Traversing the Okanagan Valley: Tinhorn Creek & Covert Farms

The last 4 weeks feel like they have been a complete whirlwind and I’m only now catching my breath. I should have had this post done weeks ago but I’m only now sitting down to finish it. The last day of our absolutely fantastic trip to the Okanagan Valley.

The last day!

We had come to that bittersweet point of our trip, the last day. Up to this point, we’d had a great time exploring the Black Sage Bench, the Naramata Bench, and Okanagan Falls.

But now it was the last day and we had one more region left to explore the Golden Mile. Interestingly enough even though the areas we had been visiting on this trip are referred to as wine regions, none of them are officially recognized as such.

The Black Sage bench, the Naramata bench, Okanagan Falls, and even Kelowna are considered sub-regions, but officially they are grouped together as part of the Okanagan Valley. There is only one officially recognized sub-region within the valley, and that is the Golden Mile.

In 2015 this sub-region that runs between Oliver south towards Osoyoos, was officially awarded designation as a sub-Geographical Indication. This means that the soil conditions and climate of wineries located in this area are considered to be unique from other grape growing areas in the area.

What this also means is that wineries located within this sub-GI can highlight this on their labeling. While wineries not located on the Golden Mile, have to list their geographical location as the Okanagan Valley.

I say we had plans to explore the Golden Mile but the truth is that we only had plans to visit one winery on the mile, that being Tinhorn Creek. But, before that we had one stop to make and that was Covert Farms.

Covert Farms Family Estate

Covert Farms Family Estate

We came across Covert Farms when we were looking at things to do in and around Oliver. What caught our attention was the farm tour they offered, and the opportunity to be driven around in a 1952 Mercury 1 ton truck. They took you around the farm, gave you a chance to get up close and personal with their livestock, took you out among their 64 acres of vines, gave you the chance to pick some fruit, and the kicker was a personalized wine tasting & charcuterie plate at the end. How could we resist?

red-truck

Our tour host was the farms resident chef, Cambell Kearns, whose passion for and knowledge of the farm was clearly evident. We started our tour by heading over to see the farm’s livestock. Normally, you have the opportunity to feed the cows. However, for our tour the farm had just welcomed a couple of new calves, and unfortunately the female cows were somewhat overprotective of strangers in the paddock.

From there we piled into the 1952 Mercury pickup and headed out to the vineyard. The farm has 64 acres of vines planted, and half of that is farmed out to Jackson Triggs. The other half is used to make their own estate wines. They produce a number of red blends, a rose, a sparkling Zinfandel, a white blend, a Pinot Blanc, a Roussanne & Viognier blend, and a Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc blend.

 

Covert Farms prides itself on its organic farming and that carries over to its grapes. Walking out among the vines, we got the chance to see and understand how the farm deals with insects and weeds.

Once we finished up out among the vines, we headed over to the orchard. As part of the tour we got the chance to pick either blueberry’s, strawberry’s or peaches. I jumped at the chance to pick fresh peaches right from the tree. It didn’t take long to fill our small buckets, and we may or may not have eaten a couple of peaches while doing so.

Peaches

We wrapped up our tour by sitting down to a carefully handcrafted charcuterie board and a tasting of the farm’s wines. I was quite impressed with all of the wines we got to try, but the two standouts were the 2014 Rose & the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc & Semillion blend.

Chef's Charcuterie

The 2014 Rose was incredibly fruit forward with strong notes of strawberry and raspberry and a wonderfully refreshing acidity. This would be a wine easily enjoyed on its own but versatile enough to easily pair with food. The other standout was the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc & Semillion blend. Also showing a refreshing acidity, but with freshly cut grass, lemon, & papaya aromas and green apple and sage flavors. Surprisingly, I found this to have a more complex structured body then the rose. They both had good acidity, but the Sauvignon Blanc & Semillion blend was slightly more dense than the rose and was best suited paired with food.

From there we had one last place to visit before we called this trip complete. We left Covert Farms and headed down the road towards Tinhorn Creek.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards

Tinhorn Creek

Tinhorn Creek holds a special place in the hearts of me and my wife. When I met my wife, she wasn’t much of a wine drinker, and it was a bottle of Tinhorn Creek’s Pinot Gris that got her interested in wine.

For that reason, Tinhorn Creek was one winery that was a definite visit on our list. Our plan of action was to do a tasting first, then stroll around the winery and check out the amphitheater, and then head over to the restaurant for dinner.

In what we considered an excellent omen, we were offered a sample of their recent 2015 Oldfield 2 Bench white. An excellent creamy and refreshing blend offering notes of vanilla, peach, and pear.

We made our way into the tasting room and settled in at the bar. We started out with the 2015 Pinot Gris, moved on to the 2015 Gewurztraminer, and finished up the whites with the 2014 Chardonnay. I was equally impressed with all three wines, each one tasted very well, with excellent balance, acidity, and fruit flavors.

