There's nothing like the first T-shirt sighting of the season.
Having just arrived from winter-weary Toronto, I pull an abrupt double-take when three sleeveless Kamloopsians stroll into view in early April.
They too seem surprised, but not by my woolly sweater. It's my ride – Tastefull Excursions's new wine-touring van – that turns their heads.
"Must've taken a wrong turn in Kelowna," one says, referring to the Okanagan Valley, an hour down Highway 97, where 120-plus vintners comprise "the northernmost serious wine region in the world," according to Travel + Leisure.
It soon becomes clear the magazine should have looked further north. Granted, viticulture is new to the Thompson River basin around Kamloops, with 2010 marking the first vintage year in what's known as Thompson Country. "Wine region" is a stretch, even with three more wineries rumoured to be joining the pair already in place.
That's where the neighbouring Shuswap comes in. The Thompson-Shuswap, as the B.C. Wine Institute calls it, is home to a dozen licensed vintners that are winning awards with rare cool-climate varietals such as Ortega, Maréchal Foch and siegerrebe. Travellers familiar with better-known terroir won't believe where these grapes thrive – on pine-covered mountainsides and in hoodoo-lined valleys – not to mention the calibre of what's bottled.
Combine this burgeoning route with an astonishingly active farm-to-table scene encompassing eateries, bakeries, markets and a wide-ranging "Full Circle Farm Tour" guide, and, well, let's just say my T-shirts have become noticeably tighter.
My tasting tour was inspired by a January visit to Sun Peaks Resort, a 45-minute drive north of "the Loops." I was there for two reasons: To ski the snowy Monashees, and sip my way around the 16th annual Winter Okanagan Wine Festival. I had expected to be charmed by the 10-day event's namesake offerings, but was shocked that labels much closer to Sun Peaks were making such great strides.
"We got into this because we tried the Harper's Trail wines and they blew us away," explains Tastefull Excursions owner Maatje Stamp-Vincent as her 11-passenger Mercedes-Benz pulls away from my hotel. "No one else around here is doing this, so we just went for it."
Our first stop is the source of her inspiration. Established by Ed and Vicki Collett in 2008, Harper's Trail sprawls down the South Thompson River's limestone-veined banks. Like its original and acclaimed 2011 vintages, the latest releases – eight 2012s ranging from refreshing rieslings to a delicate cabernet franc – were crafted solely with estate grapes.
"We want people to spend the day here," says Ed Collett, sweeping a hand across his 24-acre property. "Bring a picnic, try the wines on the patio, come for a barbecue."
A cavernous new home for tastings, sales and wine-making is slated to open this summer, with longer-term plans for a restaurant, conference centre and subterranean wine cave.
As we drive north toward the region's newest vintner, Privato, I wonder how the four-year-old winery will measure up. Indeed, the thrill of discovery starts to fade as we tour its modest back-room facilities and five-acre vineyard that has yet to bare fruit. (The first harvest is expected this fall.)
But my excitement returns the moment we enter the barrel room, where more than 50 French oak casks line a vaulted hall leading to a stone-walled tasting suite. It's a winery fit for Game of Thrones.
Privato's 2011 chardonnay and 2011 pinot noir also smite expectations. Made from imported Okanagan grapes but aged in the aforementioned oak for seven and 18 months, respectively, their continental sophistication contrasts dramatically with the still-snow-capped peaks outside.
I arrive at Recline Ridge, my first Shuswap stop, a day after replacing Tastefull Excursions' van with a rental car. The verdant mountains surrounding the eight-acre vineyard and A-frame boutique evoke Germany's Rheingau region, especially when owner Graydon Ratzlaff pours his lively 2012 Kerner and a beguiling late-harvest blend aptly dubbed "Hummingbird's Kiss."
While it pains me to spit the good stuff, I soldier on to Sunnybrae. It proves even more eye-catching than Recline Ridge, with Bastion Mountain soaring above and Shuswap Lake glittering below. The "Redneck Red" turns my head once again with a zesty blend that's said to pair well "with plaid, blue jeans and a barbecue."
