While some envious souls in Ontario’s wine region may dispute Oliver’s title as Wine Capital of Canada, no one can dispute the fact this microregion turns out some of the world’s best wines amid spectacular mountain and desert scenery. Oliver is the fortunate community that can lay claim to the venerated Golden Mile, a tiny microclimate that through a geographical twist of fate provides arguably the best terroir for wine production, and in 2015 became the first sub-appellation in the Okanagan Valley.
Oliver also has a rich ‘Old West’ history, making a visit to this area an absolute must for true wine lovers and by travellers in general. The first community here was, according to local folklore, founded by a one-armed prospector named Reid, who struck gold in the aforementioned Golden Mile. The mining town of Fairview was founded in 1890 on the bench above present-day Oliver, and became one of BC’s largest cities during the short-lived gold rush. When the gold played out, so did the town, and by 1926 the bustling town was dead, home to gophers and rattlesnakes.
Fortunately for this region, Premier ‘Honest’ John Oliver was from the south Okanagan, and during the First World War he had the vision of an irrigation canal that would make the dry Sonoran Desert bloom. After the war, veterans got jobs in the area building the canal as part of the South Okanagan Lands Project, and by 1921 surveyors were already laying out the streets for the new town of Oliver.
The irrigation canal transformed the area into one of BC’s best agricultural lands, and beginning in the 1980s winemakers began the early planting of quality vines. While the Golden Mile was out of gold, it turned out to be a superb environment for wine grapes. The soil is well drained clay and glacial gravel, deposited there by a gigantic ice dam that collapsed at the end of the last ice age. Thousands of years ago, that massive ice dam held back the waters of the Okanagan river basin, so most of the area in the Okanagan Valley was actually under several fathoms of water and ice. Then the ice age ended, the dam broke, and that huge prehistoric lake roared south carrying tons of gravel and sand. A lot of it ended up here; in some places, the sand in Oliver is more than 400 feet deep before you hit groundwater!
The Oliver area is very dry, with less than three inches of rain a year, and the vast swing from blazing hot summer days to cool desert nights brings out wines with ripe fruit flavours and sharp acidity; an ideal combination for complex wines that will age well. While the area is very dry and hot, the Golden Mile is on the west side, and the vines get the advantage of afternoon shade from the mountains towering behind them, while the vines on Black Sage Road on the opposite side of the valley continue to bake in the sun. As a result, the Golden Mile turns out fruity, complex white wines, and powerful, intense reds with bright fruit flavours.
The Golden Mile also protects its fragile plantings. When temperatures plunge during the cold Canadian winters, the mercury on this ridge always shows several degrees warmer than even farms a few hundred meters to the east, preventing frost damage to the vines. In one particularly cold winter, vines at other wineries in the area were largely wiped out, but those in the Golden Mile were saved.
If you plan to tour the Golden Mile, it’s a simple and short drive along Highway 97 just south of Oliver, but you can also tour the area on foot via the 10-kilometre long Golden Mile hiking trail that links the wineries. If you’re lucky enough to have two cars, park one at the abandoned mining town of Fairview, and the other at Tinhorn Creek. We recommend marching south so you can finish your tour with a tasting at the spectacular Tinhorn tasting room, and enjoy the view over the valley from their patio at the excellent Miradoro Restaurant. Also, bring plenty of water and sunscreen from late Spring to early Fall; this is the desert, and the sun can be brutally hot, particularly in July and August.
There is more to the Oliver area, however, than just the Golden Mile. In fact, many wine tourists actually prefer the Black Sage Road region because it’s off the highway, and the Black Sage Road it’s named after is among the most scenic drives anywhere in Canada, curling around Oliver from the north, and continuing down a bench on the east side of the valley. The mountains are rough, rocky, and rugged, and the vineyards stretch out before the valley bottom, shimmering in the summer heat that nourishes some of the best red wines you can find in the Okanagan. The terroir here is just as unique as is the Golden Mile, with incredibly lean, dry, sandy soils that require an expert hand with irrigation. The wineries on this side of the valley turn out powerful reds with high Brix values, and it’s a source of constant argument which side of the valley is really the best for wines.
On this side the premiere destination winery is Burrowing Owl, and a stop at the Sonoran Room bistro is a must on any wine tour.
For an ideal wine tour of the Oliver region, set aside at least two days, with the first being for the Golden Mile, and the second for Black Sage Road.