The first red we tasted was the 2014 Merlot, which had a really striking fruity complexity to it, but I couldn’t help feel as thought it was tasting young. I wondered if it could use some time in the bottle to provide some aging. The 2914 Cab Franc, on the other hand, was perfect.

Showing an inky purple in the glass, with intense aromas of dark chocolate, lavender, thyme, and tobacco. On the tongue initial flavors of blackberry and raspberry, with a slight hint of black cherry. As we chatted with the server, I noticed that after that initial hit of fruit flavors, I started to pick up a more earthy flavor as well, that of green and black pepper. I was absolutely enthralled with this wine and I can’t wait to see what it’s like after a couple of years in the cellar.

Next up was a stroll outside along the back side of the winery to check out the amphitheater where the winery plays host to concerts throughout the summer. Sitting on the stone steps overlooking the valley, it was easy to see why this would be a popular place to come check out live music.

 

We still had a couple of minutes before our dinner reservation so we poked our heads into what the cellar room. What a sight, rack after rack of wine barrels stacked 8 height high. The first thought that came to my mind was the whoever the forklift driver was, had better have a steady hand. The other thing I noticed in the cellar room was that classic music was being played, almost as it to serenade the barrels of wine.

Wine barrels

This was a fitting end to our day, a table on the balcony overlooking the valley with the winery in the background. Looking over the wine list I felt like a kid in a candy store. One of the features of the wine list is the ability to order library wines and boy were there some impressive listings. Given that I had already gone slightly over my wine buying budget, I decided that library wines would have to wait for another day.

I really have to compliment the restaurant’s designer, with very sleek lines and the way the floor is set there really is not a bad seat in the entire place.

As we were seated at our table for dinner we realized that this was somewhat of a bittersweet moment for us. We were about to celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary at a winery that holds a special place for us. That was the exciting part, the sad part was the realization that this was the end of our trip. Next morning we would be packing up and heading home.

Final Thoughts

It was quite on the road that night as we head back to where we were staying, which was nice because it gave me chance to reflect on this trip.

We had managed to visit quite a few wineries over the last several days and got to taste a lot of great wine. This trip has also given me a better perspective on just how big the Okanagan Valley wine region is. While we did get to visit a lot of wineries, the truth is we barely scratched the surface. This area just keeps on getting better and better which is great news for the Canadian wine scene. Even better is that it’s not the only one either, there are a number of up and coming areas which only can mean bigger and better things for Canadian Wine.

All in all, I have to say that this was a trip will remember for a long time coming.

Cheers,

LB

 

 

Traversing the Okanagan Valley: Oliver (Black Sage Bench)

We spent the first day of our trip exploring Penticton, hanging out the beach, doing a little shopping, eating a little ice cream. It was a great way to unwind after a long drive, get settled, and prepare for our first day of wine touring.

In my previous post (Traversing the Okanagan Valley: The Beginning), I talked about the various sub-regions within the valley that you can go and visit. On our first day of wine touring we decided to head down towards Oliver, and visit what’s know as The Black Sage Bench.

This wine route runs along the east side of the valley and begins just south of Oliver. With its eastern location, grapes in this region benefit from the early morning sun and deep sandy soil tends to be common.

During the summer months, the valley experiences hot daytime temperatures but cool evenings allowing grapes to reach their optimal ripeness. Given these types of conditions, visitors can expect to see such common varietals such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah.

For our first stop, we headed down towards the southern tip of the Bench to check out Burrowing Owl Estate Winery.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery.

Burrowing Owl Winery along the Black Sage Bench

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery sits southeast of the town of Oliver near the northern edge of Osoyoos Lake. The winery sits on top of a southwest facing plateau and as such visitors are able to gaze down on the row upon rows of vines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

what a view

The winery took its name after Jim and Midge Wyse, the proprietors learned about the efforts of the Government to re-establish the Burrowing Owl after it was declared extinct in British Columbia.

We did a full tasting at the winery starting with the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, which exhibited great aromas of fresh cut grass and peach. From there we moved into tasting the reds, starting with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Excellent aroma of raspberry on the nose coupled with fragrant strawberry, however, I feel like the wine could use a couple of years of aging to help strengthen the body.

We also got to taste the 2013 Merlot, the 2013 Cabernet Franc, and as somewhat of a treat the 2012 Meritage. Each of these wines showed great, excellent structure, taste profiles and aromas. Out of those three, I thought the Cabernet Franc really stood out, with a distance freshness and a crisp clean palate.

Black Hills Estate Winery

Black Hills Estate Winery

Next up in our tasting journey was Black Hills Estate Winery. In May, I had the opportunity to attend a winemaker’s tasting of Black Hills Estate wines at Vine Styles, a local wine store. I was so impressed with the wines we tasted that day that I marked this winery as a definite stop on our tour.