I'm lured into a veritable gauntlet of farmer's markets as I motor into Salmon Arm, the Shuswap's main hub. Grass Roots Dairies churns out all-natural goudas – aged, smoked, spiced, you name it. Then there's DeMille's, which since 1970 has evolved from a roadside corn stand into a one-stop shop for the surrounding bounty. The plaza encompasses a grocery store, bakery and garden centre, but its rustic roots still show when owner Bradley DeMille excitedly reveals plans for a petting zoo expansion.
The next morning, I'm passing shrinking snowbanks on the roadside as I climb into the surrounding mountains. How, I wonder, could there possibly be a winery up here? Then, just as I'm about to curse Google Maps, Larch Hill's rustic gate and a lot of blue sky appear up ahead.
At nearly a kilometre above sea level, this is Canada's loftiest winery. It was also the Shuswap's first when it opened in 1997, and has since won dozens of awards for its Ortegas, siegerrebes and Marechal Fochs, among other varietals. The future may be even brighter if the 2013s I sample in the no-nonsense tasting room are anything to go by.
I've worked up an appetite tromping around, so I continue east to the Burner, likely the world's only family restaurant housed in a decommissioned lumber incinerator. I order the "Spicy BBQ Signature Burger," which, when consumed under a two-metre-long decorative chainsaw, more than satisfies my inner lumberjack. The softer side of me is more partial to spending the rest of the afternoon on the sunny lakeside patio at the nearby Artist's House Heritage B&B.
Breakfast scones devoured and bottles safely stowed, I drive back to Kamloops the next morning to conclude my delicious tour in triumphant fashion: By crossing the airport tarmac in a T-shirt of my own.
IF YOU GO
There are daily Air Canada and WestJet flights to Kamloops Airport from Calgary and Vancouver. A wider range of flights serve Kelowna International, a two-hour drive south.
Via Rail stops in Kamloops three times a week in each direction. From May to October, the Rocky Mountaineer tour train overnights in Kamloops on its Calgary-Banff-Vancouver and Jasper-Vancouver routes.
WHAT TO DO
Tastefull Excursions: Guided wine tours range from a four-hour, $65-a-person outing around Kamloops to an eight-hour Thompson-Shuswap day trip for $139 a head. tastefullexcursions.ca Okanagan Wine Festivals Society:
Sample vintages at the Okanagan Winter Wine Festival at Sun Peaks Resort, a 45-minute drive north of Kamloops, and the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, which is marking its 20th anniversary from May 1 to 11 and will feature most of the Thompson-Shuswap's vintners. thewinefestivals.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Terra Restaurant: Along with the nearby Brownstone (brownstone-restaurant.com), this spot provides a sophisticated introduction to Kamloops's phenomenally fresh fare.
Hoodoos at Sun Rivers: Tastefull Excusions's satisfying lunch stop overlooks the Thompson Valley and the surrounding fairways.
Shuswap Chefs: The kitchen staff at this upscale Salmon Arm eatery does amazing things with the Shuswap's bounty. 250-832-5019
Shuswap Pie Company: Taste that bounty baked into pies, quiches, muffins and more.
The Burner: Come for the experience of dining in a decommissioned lumber incinerator, stay for the family-friendly comfort food.
WHERE TO STAY
Plaza Hotel: This historic Kamloops property reopened in 2012 after a beautiful multimillion-dollar renovation. Rooms from $109 a night.
Quaaout Lodge: This First Nations-owned lakeside golf resort, halfway between Kamloops and Salmon Arm, serves up delicious local dishes and an impressive new spa. Rooms from $144.
Podollan Inn: Head here for comfortable pool-side accommodations near downtown Salmon Arm, starting at $99 a night. It also offers a two-night "Salmon'n Wine Discovery" package from Sept. 24 to Oct. 28 that was recently added to the Canadian Tourism Commission's "Canadian Signature Experiences Collection." From $349 a person.
Artist's House Heritage B&B: This gorgeous lakeside property, a 20-minute drive northeast of Salmon Arm, is home to what is likely Canada's only B&B bomb shelter. Rooms from $95.
The writer travelled courtesy of Destination BC and Thompson Okanagan Tourism. They did not review or approve this article.