About a month ago, I was standing in the security line at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. I handed the TSA agent my ID and my ticket to Kelowna, British Columbia. He looked at it and chuckled, then said “while you’re up there, you should really try some of the wine. It’s fantastic! I go skiing up there and always have to have some wine.”
I smiled back and said, “Yes, I’ll be sure to try the wine.” And that was my first clue that the story from this trip would be about wine tourism as much as about the wine.
My wife and I were headed to the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, which was held in Penticton, BC this year. The day before the conference we spent visiting wineries in Kelowna, about an hour north of Penticton and on the same lake — Okanagan Lake.
In full disclosure, our visit to Kelowna was sponsored by Tourism Kelowna and while the trip was not free, our local travel, hotels and meals were subsidized by the sponsor.
I didn’t know what to expect, having never tasted any wines from the region. And I had mixed feelings about the trip. On one hand, I was excited to discover new wines and to visit British Columbia — which I had heard is a beautiful region, but I had never been there. On the other hand, I’ve never tasted Canadian wines for a reason — I can’t find them in any wine shops where I live. This raised questions of relevancy to me. Most of my readers are in the US. Do they care about Canadian wines if they can’t easily purchase them?
Obviously, the pros outweighed the cons and we went. While we were there, the question about availability of the wines in the US came up repeatedly. Those we spoke to acknowledged that the vast majority of the wine they produce is sold in Canada, but with production increasing they are going to reach a tipping point when they need to enter other markets. Their reason for hosting the conference was to introduce the rest of the world to their wines as they approach the time when exports become more prevalent.
While you may not be able to find BC wines in your local shop, I can say that the story about Kelowna and other regions along Okanagan lake is highly relevant if you’re interested in wine travel. My biggest takeaways from this trip were: 1) This may be the most beautiful place on earth. Seriously. I was in awe with the views of the lake and the mountains surrounding it. The weather was perfect, and apparently is pretty nice most of the time. And the people were incredibly friendly. 2) The wines are exceptional. I had my doubts before traveling there, only because I hadn’t had them before and had never heard anyone rave about British Columbian wine, but I walked away impressed. Very impressed.
Here are three wineries worth visiting when you’re in this region… and you definitely want to be in this region. These are in the order I visited them, not in the order of priority.
1) Summerhill Pyramid Winery
The first winery we visited in Kelowna was Summerhill Pyramid Winery, which boasts the title of being the most-visited winery in British Columbia. It may be best-known for the large pyramid built on the property, said to be “second only to the Great Pyramid of Egypt for alignment and precision.”
Their story revolves around organic and Biodynamic winemaking. Minimal-involvement style winemaking and permaculture are a couple themes they bring up regularly when presenting their wines. Summerhill has been practicing organic winemaking since their inception in 1986 and just received Demeter Biodynamic certification in 2012.
Biodynamics is an approach to farming that incorporates biodiversity, crop rotation, sustainability and other holistic practices. It also involves timing farming practices based on lunar cycles, burying cow horns filled with crystals and other practices that appear odd to many non-practitioners. Gabe Cipes, who leads the Biodynamic program at Summerhill, spent some time explaining to us that Biodynamics is science, not witchcraft. And then they took us into their magical pyramid.
All the wine produced at Summerhill spends some time aging in the pyramid. It supposedly imbues the wine with positive energy, or something like that. The pyramid is made of concrete and has copper bands on the inside, meant to amplify the energy of the pyramid. At the pyramid’s peak, special crystals from Brazil are suspended. I expected to see a laser shooting down from the crystals, but no such luck.
Perhaps I’m just disconnected from the vibrations of nature and the powers of the universe, but I didn’t feel any special energy in the pyramid. And I found it to be rather gimmicky — an unfortunate distraction from their otherwise impressive story. I appreciate their dedication to organic and Biodynamic production, but the over-marketed nature of it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Speaking of bad taste, the other thing that stood out to me was the giant sparkling wine bottle fountain outside the winery. It didn’t seem to fit in with their holistic/natural winemaking story and it gave a tourist-trap feeling to the winery. However, beyond this fountain the view is spectacular.