On this day we were partaking in their Portfolio tasting, a relaxed in-depth sampling of 3 whites and 3 red. For the whites, we were treated to their Viognier, Chardonnay, and Alias, while the red tasting was Syrah, 2014 Cellar Hand, and their flagship wine, the 2014 Nota Benne. Of the whites, the Viognier and the Alias were clear standouts. Both wines show great acidity, are crisp and clean without being overly sweet. The Alias was a real treat to taste as it’s normally only available to its club members.

In terms of the Reds, their Syrah is very well done, with excellent black pepper and herbal notes such as Thyme and Basil. However, the star of the show is the Nota Benne, Black Hills Estate flagship wine. It’s a diverse blend of 4 different Cabernet Sauvignon clones, 2 different Cabernet Franc clones, and 4 different Merlot clones. It’s produced by processing and aging each clone separately. After they are barrel aged, the clones are then blended together to give the wine a diverse taste and structure.

Blackhills Estate Tasting
Enjoying the portfolio tasting at Black Hills Estate winery.

The Nota Benne is incredibly complex but very well structured. The body has a medium weight to it but the tannin levels are very smooth making it an easy drinking wine. Ripe fruit qualities such as blackberry and plum, with notes of black pepper and green bell pepper.  It’s definitely a wine best served with food.

Platinum Bench Winery

After our tasting’s it was time for something to eat. While at Burrowing Owl, it was recommended to us to check out Platinum Bench winery’s fresh baked artisan bread.

As soon as you walk in the front door two things happen. One is you are instantly greeted by Wally, the winery greeter. Wally is a one of a kind greeter, with four legs, a wet nose and excitedly wagging tail.

The second thing that happens is you become aware of the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread. In addition to their award-winning wines, Platinum Bench has recently expanded to included artisan bread baked right on site by winery co-owner Fiona Duncan.

We grabbed a couple loaves of bread, an Asiago Cheese, a Gorgonzola & Fig, and some salami and took a seat out the deck outside. Both loaves were amazing, served warm, the crust was had a slightly chewy and crispy texture, while the inside was so soft and light. The view from the deck was breathtaking and I could have stayed there all day.

Stoneboat Vineyards

Stoneboat Vineyards

Stoneboat was recommended to me because of its focus on the Pinot grapes. Being the big fan of Pinot Noir that I am, this was a winery that I simply had to check out.

The winery is named after a “stone boat”, a flat sled that was originally used to carry stones. The name Stone Boat was chosen as a tribute to the individuals who originally worked to clear the vineyard of rocks in order to plant the vines.

The soil on all three of the vineyards that make up Stoneboat all tend to be quite rocky and calcareous, similar to the soil found in Burgundy, France, another well know Pinot region. The rocks found in the vineyard are put to good use, piled underneath of the vines they absorb the heat of the sun during the day and radiate that heat towards the vines during the cooler evenings.

We started our tasting with the Rose Brut, which was stunning. Bright, crisp, not overly sweet with a beautiful cherry aroma. We tasted a couple of the whites available, but what I really was excited for was the Pinot Noir. They were pouring their 2013 Pinot Noir, and I couldn’t wait to try it.

This was a very well structured wine, not your typical light styled body, it had actually had some weight to it. It has a slight acidity to it which I wasn’t expecting but found quite refreshing. A definite earthy aroma along with fresh flowers and cherry and intense flavours of strawberry and raspberry.

Stoneboat Pinot Noir

It was interesting to note that I was reading reviews online of Stoneboat’s Pinot Noir and a number of reviewers noted a mushroom or truffle flavour in the wine. I didn’t note that in the flavour of the wine but definitely found earthy notes in the aroma. I can’t wait to try this wine again in several years to see how the flavour profile has evolved.

 

Le Vieux Pin

Le Vieux Pin

Our last stop of the day was at Le Vieux Pin, sort of a newcomer to the region. The wineries name, translated as the “The Old Pine”, is derived from a single pine tree that sits out amongst the vines. It’s really quite a site to see, this single solitary pine tree seemingly rising up out of the vines.

Le Vieux Pin itself is a sister winery to La Stella, which is located further south in the valley down towards Osoyoos. At Le Vieux Pin, their focus is using traditional French winemaking traditions to produce wines that are in their words…”elegant and focused, with great intensity of fruit”.

For our tasting, we started off with the 2015 ‘Ava’, a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, & Roussane. A real nice acidic wine, with big fruit flavors such as peaches, nectarines, and melon rind. However, there was a lingering note of honey that provided just twinge of sweetness that seemed out of place. Up next was the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, with notes of pineapple, kiwi, and tropical flowers. Very well structured, a balanced body with very little sweetness but great acidity gave this a real crispness and tartness to the wine.

