In the centre of British Columbia, near the very bottom of Canada, there is a desert. Dust kicks up and hovers in the air with each step, as if trekking through vegetation, dodging slithering bull snakes. But there are interruptions in the cowboy fantasy; on the horizon are mountains of green foliage, puddles of aqua blue lakes, and, in the distance, rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see.
The Okanagan Desert, defined as an antelope brush ecosystem, is actually just a small narrow finger stretching past the United States border and not quite reaching the town of Penticton. Surrounding the desert, however, are wide, ranging grasslands that look and feel as arid and dry as the official desert territory. But within that inhospitable land there is fertility. The desert and surrounding region that makes up the South Okanagan also doubles as wine country, bursting with brightness.
A short trip from the Penticton airport brings one to Liquidity Wines in Okanagan Falls, a small but important footnote in the area’s geography. A winding road marked by beautiful Martha Sturdy sculptures and manicured gardens leads to a sleek and sophisticated building, which holds the tasting room and bistro. Decorated with president Ian McDonald’s collection of predominantly British Columbia-based artists such as Jonathan Syme, Ola Volo, and Jeff Burgess, it’s a stimulating environment to taste some of the area’s most innovative wines.
Led by winemaker Alison Moyes, Liquidity’s wines are modern and undeniably delicious. The award-winning chardonnay, buttery, bright, and made with 100 per cent estate grapes (as are the rest of Liquidity’s products), is representative of the region’s innovation of the once scoffed-at variety. The viognier is another knockout, perhaps best enjoyed by the bottle at the winery’s bistro. Executive chef Rob Walker, unsurprisingly inspired by the unique offerings of the region, creates refined but refreshingly un-primped offerings like beef short rib grilled cheese accompanied by cherry plum ketchup, or fire-roasted pork loin with quince glaze.
A jaunt back into the desert, down through the valley, brings one to an oasis of another sort: the lush and abundant Covert Farms Family Estate. Established by George and Winifred Covert in 1959, the farm remains family-run—although the focus has since shifted to organic winemaking, with the first vines planted in 2006. Both grape growing and farming take place over 640 acres, allowing for a comprehensive biodynamic approach. The soil, its minerality and complexity, can be tasted in the wines. The rosé is particularly compelling, with notes of tart, earthy rhubarb.
Much of the Covert land is leased as organic produce farming, operated by Secrest Organics. A tour of the vineyard and the farms in a beautifully restored 1951 Mercury one-ton truck takes visitors through the vines, and to the organic farms, where shoes are muddied walking through the first red strawberries of the season. Later in the summer, more fruits and vegetables ripen, including several varieties of tomatoes, squash, and nectarines to be picked only at their peak.
The desert and surrounding region that make up the South Okanagan also doubles as wine country, bursting with brightness.
Hands dirtied and stomachs full, retreat can be found even further down the valley in Osoyoos. The shining new kid on the block is Watermark Beach Resort, situated right on the shores of Osoyoos Lake. Boasting 123 suites as well as luxurious family-oriented waterfront condos, the resort is a comfortable landing pad for the various voyages available in the South Okanagan. The newly opened Levia Spa riffs on “farm-to-table” cooking (a practice all too common in the region to be considered a trend) offering a “farm-to-treatment-table” spa menu. A botanical-forward manicure is an excellent option to get that organic soil out from under one’s fingernails.
Osoyoos Lake, the warmest lake in Canada, is particularly suited for a dip early in the morning when the water traffic hasn’t quite reached its busy peak. Watermark wellness instructor Kelsi Bissonnette offers stand-up paddle boarding classes for those looking for a more exploratory experience of the water. Bissonnette also leads morning yoga classes, a blissful way to start a day packed with even more wine tasting.
With dozens of wineries in the South Okanagan and more popping up every year, being thrifty with time is essential. This can be easily accomplished with an electric bike tour of the area with Heatstroke Cycle. After shaking the initial apprehension of looking, dare we say, dorky, the experience turns out to be unequivocal fun. Buzzing along the hilly landscape makes passing through local wineries such as Church and State, Le Vieux Pin, and Stoneboat Vineyards a breeze. Just don’t forget to spit—these bikes clock in at about 20 miles per hour.
With many wineries in their toddler years, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in very southern town of Oliver presides as one of the most mature residents. Established in 1993, the winery is one of the best known from the region and, perhaps, all of British Columbia. Its roster of award-winning wines is impressive, but CEO, president, and trailblazer Sandra Oldfield is constantly looking towards the next season. “I like to play the long game here,” she says as the 2014 Chardonnay is poured, which was recently awarded 95 points at the Decanter World Wine Awards. With some of the most established vines in the area, Tinhorn does have the virtue of time, allowing its wines to develop deep flavour profiles. Varietals such as the 2012 pinot noir are reflective of this approach; deep in colour and flavour, it’s perfectly primed to take on even further aging in one’s own cellar.
On the grounds at Tinhorn is Miradoro Restaurant, opened in 2011. Overlooking the farms where the produce on the plate was plucked from, it’s fine dining done on a larger scale than many of the other winery restaurants, but with the same care and finesse. Roasted asparagus (from just down the hill) with fried chive blossom and a soft poached egg are comforting and inviting, an excellent welcome for the meal ahead.
A variation on a similar theme, though on a much smaller scale, is Backyard Farm Chef’s Table. It too overlooks the very grounds where the ingredients are sourced from, however this time, it’s chef Chris Van Hooydonk’s own blossoming property. Van Hooydonk, previously restaurant chef at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, opened the renovated home to diners in 2008. The interior features a restaurant-grade kitchen, and the living room is host to elegant longtable dining. Cooking seasonal goodies dug up from the garden as well as sustainably sourced seafood, meats, and additional local produce, Van Hooydonk is delivering straight-forward, ingredient-focused grub. Grilled bison on top of blue-corn gorgonzola polenta with locally foraged oyster mushrooms was on the menu this particular occasion, though the offerings are continually changing.
To live off the land in the South Okanagan, one must be close to it: understanding the soil, enduring the harsh summers and cold winters, and tending to the changes that come each year. Tipping wide brims to those who do just that, we give thanks, and with a kick of our spurs, ride off into the sunset.
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