The Okanagan Valley’s newest showcase winery is an inspired tribute to the surrounding landscape. Tucked into the side of Munson Mountain at the southern tip of the Naramata Bench wine route, Poplar Grove is a contemporary gem. Floor-to-ceiling glass panes in the airy tasting room treat visitors to a panorama of Penticton and Okanagan and Skaha Lakes. Weather permitting, the panes slide open to blur the divide between outside and in.
“We could have put a tent here and it would have been stunning,” executive winemaker Ian Sutherland said before the christening party last Saturday. “But this takes full advantage of the beauty of the area.”
Reclaimed Douglas fir from an Osoyoos fruit-packing plant pays subtle tribute to the valley’s history as an orchard haven. But there’s a new and more lucrative fruit in town, of course. That’s the other good reason to make the pilgrimage to Poplar Grove, a highlight of any north Okanagan wine tour. Its flagship red, The Legacy, is a model of Bordeaux-style finesse and cellar-worthiness, though with broader shoulders and purer fruit than most of its French counterparts, thanks to the grape-ripening intensity of the Okanagan sun.
Until recently housed in a nondescript warehouse building, the estate was founded by Mr. Sutherland, a 59-year-old Montreal native and lanky surfer who fell in love with the Okanagan in his 20s. Working as a high-pressure welder fixing pulp-mill boilers and gas plants, he honed his oenological skills in the evenings, and launched Poplar Grove as a 2,000-case-a-year boutique wineryin 1993. Tony Holler, an Okanagan-born doctor and biotechnology entrepreneur, wrote a cheque along with friend Barrie Sali for a 75-per-cent share in 2007.
With deep pockets for the latest equipment, the pair are now helping Mr. Sutherland write a new chapter for both Poplar Grove and British Columbia wine. The winery’s 2008 syrah took home a gold medal earlier this year at the Decanter World Wine Awards, sponsored by England’s influential wine magazine.
For his part, the pioneering Mr. Sutherland, while taking joy in literally looking down on the Okanagan, looks up to his peers, many of whom have confidently ceased genuflecting toward France for their stylistic cues, preferring instead to craft wines that telegraph a distinct sense of place. “We’re getting over that Canadianism where we have to be like somebody else,” Mr. Sutherland said. “We have lost the apologetic phase. We’re just trying to be the Okanagan. And, you know what? I couldn’t be happier.”
Poplar Grove Winery
Just north of Penticton, the city at the geographic centre of the Okanagan Valley, this winery stands as a sort of gateway to the Naramata Bench. There were four other wineries on this long cliff that straddles the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake when Ian Sutherland set up shop in 1993. Now there are about 30, all within a short drive. The Legacy, a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon priced at a not-outrageous $49.90, is sublime, But don’t miss the 100-per-cent cabernet franc, a lush, smooth gem and one of the finest anywhere. 250-493-9463., www.poplargrove.ca.
California-born Ross Hackworth was grateful when his parents headed north to take up orchard farming in the Okanagan. He was 10, and it was a blissful, fruit-stained boyhood amid the trees. When his tastes graduated to fermented berries, he re-settled in the Penticton area. At the base of granite cliffs that radiate grape-ripening heat onto the vineyards, this small Naramata estate, purchased from founders Alex and Kathleen Nichol, made the first syrah in the valley. It’s still one of the best. At between $15 and $30 for most wines, the prices are relatively modest, too. Like Mr. Hackworth, I bristle at the hubris of some new wineries charging $30-plus for their first vintages, good though they might be. “Crazy,” Mr. Hackworth says. 250-496-5962, www.nicholvineyard.com.
Kettle Valley Winery
The name, taken from the railway that ran through Naramata from 1915 to 1961, might sound better suited to a tea company. And the tasting room, a converted garage, is bare bones. But the wines are estimable. The Old Main Red, a Bordeaux-style blend, is packed with fruit power. Owners Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts started out as hobbyists making wine in Tim’s apartment. Exacting farmers who also buy fruit grown to their standards, the pair secured the third winery licence in Naramata two decades ago – they’re modern pioneers with a nostalgic fondness for the steam-engine era. 1-888-496-8757, www.kettlevalleywinery.com.
Mission Hill Family Estate
If William Randolph Hearst had been a vintner, I imagine the winery would have looked like this. From the 12-storey bell tower to symphony concerts in the amphitheatre to the reception hall complete with a gigantic Chagall tapestry, this puts the “grand” in grand cru. Owner Anthony von Mandl, the man behind Mike’s Hard Lemonade, has packed so many intricate architectural details into this property that a visitor might be forgiven for overlooking the tasting room. Don’t miss it. Life may have given him lemonade, but von Mandl makes great wine. Or, rather, New Zealand-born John Simes does. He’s one of the smartest and most exacting winemakers I’ve met. Zero in on the Quatrain red blend and the chardonnay called Perpetua. 250-768-7611, www.missionhillwinery.com.
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery
On the road leading to Mission Hill, this prominent winery is a popular destination, with a fine restaurant overlooking Okanagan Lake. But it’s my thirst that brings me here. The large wine portfolio is consistent throughout. Winemaker Grant Stanley, a Vancouver native who worked for six years at New Zealand’s famed Ata Rangi estate, crafts elegant pinot noirs and sumptuously balanced chardonnays. More offbeat but equally sublime are the chenin blanc, old vines foch and fragrant white blend of chasselas, pinot blanc and pinot gris. 1-800-420-9463, www.quailsgate.com.
CedarCreek Estate Winery
As the tragic Okanagan blaze of 2003 raged up the B.C. valley toward Kelowna, Gordon Fitzpatrick, CedarCreek’s president, made a fateful decision. Surrounded by flames and forced to evacuate, he flipped on the vineyard sprinklers, then drove anxiously away. Upon his return, the wisdom of his action was eerily apparent. “It was almost a straight edge,” he said of the blaze trail. “It was charred right up to where we irrigated.” Visitors to his well-appointed property, its white Mediterannean-style buildings contrasting beautifully with the verdant vines, can still spy the scorched forest high on the slope. Purchased in 1986 by Gordon’s father, Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, the winery played a crucial early role in demonstrating that red grapes, which generally ripen later than whites, could thrive in the Okanagan’s short growing season thanks to the region’s intense summer sunshine. Pinot noir is the star here. The Sunset Concerts, set against the backdrop of Okanagan Lake, will feature Colin James and Jim Cuddy later this summer. The Vineyard Terrace restaurant is open for lunch from mid-June to mid-September. 250-764-8866, www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.
Jancis Robinson, the influential British wine writer, called Tantalus’ riesling “outstanding.” James Suckling, a former critic with U.S.-based Wine Spectator magazine, recently scored it 92 points. I sang its praises years ago. Don’t leave Kelowna without a taste, or a bottle. On the outskirts of the city, this small but ambitious winery recently completed work on a modern building constructed to rigorous green standards in water and energy efficiency as well as landscape design. Even the general operations and marketing manager, Jane Hatch, is an ecologist. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the tasting room allow the landscape, not the building, to do the talking. Hey, scenery is why you’ve come to the Okanagan, isn’t it? Well, that and the wines. 1-877-764-0078, www.tantalus.ca.
8th Generation (for the rieslings); La Frenz (for the shiraz and Australian-outback inspired architecture of the tasting-room building); Laughing Stock (for the Portfolio red, the chardonnay and funky little urban-bar-styled tasting room); Sperling Vineyards (for the old vines riesling).