In addition to the tasting room and winery, there is a restaurant on site that also focuses on organics.
The wines we tasted here were mostly good. Here are my brief tasting notes:
2010 Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cipes Sparkling Rosé
Made with 100% organic pinot noir. The nose shows a touch of yeast and orange peel aromas. The palate is very crisp with good acidity and offers lemon, light cranberry and mineral flavors. The mineral really comes out on the finish with a somewhat chalky nature to it. Overall, this is a very good wine.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cipes Brut (non-vintage)
A combination of chardonnay and riesling, this sparkler shows light yeast and lemon aromatics. The mouthfeel is creamy, bringing intense lemon, apple, mineral and yeast flavors. This one is fantastic!
2010 Summerhill Pyramid Winery Syrah Rosé
This still rosé has a really intense nose with apple peel, black pepper, smoke and strawberry aromatics. It smells interesting, but it falls apart on the palate, where I found disjointed cherry and strawberry flavors lacking in acidity. It was a bit brooding and not one I would recommend.
2012 Summerhill Pyramid Winery Riesling
Intense floral aromatics, plus pear, cool flint and apple give this wine a really nice nose. Tart apple, pear and citrus flavors with crisp acidity make the palate good too. It finishes rather long with citrus and mineral notes. It’s an excellent riesling.
2009 Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cabernet Franc
The nose offers chocolate, black cherry, plum and herb aromas. The palate is much the same with plum, chocolate, black cherry and black pepper. It has good acidity, good concentration and a good mouthfeel. Overall, it’s very good.
2) Tantalus Vineyards
Our second visit was to Tantalus Vineyards, where it became abundantly clear to me that the British Columbia is producing some phenomenal wines.
The ambiance in the Tantalus tasting room was elegant and modern, and felt a bit more refined and less-touristy than what we experienced at Summerhill.
While Tantalus isn’t practicing Biodynamics, they do take a pragmatic approach to sustainability and biodiversity. Bees from Arlo’s Honey Farm are kept onsite to promote biodiversity. They are also the first winery in British Columbia to be LEED certified.
Winemaker, David Patterson, brings that mostly-natural-but-pragmatic approach into his winemaking too. He employs whole grape pressing to preserve the characteristics of the wine and uses wild yeasts as much as possible. But he monitors the yeasts during fermentation to ensure the appropriateness of the active strains and will inoculate with commercial yeast if needed, which he says is rarely needed.
Tantalus primary focuses on pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay — varieties that do particularly well in this region. In my opinion this focus is wise versus trying to produce dozens of different varieties.
Their riesling is particularly impressive. The vine clones come from Alsace and Mosel, two other regions with some exceptional riesling. Tantalus General Manager, Jane Hatch, shared that they’ve found one riesling block in their vineyard to show strong lemonade characteristics, while another block in close walking distance shows more grapefruit-like qualities from the same clone. They use the grapes from different parts of their vineyard to craft wines that stand out.
All of their wines are also single-vineyard wines, which we were told is rare in the Okanagan Valley.
Here are my tasting notes from Tantalus:
2010 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Brut
The nose of this bubbly is filled with yeast, herb and apple aromatics. The flavors fall into the tart green apple and light peach categories. This is a pretty darn good sparkler.
2012 Tantalus Riesling
This is the younger riesling from their vineyard. It shows intense aromas, such as banana (somewhat like circus peanut candies), grapefruit and lemon. The flavors are mostly tart citrus, like grapefruit and lemon, but there’s also some mineral. Overall, it’s good.
