Canadian wine country

When I read the Sunday paper, I typically look at the travel section first. Yesterday was no exception. I curled up with my iced coffee and The New York Times. As I pulled open the travel pages, I saw the picture of a rolling valley first, and the headline second. The New York Times had found Canadian wine country.

That’s not a typo. Canada has wine country, and this little known secret rivals the French, Italian or Australian bottles we buy here in the States.

My husband and I based in Oliver, British Columbia and traveled the Okanagan Valley in 2008. The area starts just a few miles over the border above Washington State, and spans 155 miles around the 84-mile Okanagan Lake. Contrary to popular belief that Canada is a frozen tundra 12-months a year, the Okanagan Valley is actually mild, with January temperatures averaging 60 degrees, and summer temperatures creeping into the 90s.

Oliver is named after Premier John Oliver, the premier who lead his administration in developing the Okanagan Valley for produce production in the 1920s. The idea was to irrigate the area to increase agriculture and decrease rail freight transport costs of produce products. I grew up hearing story after story about John Oliver because he was my great-great-great uncle, and the most notable person that came from the Oliver side. I’ve also been told that the conservative, God-fearing premier is rolling over in his grave right now knowing that the land he created for farmers evolved into a valley flowing with wine grapes in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

There are the kitchy and marketing savvy estate vineyards like Blasted Church and then the subtle vineyards that sell on reputation. My favorite in the later category was Marichel Vineyard that we happened upon by accident. The view of the valley below looked lovely from the road, and even though the vineyard looked closed, we drove up the driveway to see if we could peak over the fence to see the Okanagan Lake below. Before we were even out of our car a man in his 50s came out of the gate smiling, and asked if we wanted to look around. An entire vineyard to ourselves? I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The scenery below overlooking the river valley was stunning and I was able to talk with the owner about his wine production. He was also gracious with samplings and I walked away with a few bottles of the best Viognier I tasted on my trip.

The wine that was the nicest surprise was the icewine from the region. Known for being picked in the cold winter months, the wine is thick with a medium sweetness. It quickly became a daily aperitif to open the palette.

If you head to our northern neighbors, stay in Oliver. It’s smaller than the larger neighbor, Kelowna, and has many wineries within easy driving distance. There are 30 wineries within 15 minutes of Oliver and over 100 to see in the Valley. It makes for a full two days, depending how many times you stop and what your wine sampling and driving limit is. We rented a cheap motel on the main drag across from a grocery store and grilled out every night on the motel’s patio. It was simple food with a fantastic wine selection from our day of winery visits.