There is considerable debate as to which region is the true ‘Wine Capital’ of Canada. Winemakers in Ontario point out the Niagara region produces more wine than the Okanagan, but there is no question where the first wine was produced.
It was right in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, in what is now the bustling city of Kelowna.
Back in 1859 the first grape vines were planted at an Oblate Mission run by Father Charles Pandosy. At the time, there were very few non-native people in the area; just the missionaries and a few early pioneers, but while Father Pandosy was willing to put up with great privations in that remote outpost, the one thing he wouldn’t do was give up on his wine!
You can still visit the historic mission today on Benvoulin Road, not a stone’s throw from the many fine wineries that now jostle for space in rural East Kelowna. Commercial wines were first produced in Kelowna in 1928, and right downtown is the Calona Winery, the longest running winery in BC, which opened its doors in 1932. Another good spot for local wine history is the BC Wine Museum on Ellis Street.
So, Kelowna is the place to be for the wine historian, but has much else to offer as well in terms of great wines, great restaurants, and a wealth of things to see and do.
Kelowna is relatively cool compared to the fiery South Okanagan, and generally isn’t producing the big, beefy reds you see in the south. However, many of the wineries here also own or buy from vineyards in the south, and therefore have excellent reds available. While not considered a distinct appellation, the BC Wine Institute identifies Kelowna-North Okanagan (which includes Lake Country) as its own distinct wine sub-region. This is because the area really does differ from its southern neighbours, and part of the charm of touring the Okanagan is seeing how the wine varies from the deep, rich reds in the south, like those produced in southern Italy or in Bordeaux, to the crisp or aromatic whites in the north, more similar to Alsace, Austria or Germany.
While you won’t see a lot of Syrah produced in Kelowna, it does provide an ideal home Chardonnay and aromatic whites, like Riesling and Gewurztraminer. In fact, both Tantalus Vineyard and St. Hubertus both have Riesling grapes that were planted back in the 1970s. Today, they produce some of the most intense whites in the region.
Kelowna area wineries also produce quality lighter reds like Pinot Noir and Merlot. You will actually find many wineries serving up the darker reds, but in general, those grapes were actually produced at vineyards further south.
Finally, Kelowna is a centre for some fantastic sparkling wines and icewines. Icewine was first developed in nearby Peachland, and the Central Okanagan is without question the heartland for this extremely sweet, powerful and aromatic wine that has won hearts all over the world. For sparkling wines, a good place to try is the Summerhill Pyramid Winery, distinguished by a large white pyramid used for aging wines. The Cipes brand from Summerhill has become one of the most distinguished sparkling wines to come out of North America.
While many of the Okanagan’s wineries are located in small communities or rural farm areas, Kelowna is quite different. It is a big, bustling city that sits dead centre in the Okanagan Valley. Because British Columbia has strict rules about preserving farm land, much of the City of Kelowna’s land is preserved as orchards or vineyards that cannot be developed commercially. it gives the city a unique rural feel, despite the busy streets and rapidly growing urban centre.
Kelowna is also the transportation hub. It’s home to the 10th busiest international airport in Canada, and is a massive draw for both summer and winter tourism. In the summer, the population of Kelowna more than doubles, as vacationers flock here for the hot weather and sandy beaches, and for the many world-class golf courses. It’s almost as busy in winter, as Kelowna is surrounded by several large ski resorts, including Big White, Silver Star in Vernon, and Apex in Penticton. For wine tourists, however, the big seasons are the spring and the fall. In the spring the city enjoys phenomenal weather, and the vineyards plump up with leafy vines that stretch down almost to the lakeshore. The Okanagan Spring Wine Festival hosts hundreds of events throughout the region, including the Westjet Consumer Wine Tasting in Kelowna, which is considered the largest event of both the Spring and Fall festivals.
The fall season may be even better as a time to visit. The weather usually stays warm and sunny well into October, and wine travellers love visiting the wineries as they begin harvesting and crushing the grapes, often right next to the wine tasting room. The Fall Wine Festival is, if anything, an even bigger event than the spring festival.
While other towns may have more bucolic scenery, Kelowna simply can’t be beat for accommodation and dining. As the largest city in the BC Interior, it has by far the highest number of quality hotels, and due to the tourism industry, it has far more high-end restaurants than one would expect in a city of its size. Kelowna is used by most travellers as their base for wine tourism since it has an international airport and by far the largest number of high-end hotels and restaurants. Travellers tend to stay in Kelowna, where there are resorts like Manteo or the Okanagan Grand, and then do day trips to the north or south. That said, Kelowna’s wineries definitely have their own charm, and with two dozen wineries right in the city, you could easily spend your entire time in Kelowna, enjoying the many great wines produced here.