It may not have the year-round sunshine of California, but Canada has a proud local wine industry. Despite the nation’s chilly reputation, the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia enjoys warm summers and nurtures almost 10,000 acres of vineyards. Here’s why you need to go wine tasting in Kelowna, the upmarket lakeside city in the heart of this wine region.
Getting to and around Kelowna
In keeping with our backpacking budget, we travelled from Vancouver to Kelowna by overnight Greyhound bus and stayed at the Kelowna International Hostel. We definitely appreciated the free pancakes and coffee for breakfast in the morning.
My first impression of Kelowna was its size; it is a city after all, with a population of around 180,000. Part of me was expecting a sleepy lakeside town, but one thing about Canada is that everything is BIG. It is a vast country and, despite looking relatively nearby on the map we studied in Vancouver, it turned out Kelowna was an eight-hour drive away. Once here, when we asked passers-by for directions, the places we wanted to go – even just a supermarket – were often over a kilometre away. A long way when you’re on foot!
Serene fishing lakes
This is why, on our first full day, we decided to hire bikes. That morning, we met Carlos, a friendly Spanish architect who had recently relocated to Canada, attracted by its mild weather and scenic nature. A passionate angler, he offered to show us how to fish. So together we cycled along the winding roads to Frazer Lake, some 10km south of downtown Kelowna.
While the boys were catching trout, luring them with wriggly rubber worm bait, I checked out the lake’s plentiful turtle residents. Curious about our presence, they would often poke their noses out of the water. At midday they all climbed onto the floating logs to sunbathe – very cute.
Sweet fruit orchards
Kelowna is known for its orchards and we passed by several as we rode along. Apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears and plums are all grown here. I tried a peach and it was wonderfully fleshy and juicy. There’s even a nearby town called Peachland, which sounds like somewhere out of a fairytale.
Stunning lakeside city
Situated on Okanagan Lake – a mere 135km long (thanks, big Canada) – Kelowna has lovely little beaches, plenty of watersports, a huge yacht club and posh lakeside houses with their own private jetties and boats.
The grounds are so beautiful they look like something from a catalogue. New homes were mid-construction, being built almost entirely from wood, as is common in this country with its flourishing timber industry.
Kelowna also has some striking modern art sculptures downtown, including the gorgeous ‘Bear’, created by artist Brower Hatcher in 2010 to commemorate the city and its history. It’s a meaningful symbol as the name ‘Kelowna’ is derived from the indigenous people’s word for female grizzly bear.
I discovered another piece of modern art at the Summerhill Pyramid Winery that was very much to my liking: a huge bottle of wine being poured into a glass. Naturally I gave this, one of my favourite beverages, a big hug and you couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Now it was time to sample some of the real stuff.
Sweeping vineyard views
With vineyards overlooking the sweeping view of the lake, this attractive winery hosts weddings – there was one in progress when we were there.
It houses a striking pyramid-shaped cellar, lovingly and painstakingly created because of its sacred geometry and the belief that it aids the wines’ ageing. Would the wines’ taste back up this theory?
Surprisingly good wines
We tried four wines. The sparkling white Cipes Brut NV has won national awards every year since its inception in 1991, and we could taste why. Much fruitier than your average sparkling white, it is a delight on the tongue, reminiscent – according to the literature – of ‘crisp apple, pear, lime, almond and grapefruit’. We were very pleasantly surprised. Why had Canadian wines eluded us until now?
The 2012 Organic Pinot Gris was light and easy-drinking, while the 2013 Ehrenfelser, known as the ‘hot tub wine’, was sweet and tasty, with a nose reminiscent of farms and hay. Finally, it was the 2011 Baco Noir, which was peppery with ‘notes of blueberry, blackberry and cigar box’. I love these descriptions.
We followed the tasting with a delicious lunch at the site’s Sunset Organic Bistro, which specialises in seasonal, locally grown food accompanied by more of Summerhill’s organic wines (of course).
Locally produced spirits
Wine is not the only commercially-produced alcohol here in sunny Kelowna. Urban Distilleries, set up three years ago by former engineer and home brewer Mike Urban, produces gin, vodka and whisky under the brand name ‘Spirit Bear’. Inspired by a visit to a cognac distillery in France five years ago, Mike used his engineering skills to distill his own spirits, adapting the German-made copper stills to his own specifications and learning first-hand about the industry. His niche is hand-crafted spirits using only locally grown grains, flavoured with all-natural ingredients.
We sampled espresso-infused vodka, Okanagan lavender and apple gin, peri peri chilli vodka, muscat grappa, single malt whisky and more (tough job). Every time, the flavours were beautifully balanced – it’s clear why these spirits have won awards. Mike is so passionate about his business, he has ambitions to sell his creations internationally. When we met, he was about to attend a trade fair in Asia and shared with us his new flavour ideas.
Why you need to go wine tasting in Kelowna
If these Okanagan businesses are anything to go by, Canada has fine tastebuds when it comes to wine and spirits. Kelowna’s clean air and rich natural surroundings somehow seems to be transferred into the bottle. Who knows, maybe soon we’ll all be toasting with a Canadian tipple.
Next up, find out how to plan a Canada backpacking trip and the best way to cross the country, here.