From there we moved on to the Syrah. Unfortunately, my notetaking took a bit of a hit at this point and the only notes I had for this part of the tasting was for the 2009 Syrah. Which after tasting the wine I wasn’t all the upset about.

Le Vieux Pin Wines

This was deeply elegant, a smooth almost silky body, with just a slight tannic bite to it. One the nose ripe red fruit aromas coupled with savoury herbs, and bell pepper. On the tongue, there was a real bite of black pepper, but also black cherry, blueberry, and just a slight hint of minerality to it. This was a wine you could drink now but would only get better if you were to cellar for other 5-6 years.

End of the Day!

By this point we just about ready to call it a day. We had been to 4 wineries and tasted quite a bit of wine in that time. I had a cooler full of purchases I was eager to get home and put away, so we packed it in and headed back to Penticton.

In terms of exploring the Black Sage Bench and Oliver, we only scratched the surface. Given the number of wineries in the area, you could easily spend 3-4 days just visiting winery after winery.

The one common thing I took away from our tasting is that this area likes it big bold reds and high-intensity whites. When you read about the area and it talks about the Bourdeaux blends you really see what’s referring to.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining, we tasted some absolutely fantastic wine, met some great people and took home some lasting memories.

Cheers,

LB

 

Traversing the Okanagan Valley: The Beginning

In 2011 my wife and I decided to take a trip out to Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, specifically the city of Kelowna. As part of that trip, we went on a wine tour. It was the first time I had ever been to a winery and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Right away I was hooked, I was immediately interested in the whole process. From growing the grapes to harvesting them to turning them into wine.

We came back out to Kelowna again in 2012 and 2013, both time with the intent on visiting as many wineries as we could. We took a break from the area in 2014 & 2015 but decided to return to the Okanagan again this July.

Instead of visiting Kelowna this time, we decided to head a little further south to Penticton and Oliver. We had a great trip, visited a number of amazing wineries, drank some fantastic wine, and conversed with a lot of passionate and knowledgeable individuals.

wineroute
Which way to the wine?

The Okanagan Valley

The valley itself is one of 5 provincially recognized wine producing regions in British Columbia, with the others being: The Similkameen Valley, Vancouver Island, The Gulf Islands, and Fraser Valley. There are several other emerging regions that are starting to develop a name for themselves, but these are the five predominant regions at this time.

It begins around Kelowna and stretches for over 250 km south towards Osoyoos and the US border. The valley accounts for almost 80% of the total wine production within BC and includes over 170 wineries with over 8,000 total acres of vines.

The valley is divided into a number of local regions and as you travel south through the valley you’ll run into these regions along the way. It’s these small regions within the Okanagan Valley that make it such an interesting wine and winery destination.

The sub-regions are:

  • Lake Country/Kelowna
  • Peachland/Summerland
  • Penticton/Naramata
  • Okanagan Falls
  • Golden Mile Bench
  • Osoyoos

Each region is blessed with its own unique micro-climates and soil conditions. Some areas benefit from cool breezes that blow in from nearby lakes, which help to offset the summer heat. Others receive the benefit of excellent irritation, the result of vineyards planted on hillsides.

soil
Soil type examples at Le Vieux Pin winery.

The different benefits that come from the different climates and growing conditions have reflected the diversity of the different wines being produced within these regions. I’ll use Pinot Noir for an example, you’ll find examples of Pinot Noir being produced from each of these regions. But, what you’ll also find is that the Pinot Noir is different from each region. Not different in a bad way, but simply different based on the growing conditions.

You may find a Pinot Noir produced in the Summerland region to be light bodied with quite fruit forward. While in Oliver you may find the Pinot Noir to have a heavier body with spicier notes and less fruit forward. Then if you were to try a Pinot Noir from Naramata you might find it is somewhere in the middle.

 

Our Trip

The Okanagan valley has a tremendous amount to offer. There’re several lakes for boating, swimming, and water sports. Beaches for family outings or to sit and relax on. Fruit farms and orchards dot the highway throughout. It offers great hiking and biking trails, as well as numerous campgrounds. The valley also boasts a number of music festivals throughout the summer.

For me however, it was all about the wine. This was my chance to visit some of the wineries I had been hearing about for some time now.

Yet, I’ve only just broken the surface of what the valley has to offer in terms of wine and wineries. Of the over 170 wineries in operation, I’ve only visited roughly 20% of them. I’ve still got some work to do.

Since we spent a lot of time in the past in and around Kelowna, we only focused on the Penticton/Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, and the Black Sage Bench/Osoyoos areas.

In total, we spend about 3 & 1/2 days exploring these three areas and it wasn’t even close to being enough. It was extremely difficult deciding on which wineries to visit and where to go. I relied heavily on recommendations from folks on Twitter and from articles I found on online.

Over the next couple of posts, I’ll go into more detail about the regions we visited and what they have to offer.

Cheers,

LB