While Kelowna is the largest city in the region, and is the major jumping off point for most tourists to the Okanagan, knowledgeable wine travellers often base themselves in the city of Penticton which lies between Corkscrew Drive to the south, and the famed Naramata Bench to the north. In fact, some of the best known Naramata Bench wineries are actually within Penticton city limits.
Naramata is a small farming community that hugs the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, just north of Penticton. In the past the rich soils of this micro wine region were primarily used to grow apples and other tree fruits, but when the wine industry began booming, growers quickly learned Naramata has among the best conditions for wine in the Okanagan Valley. The wine route is a long, thin corridor between the steep silt banks that plunge down to the lake, and the rocky Okanagan Highlands that rise sharply to the east. The wineries are all situated high above the lake, and therefore almost all have absolutely stunning views. There’s nothing in Napa or Sonoma to compare with the raw beauty of the Naramata Bench.
Wineries are packed tightly together along the windy Naramata Road and the Kettle Valley Rail trail, which is part of a chain of hiking trails in Canada called the Trans-Canada Trail. The KVR section is built on an abandoned rail line, and many wine afficionados hike or bike the trail to go from one winery to the next. Its position on the shores of Okanagan Lake moderate the temperatures in Naramata in the summer, while winters rarely get cold enough to threaten the vines. In fact, this region is among the warmest in Canada both summer and winter.
To start a self-guided tour of the bench, start by driving out of Penticton on Vancouver Avenue, and then head north on Lower Bench. This will take you to Munson Mountain – a scenic lookout and site of the giant ‘Penticton’ sign – and to the Penticton Cemetery. This site may have the best view of any cemetery in the world! Stop and look north from here, and you see Okanagan Lake winding its way through the valley, Giant’s Head mountain off to the west, and the green vineyards of Naramata clinging to the precipitous silt bluff that give the region its unique character and beauty. This is also a good place to hop onto the Kettle Valley Trail for an easy and breathtaking hike through the vineyards to the north, or along the silt bluffs back to Penticton.
Once that view is firmly planted both in your head and the SD card in your camera, turn east again and head to the main Naramata Road.
There are roughly 30 wineries to tour on the Naramata Bench, and a full tour here is best divided into two or three days. Most of the wineries boast their own jaw-dropping viewpoints and many also have small elegant bistros where you can while away a sunny afternoon.
Naramata is known to produce phenomenal Bordeaux reds, with Merlot grapes predominant, along with many great wines of the Pinot Noir and Syrah varietals. Whites are well-represented as well. Look for Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Viognier.
While you’re most likely to find accommodations in Penticton, one memorable option is to stay in Naramata itself at the Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa. This historic hotel fell into near ruin over the years, but with the resurgence of the wine industry, the Naramata Inn was restored and reopened as a small boutique hotel. While here, don’t miss out on the scenic little beach at Manitou Park; a great place for a cool dip after a long, hot day sipping the fantastic wines of the Naramata Bench.
The city of Penticton also holds some of the best wineries along the Bench, including the excellent Poplar Grove and the quirky Misconduct winery, both of which feature excellent eateries. Penticton is also where travellers are most likely to stay and eat, and is a great tourism attraction in its own right. Penticton has arguably the best sand beaches in the BC Interior situated both on Okanagan Lake to the north, and on Skaha Lake at the south end. There are also some great hiking trails here, some of the best rock climbing in North America, great local golf courses, and in the summer months you’ll see thousands of people cooling off while floating on inner tubes down the Okanagan River Channel.
Because it’s situated halfway between Kelowna and the deservedly famous Golden Mile wine appellation in Oliver, Penticton is for many people the ideal place to stay while exploring the Okanagan wine region.