2010 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling
The aromatics on this riesling are intense and fantastic, offering floral, petrol, white pepper and lemon. The palate has great depth and structure. It’s sultry, smooth and the acidity is outstanding. The tension between the sweetness and the acidity is phenomenal and delightful. Grapefruit and flinty mineral dominate the flavors. This is an outstanding riesling! I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted. It should age well too. If you have an opportunity to taste only one wine from Kelowna, make it this wine.
2012 Tantalus Rosé
This wine is mostly pinot meunier with some pinot noir. The aromas are interesting, at first making me think of a watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher. It also shows some strawberry, lime and floral aromatics. There’s a ton going on in this wine, complex is an understatement. The palate is an adventure, offering black pepper, cranberry, wild strawberry, chalky mineral and lime flavors. It’s a fun wine, but still elegant and harmonious. It’s very good.
2010 Tantalus Pinot Noir
David Patterson told us that pinot noir is the only red variety they can get truly ripe in their vineyard. The nose of this wine is sexy and spicy, with raspberry, black pepper and floral aromatics. The mouthfeel is smooth with raspberry flavors backed up by mineral notes. Once again, this is a very good wine.
3) CedarCreek Estate Winery
The last vineyard we visited in Kelowna was CedarCreek Estate. When we pulled up to the estate it felt a bit like some estates in Napa Valley, with well-manicured landscaping and beautiful buildings.
Of course the view of the giant lake made it clear that we were not in Napa Valley. But this is clearly a well-financed property, like many of those I’ve visited in Napa Valley.
The vineyards here are fairly steep, going up the hill above the winery and looking down on the lake. The views are spectacular!
This was one of the first eight wineries in British Columbia, releasing their first wines in 1987. In addition to the vineyard we visited in Kelowna, they have vineyards a couple hours south in the Osoyoos region where the summers are hot enough to produce Bordeaux red wine varieties, which is what they primarily grow there. Altogether they manage 150 acres of vineyards.
The first wine we tasted here was an ehrenfelser, which is a cross between riesling and silvaner. It’s not a very widely-grown grape, with only about 400 acres of it in the world, primarily in the Okanagan Valley area and Germany. The 2012 CedarCreek Ehrenfelser has nice, fresh fruit aromatics, like peach and pear, and also offers some floral and flint notes. It has good acidity on the palate with peach and pear flavors. It’s a tasty wine and great one to try, especially if you’re working on your Wine Century Club membership.
Here are the other wines we tasted:
2012 CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum “Block 3” Riesling
The nose is quite floral with nectarine and apricot to round it out. The flavors start out as green apple, with stellar acidity. Then apricot flavors pop up and intensify into finish. This is a very good riesling.
2011 CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum “Block 5” Chardonnay
This is pretty much what I expect from a good chardonnay. It offers green apple, straw, butterscotch and light oak aromatics. It has good acidity and silky feel on the palate, along with balanced lemon, lime and mineral flavors.
2010 CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum “Home Block” Pinot Noir
The spice aromatics are fantastic, coming off with floral, nutmeg and raspberry notes. It’s loaded with juicy red raspberry flavors, along with plum and plenty of spice. The finish is nice and long. In a word, this wine is delicious!
2010 CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum Merlot
The grapes for this wine come from their vineyards in Osoyoos. It offers oak, red licorice, plum, cedar and vanilla aromatics. While the palate is brimming with concentrated plum, raspberry and cherry flavors. Simply put, it’s good.
Getting to Kelowna
While I’d love to suggest that you pick up these wines in your local shop, I know that’s unlikely to be doable until exports of these wines increase. But if you’re interested in wine travel, this is definitely a region to consider. The regional population balloons in the summer months, as tourism is a major part attraction around the lake. I was told by the locals that the tourist season begins on July 1. I visited in early June when there didn’t appear to be too many tourists but the weather was perfect. It’ seems like the ideal time to venture to Kelowna.
There is an airport in Kelowna and it was an easy, one-hour flight from Seattle. You can also drive there from Seattle, but it’s about a five hour trek. Have fun!