Under the Grape Arbour

By G.W. Pearson


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Photos courtesy of Okanagan Wine Festival Society

I'm sitting on a winery restaurant patio dining al fresco, watching the sun set over shimmering Okanagan Lake, a cool crisp glass of British Columbia award-winning Sauvignon Blanc and a delicious locally-sourced elegant dinner placed before me. The conversation at the table drifts away as I look out over the neatly planted rows of grape vines and the mountains beyond. The azure sky is deepening and the company is pleasant. It just doesn't get any better.

You don't have to go to Provence or the Napa Valley to enjoy a fabulous wine and cuisine tour; one of the world's best is only a few hours from Vancouver. There are over 200 wineries in the Okanagan Valley, with culinary offerings from picnic baskets to destination fine-dining. Organic farms, artisan producers, kitchen gardens, fruit orchards and cattle ranches are scattered through the region. From small garagiste vintners and family winery estates to large corporate cellars, boutique labels and small-batch producers, this journey is a geographic food and wine tasting adventure.

I've learned a lot about the amazing Okanagan Valley during my return visits: it's an extension of the Great Sonoran Desert with unique climate, soils and growing conditions. The proximity to cool marine air and areas of continental heat provide exceptional viticulture appellations. All the varietals grown here - Merlot, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and more - each have a different character and are completely Okanagan.

The clear glacier-formed lakes - Okanagan, Kalamalka, Wood, Skaha, Vaseaux and Osoyoos - stretch through the valley; steep rock embankments and vineyard-covered benches jut up from the lakes and rivers; sheer scarps and rugged desert-like terrain with sagebrush and rattlesnakes further south; modulating vineyards and picturesque towns spread throughout: the complex geology, varied terroirs and microclimates that produce the mineralized white wines and full-bodied big reds in the moderate to high summer heat are ideal for growing grapes - the region has a bold producing presence.  

Flying into Kelowna International Airport with a suitcase and my golf clubs, I usually rent a car or book a tour (there are several tour companies) and travel down the valley to Osoyoos at my leisure, taking side trips to the Bottleneck Drive and Mt. Boucherie (an extinct volcano), the Naramata Bench, Similkameen Valley and the Golden Mile Bench - the Okanagan is always surprising, a world-class food and wine destination. From farm stays to agri-tourism to relaxing in a stately early 20th century hotel like the rebuilt Eldorado or modern resorts and romantic B&Bs along the lakeshore, touring the Okanagan Wine Trail is full of rural holiday pleasures and foodie experiences. My favourites are the communal table dinners, roadside fruit stands and wineshops, farmers' markets, superb tasting rooms and restaurants that warmly greet you. If you're not here just for the wine and cuisine, there's boating, hiking, winter skiing and you can also take in any of the many wine and music festivals throughout the year.

If I drive from the Coast (I take my bike with me), my road trip starts in Westbank and crosses over to Kelowna, the centrepiece of the Okanagan, back down Highway 97 and the western shore to Summerland, Peachland and then Penticton, back up the east bank to the many Naramata wineries and on to Okanagan Falls and Oliver then, finally, to Osoyoos in Canada's only desert. The restaurants, bistros and patios along the way offer outstanding culinary pairings to complement some of the finest wines in the world. Clear summer skies, warm Septembers, winter ice-wine harvests and spectacular vineyard vistas are unequaled anywhere else in North America. I know, I'm starting to sound like a travel brochure, but I can't help it, it's an awesome place to be!

In the midst of this idyllic valley in Central Okanagan is the dynamic city of Kelowna, where businesses thrive and the exciting emergence of a high-technology sector and an entrepreneurial community is building an ambitious and cutting-edge presence. It's not just a quiet rural setting, it bustles, too.

The wineries, with stunning architecture and barrel-filled cellars, play an important role in this unique region - there's even a wine-aging pyramid! Impressive scenic landmarks, stately contemporary homes atop orderly rows of vines stretching over rolling hills and benches, brown bears and elk grazing on berries in wildflower fields and water-skiers gliding across glassy lakes - Pinterest perfect.

I'm not sure if there are truffles in the forested areas but there's wild asparagus and abundant mushrooms, seasonal root vegetables, herbs and spices and signature lush orchards; the local products are a chef's dream from goat cheese and bread artisans to Ocean Wise seafood to specialty meats offering grass-fed beef - sustainability is a commitment in the region's restaurants.

The collaboration and support for the cultures of wine, food and art are paramount for the winemakers and farmers, chefs and designers, bakers and butchers. The vintners and restaurateurs, the entrepreneurs and artists, vineyard workers and hotel concierges, tour guides and developers, farmers and artisans have built a creative environment and an enviable lifestyle, which is why many are drawn to this part of the Pacific Northwest.  

The sustainable practices of organic farming and viviculture, with wine professionals working together, create memorable experiences. Summer and autumn are extra special for harvests and vintages. I eat and drink my way from West Kelowna to Osoyoos with absolute guilt-free abandon. The relationships between local food producers, restaurants and wineries remind me of the Napa and Sonoma regions. Rural charm, yet sophisticated; rustic, yet elegant.

The valley's dining experience varies from traditional comfort food restyled to modern tastes and new takes on classic wine country cuisine: wood-fired al forno pizzas and home-made charcuteries and preserves, inspired haute menus and garden freshness plated for you at every stop. You can put together your own picnic lunch from local shops and patisseries or take advantage of the winery bistro and patio specials, as always with a glass or two of the local VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) Reserve. Don't go alone, you may need a designated driver!

Exploring the unique culinary culture of the Okanagan Valley and the abundance of regional ingredients sourced from biodynamic gardens by the sophisticated kitchens of the many distinguished winemakers, I'm in gastronomic heaven. When you sit down in a restaurant in Vancouver or Victoria or Calgary or Portland or Seattle, you often ask the server or sommelier which wine would pair best with your food choice - well, in the kitchens of the outstanding restaurants in the Okanagan, the chefs build their menus to pair with the wines! How brilliant is that?

Almost the entire production on 10,000 acres of vineyards in the province's wine industry is snapped up by locals, so to experience the exciting vintages, regional cuisine and the alluring wine country, you really have to be there. Spring is a great time to catch the early releases and autumn is harvest time (the tasting rooms are less crowded and there are more accommodations choices), so there's lots of reasons to go back.

Do a little bit of everything: overnight stays at quaint B&Bs, modern Kelowna hotels, funky cottage-y motels and well-appointed winery accommodations. It takes a week or two to sample everything: from farm-to-table vegetarian lunches to gourmet multi-course dinners like seared elk carpaccio, just-picked salad greens, fresh-caught planked trout and roasted duck with seasonal garden vegetables. Sip aromatic Rieslings and dry Pinot Blancs, heady Syrahs and bold Bordeaux wines.  

Sit back, relax, enjoy the view and the company, tomorrow will be another winery, another beautiful sunset and another wonderful restaurant patio under the grape arbour. I'll be at the next table… cheers!

 

INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING - JULY 2016

 

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