagged Rock ‘designed to disrupt the norm’. This winery felt younger, more eclectic, and relaxed. With some light EDM playing in the background, we walked into the barn to see the female winemaker perched on the wine tanks posing for a photoshoot. Already the winery felt different. Our host took us through the small interior room to an outside patio where we sat in the October sunshine and soaked up its rays. He brought out a charcuterie board for us to nibble on as we waited for the wines.
Made in the Okanagan Highland foothills of the Black Sage Bench, southeast of the town of Oliver, this is a near-perfect, self-contained micro-terroir of fine-grained and well-drained soil. The porous nature of the soil produces low-yielding, small grape clusters concentrated in flavour. Pretty perfect for a winery.
Red Barn is building a reputation for being one of the few wineries in the Okanagan that is proudly single-vineyard. It also seeks to bring grape varietals that are a little less common to the region. The interesting thing about the wine here, is that whilst it’s single vineyard, it can be mixed grape varietals. So in one single bottle, the Discordian, for example, we can see 70% Chardonnay and 30% Sauvignon Blanc – two grape varietals I cannot imagine seeing blended in Europe. I’m sure it happens but it is certainly rare and would likely have some Old World aficionados spinning in their graves.
This wine, for example, comes from thirty five short rows planted in 1998 on the plateau’s southern edge making up Jagged Rock vineyard. Pressed as whole clusters, fermented and aged in concrete and stainless steel, with only 133 cases produced – a tiny, tiny, tiny amount – this wine really is trying to break with convention. Tasting fresh and delicious, a surprisingly wonderful white wine blend, this one took us by surprise though we wondered why it would – Sauvignon Black and Chardonnay are delicious individually, so of course a blend is beautiful.
Similarly, the 2022 Off Centre Viognier came with an intense fruit concentration and ripe stone fruit aromas, thanks to the 2022 summer heat wave. Fresh and sumptuous, this wine had a creamy finish that softened the zesty notes beautifully and made it extremely moreish. Also whole cluster pressed, this one was aged in concrete and only offers 185 cases produced. The reds were no less delicious and surprising, leaving us with a solid impression of Red Barn’s unique approach to blending and production. Delicious. Well worth visiting if you want to surprise yourself.
CheckMate Artisanal Winery
After Red Barn, we made our way a little further south to CheckMate Artisanal Winery, another passion project of von Mandl. This time though, the winery pays homage to the Chardonnay and Merlot grapes, rather than Pinot Noir and Riesling. This makes sense, given the warmer climate and desert-like soil, perfect for the more robust varietals that make this winery so fantastic.
CheckMate is the winery probably most famous for its endless accolades in the Okanagan – at least, since Mission Hill (another von Mandle creation) won the award of being the best wine in the world in a blind tasting in the early 90s. CheckMate boasts endless 90+ point awards and has been named year after year as one of the best wines coming out of Canada today by Wine Spectator.
This winery owes its magic to Spencer Kelly, a BC wine professional own and raised in the Okanagan. Having grown up alongside the burgeoning BC wine landscape and matured with it, he comes to CheckMate winery after spending a decade away learning the world’s winemaking secrets. He started out in Napa Valley where he worked with some of the most iconic and prestigious wineries.
Now, CheckMate has made its way back down California – quite the feat, given that Canadian wines often remain relegated to the title of ice wine out of Ontario. That CheckMate is now available in the UK at some of the most exclusive private member clubs and Hedonism wines, London’s most premium wine store, is testimony to Spencer Kelly’s capabilities. His winemaking has allowed for an otherwise unknown Canadian wine region to make it internationally. And yet he remains humble, working closely with these nearly 50-year-old vines, committed to making the highest quality wines he can with this unique soil, in his own unique way.
Perched up on a hill overlooking the stunning Okanagan lake, just a stones throw from the US border, CheckMate looms majestically over its 5 vineyards. There are 5 in total, across 5 different sites, each one expressing a unique soil and microclimate. Everything is tended to by hand, from the canopy management, leaf-pulling, and cluster-thinning to ensure precision and gentleness.
The building is another looming, Bond-villain like black spectre, tucked away into the hills with only its glass-rimmed patio featuring out as a place to peer over the spectacular view. More recently this patio has opened up as a tasting space where one can enjoy a delicious charcuterie platter whilst tasting the premium wines. Ensuring that the focus remains on the wines rather than the food, yet keeping guests satiated, this lovely addition to the winery makes it a welcome place to spend a sun-filled afternoon.
My partner and I sat here soaking in the stunning view, relaxing into our comfortable armchairs, as our lovely host brought out our samples. The interior is akin to Martin’s Lane, though more green and lush, with foliage in abundance and a cosy, warm, relaxing feel to the space. Like another luxurious living room, I could easily imagine hosting friends here.
CheckMate wine needs little explanation other than it is liquid gold and utterly fantastic. With price points starting at around the $100 mark, it remains a premium wine – yet something one simply wouldn’t be able to get in Europe for less than £200. Truly a contender for the finest of Burgundy whites, each vintage and expression of Chardonnay was deliciously unique, rich, and expressive.
Having tried CheckMate many times before (I am a fiend for this winery), I was yet again blown away by the latest vintage and its exquisite expression. Whilst the winery has many winery exclusives and only a few of the vintages are available in the UK at this point, I cannot emphasise how worth it is to buy a bottle and try it yourself. If you can’t make it to the Okanagan any time soon, do yourself this at least. I promise you it’s worth it.
If you can visit these 3 wineries in the Okanagan, you will have done a stellar job. There are others, of course, worth visiting. A mention to Mission Hill and Quail’s Gate as two wineries with spectacular patios and wines well-known to the Canadian population as premium classics, these are must-sees if you have the time to go for a meal. Culmina, a smaller, family-run winery next to CheckMate is one of my cult classic favourites, as is Liquidity which you can swing by on the way back to Vancouver, and Stag’s Hollow – an unexpectedly brilliant winery I discovered a few years back and was gutted I couldn’t visit. If you’re in the region, you will be glad you go to these if you’re able to find the time. Enjoy!