John Skinner, the owner of Painted Rock Estate Winery in British Columbia, loves visitors. When he's on site at his arresting property in the Okanagan Valley, he often whisks tourists to the cellar for a treat. "There's nothing more pleasurable for me than to take people into the winery and taste from the barrels and tanks," he says.
Though generally offered only at small operations such as Painted Rock, a new cult-wine star nestled on an undulating ridge that straddles Skaha Lake south of Penticton, barrel tastings are among the special joys of wine country travel, now in full summer swing in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Boldly bracing, young wines can tease the palate with their unmeshed components – fresh fruit, toasty oak and mouth-parching tannins. It's like stealing a nibble of fresh ingredients in a chef's kitchen before the meal comes together.
At Painted Rock, the experience is even more special this summer because there's less wine in barrel than usual. Its 2010 vintage now maturing in cellar was ravaged by a band of British Columbia's most imposing fruit burglars: black bears. Denied their usual sustenance of forest berries because of poor weather, the interlopers managed to scarf down more than three acres' worth of Painted Rock's $30-$55-a-bottle fruit before Mr. Skinner's team could complete the harvest. "I think they were very anxious to get fattened up," Mr. Skinner said.
It's a revealing and quintessentially Canadian vignette of the challenges winemakers face in this rugged, awesomely beautiful valley, which stretches 2-1/2 hours by car from Kelowna to the Washington state border. Painted Rock's gate (the only breach not lined with new electric fencing), is off Eastside Road, which hugs the eastern shore of Skaha Lake. It's a scenic drive, by itself worth the trip. Then there are the splendid wines, especially Painted Rock's full-bodied Bordeaux-style blends. On a recent visit, I was treated not to bears, but to the equally majestic sight of deer leaping across the road that leads to Blue Mountain Vineyard, which crafts some of the most elegant pinot noirs and sparkling wines in Canada.
If you continue to aim your car past the town of Oliver, with its municipal sign proclaiming that you've reached the "Wine Capital of Canada," the sun-drenched vineyards of Osoyoos unfold before you. The wavy rows of green on the slopes above the parched, sagebrush plain of Canada's only hot-weather desert are an intriguing sight. Think True Grit meets Sideways.
Here's a short and – painfully for this wine lover – selective list of worthy pit stops south of Penticton. You'll want to be selective anyway, because it's a big place. As John Schreiner, author of the excellent Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, says: "Look very hard at the road map and figure out the time involved, and don't try to do it all in two or three days."
Painted Rock Estate Winery
The hysterically tiny tasting room stands alone on a slope like a misplaced tool shed. But inside are some of the best fermented beverages made in Canada. "We're not wine-shop driven; we're wine-driven," says owner John Skinner. First launched in 2009, the offerings – a syrah, a chardonnay and three Bordeaux-style reds – caused an instant stir. Mr. Skinner, 52, spared no expense when he decided to retire after a successful career as an investment adviser. Poring over statistical data on local microclimates, he settled on an abandoned former apricot orchard, once the largest in the British Commonwealth. Working with Bordeaux-based consultant Alain Sutre, he directs staff to lop off between 30 and 50 per cent of the grape clusters mid-way through the growing cycle, a sort of vineyard bloodletting designed to ensure better ripeness in the remaining bunches. Taste the wines and see why black bears have made Painted Rock their preferred dinner table. 250-493-6809, www.paintedrock.ca
Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars
This beautiful estate is just south of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Okanagan Falls. Try not to blink on the drive from the main road to the tasting room, because the rolling hills can seem like a Wild West Tucany. It's by appointment only, but expect a warm welcome and eye-opening wines. Ian and Jane Mavety bought the place in 1971 intending to grow tree fruit but soon concluded grapes were the land's destiny. Initially aided by a French-trained viticulturist they settled on pinot noir, Alsatian-style white wines and, most compelling of all to my palate, Champagne-class sparkling wines. 250-497-8244, www.bluemountainwinery.com
Moon Curser Vineyards
Formerly called Twisted Tree, this is the curiosity seeker's ultimate wine destination in Canada. Owners Chris and Beata Tolley, who relocated from Calgary in 2004 to purchase this former cherry orchard near Osoyoos, have boldly ventured beyond the Bordeaux and Burgundy models, adding such offbeat grapes as marsanne, roussanne, tannat and tempranillo to the more common domestic fare of merlot, cabernet and chardonnay. The tempranillo, the tannat-syrah blend called Dead of Night and the Rhone Valley-style white blend of viognier, roussanne and marsanne called Afraid of the Dark are marvellous and more serious than the silk-screened, spooky-critter bottles might suggest. 250-495-5161, www.mooncurser.com
Hester Creek Estate Winery
This is Ground Zero of Canada's wine revolution. Italian-born Joe Busnardo first planted European vinifera varieties here in 1968, when virtually all of Canada's vineyards were devoted to inferior hybrid varieties of the Baby Duck era. The run-down property was bought in 2004 by Curt Garland, a Prince George trucking magnate, who rebuilt it into a showplace, complete with a lavishly appointed tasting room, restaurant and cooking-class kitchen. The wines, crafted by winemaker Rob Summers, are excellent. And the six Mediterranean-style villa suites, perched high above Oliver, each with a patio, offer a breathtaking view. 250-498-4435, www.hestercreek.com
Next to Hester Creek on the hillside above Highway 97 on the famed Golden Mile, this well-appointed winery produces some of the best-value premium wines in the south Okanagan. Go for the wine. Go for the summer concert series in the intimate open-air amphitheatre. And go for the magnificent food and expert service at the newly opened Miradoro Restaurant, a partnership between Tinhorn and Manuel Ferreira, owner of La Gavroche in Vancouver. 1-888-484-6467, www.tinhorn.com
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery
Near the north end of Osoyoos Lake at the northern tip of the Osoyoos desert, the winery's elaborate, villa-style architecture and lookout tower belie its eco-friendly philosophy. Alternative pest-control systems include two bat nurseries, which help keep vine-attacking insects in check. Owner Jim Wyse, a former Vancouver land developer, diverts a portion of revenues to conservation efforts aimed at re-establishing the endangered bird that is the winery's namesake. The Sonora Room restaurant is excellent and the Guest House is a luxurious base for a south Okanagan vacation. Don't miss the deftly structured cabernet sauvignon. 1-877-498-0620, www.bovwine.ca
North America's first Aboriginal winery, the estate (pronounced IN-ka-meep) straddles the Osoyoos desert and features a dining patio, campground, the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa and a golf course. The reserve range labelled Qwam Qwmt, are superb, especially the brawny syrah and complex meritage red blend. Surrounded by a parched landscape and blessed with blissfully sunny summer days, this is a unique corner of Canada – as far from the Great White North as you can get without packing a passport. 250-495-2985, www.nkmipcellars.com
Black Hills Estate (for the Nota Bene red); See Ya Later Ranch (for the sparkling wine and panoramic patio view); Road 13 (for the Rockpile and Stemwinder blends); and Pentage (for the cabernet franc).