Thursday, 13 June 2013

sipping in the similkameen...

Thirty minutes from Penticton on the way back to Vancouver (or, four hours east of Vancouver on the way to Penticton), drivers pass through a winding, windy valley through which the Similkameen River flows. Long a popular stopping point for purchasing orchard-fresh fruits, the Similkameen Valley is arguably “the next big thing” in BC viticulture. Cellar doors are opening up in around the small towns of Keremeos and Cawston, and the quality of wines are steadily improving.

The source of the Similkameen’s success is due to a number of factors. First, it is about location, location, location. At Keremeos, Highway 3 splits into two roads: one branches off to Penticton, the other onward to Osooyos and the Crow’s Nest Pass.  This provides a perfect stopping off point for roadside refreshment after a long drive in the summer sun.

Next, the Similkameen shares a hot, dry climate similar to that of the South Okanagan. This means that the thicker-skinned, fuller-bodied grapes grown in Osoyoos and Oliver can also ripen relatively well in the Valley. However, being a narrow, east/west oriented valley means that the Similkameen suffers from much stronger winds than do the vineyards of the Okanagan. The lack of lakes and their moderating effects in the Similkameen also mean that extreme temperatures and frost pose a greater challenge.

Last and most important, there is more room to expand vineyard plantings in the Similkameen than in the near-capacity (and thus much more expensive) Okanagan. Vineyard plantings have grown 20% over the past few years, and now account for nearly 10% of plantings across the province. There are still plenty of cherry and apple trees in the Similkameen, so I suspect that the Okanagan track record of orchards-for-vineyards will take place here too.

Nevertheless, you can have all the right conditions for growing grapes, but you still need to create quality wines. Happy to say, the following are doing just that:

Seven Stones ( - On the Cawston side of the Similkameen Valley is Seven Stones. At just over a decade old, Seven Stones has achieved a popular following for their full-bodied reds; their 2006 Meritage was the wine that introduced me to the potential of the Similkameen. Their current release is the 2008 and has scored in the 90s, but also look for their Pinot Rose for summer sipping or the new release of the plummy-chocolatey Cabernet Franc.

Orofino ( - No, "strawbale winery" does not mean the wines are aged in straw barrels; it's just a way of natural climate control for the inside of the winery. Which is a good thing, because I would hate to see their outstanding Riesling, their well-balanced Chardonnay, or their 100% Cabernet Sauvignon "Passion Pit" be harmed by flavours of hay. In just a few short years, Orofino is showing a real sense of Similkameen terroir, so look for better things to come.

Robin Ridge ( - A small, family-run winery, Robin Ridge may not have the concentration and complexity of flavour of the above wineries, but good value wines can be found here, particularly with the lighter, fruitier styled Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Herder ( - Arguably the first Similkameen winery to gain respect among critics and customers for producing high-quality wines from this newly-explored region. A limited portfolio focuses on quality production of just 5 wines. Demand is high, but the Three Sisters blend (Viognier/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay) and Merlot-based Josephine would have to be two of the most iconic wines from the Similkameen.

Clos du Soleil ( - A relative newcomer to the Similkameen, Clos du Soleil is showing early promise of success, in part with Ann Sperling of Sperling Vineyards (kelowna and the great white north...) as consulting winemaker and viticulturalist. Success comes from a strong Cabernet Sauvignon programme (a rather difficult feat for such a cool climate); their refreshing Rose is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Celestiale is a very good Bordeaux-blend for under $30.
Having sipped my way now through not just the Similkameen but at more than 70 wineries throughout the Okanagan, it is nice to be home. At least for now. Stay tuned for upcoming notes from an upcoming journey to Napa!


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