Guide to the wineries of the Similkameen Valley, an emerging wine region in the BC Interior.
With the booming success of the Okanagan wine industry, other regions are now starting to emerge in British Columbia. The most successful of these to date is the Similkameen Valley, a short drive from either Penticton (30 minutes) or Osoyoos (20 minutes). You can also get here easily from Vancouver by car, taking the exit at Hope from the TransCanada Highway to Highway 3, and then enjoying the windy roads and spectacular scenery of the old Hope-Princeton highway to Keremeos. While very close to the better known Okanagan region, the Similkameen is still relatively unknown despite the growing success of the wineries along the winding Similkameen River, and the undeniable beauty of the area.
Where the Okanagan gives off the feel of a Napa Valley or Sonoma, the Similkameen is much more dramatic. It is a narrow valley hemmed in by mountains that go practically straight up from the valley floor. Like the Okanagan the Similkameen is very dry, and is subject to constant winds that whistle up through the gap in the mountains. About half the wineries here are certified organic, likely one of the highest concentrations of organic producers of any wine region in the world. This isn’t just because of the dedication of the winemakers; it’s also because the combination of dry weather, high heat, and strong winds tends to blow pesky insects and diseases right out of the vineyard. Amazingly, 42 per cent of all produce grown in the Similkameen is organic. The climate here is quite extreme, with cold winters and blistering hot summers which, combined with the average 180 frost free days, provide 2,000-plus hours of sunshine a year. Winemakers here have been up to the task, taking advantage of those hot summers to produce very competitive Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and even some Cabernet Francs and Syrahs, which tend to be difficult to grow in both the Okanagan and the Similkameen. How good? The Similkameen was recently named by enRoute magazine as one of the world’s ‘Five Best Wine Regions You’ve Never Heard Of’.
The wineries generally stretch along Highway 3 between the town of Keremeos and Osoyoos, but it’s definitely worth stopping in the amazing fruit and vegetable stands in Keremeos before or after you see the wineries. Thousands of tourists flock to Keremeos every year, particularly in the fall, when millions of huge, orange pumpkins and bizarre gourds are piled up around the fruit stands. It’s a photographer’s wonderland at harvest time, and if you have kids, they’ll love playing on or among these freakishly large gourds. Harvest time, in fact, is generally the best time to visit. It’s still warm in September and even through much of October, and the area is at its most beautiful in the autumn months.
There are currently over 600 acres of vineyards in the Similkameen and a large number of orchards. In fact, the region is considered to be the organic capital of Canada with an estimated 42 per cent of all crops grown organically. There are now more than a dozen wineries sprinkled up and down the valley floor, including two fruit wineries that turn out sophisticated non-grape vintages. Part of the reason the Similkameen is making such diverse and interesting wines is the complexity of the local soils, which is easily seen as you tour the area. The Similkameen is a very narrow valley surrounded by massive mountains that tower directly upward, and are so steep that huge scree slopes can be seen where rockslides regularly occur. It is a rough, new, craggy landscape where soils have been deposited from retreating glaciers, meltwaters, floods and streams. Wind-blown soils, alluvial fans and coarse rocky material have been broken down from the surrounding mountains, and these highly mineralized soils, combined with the different elevation and aspects of the vineyards, allow for the production of unique, highly structured wines. Whites tend to be stronger than the reds here, as the Similkameen doesn’t have the hang time and the warmer temperatures seen in the southern Okanagan for more full bodied red wines, but the whites and some of the light to medium bodied reds are very good.
The Similkameen also rewards the wine traveller with a variety of other attractions, including visits to fruit orchards and the dozens of fruit stands that line the highway and back country roads. For the more intrepid and for those in good physical condition there are the spectacular hiking trails at Cathedral Provincial Park, and first time visitors should not miss the historic Old Grist Mill, a lovingly preserved flour mill driven by a massive water wheel. Dating from 1877 it’s one of the last grist mills left in North America, and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and paths. There’s a small cafe at the mill where soups, sandwiches and other fare are made from the produce grown on the property. Definitely stop by some of the fruit stands, a particular favourite being Harker’s Organics, a family farm operating since 1888. The owners also operate Rustic Roots, an award winning fruit winery, and supply many of the top restaurants in the Okanagan Valley.
Most of the restaurants are in the small town of Keremeos, a rustic and decidedly unpretentious community populated mainly by hard working farmers who produce all the abundance seen in the surrounding wineries and fruit stands. The best is probably Benja Thai, a very good eatery that competes with some of the best Thai restaurants in Vancouver or Kelowna, and is a welcome surprise in such a small town.
If you’re travelling to the Similkameen it’s simple to incorporate a fantastic circle tour with the south Okanagan. Leaving from Penticton, take Highway 97 south along Skaha Lake, and then turn right onto Highway 3A to Keremeos, just past the village of Kaleden. You’ll pass emerald lakes and towering peaks along the way, and when you start to see large produce stands, you’re there. You can stop at the Old Grist Mill and several wineries before reaching Keremeos for lunch. Then, take Highway 3 to Osoyoos, passing through the main stretch of wineries in the village of Cawston, which is so small you may miss it if you’re not looking carefully. Harker’s Organics is on this stretch of road, and past that are some stunning views from wineries on the left side of the road, overlooking the Chopaka First Nation reserve. Before you get to Osoyoos you can also take a quick stop to see Spotted Lake, which is a sacred site for First Nation’s people in this area. The weird circles dotting the small lake are the result of minerals in the water, and are also the reason First Nations’ people have come here for centuries to partake in its healing waters. It is unfortunately not open to the public, but is easily seen from road.
Osoyoos is a short distance away, and from there one can turn northward again, touring wineries through either the Golden Mile on Highway 97, or the Black Sage wineries on the east side of the valley, on the drive northward to Penticton.
– See more at: http://similkameenwine.com/wine-region/#sthash.Ft7VApsC.dpuf