If you’re not familiar with the Similkameen Valley, you may be familiar with its main product – delicious, fresh BC fruit. As both the Fruit Stand Capital of Canada and the Organic Fruit Capital of Canada, chances are good that if you’ve eaten fruit from British Columbia, it was grown in this warm, dry valley in south-central BC, home to the towns of Keremeos and Cawston.
But (organic) fruit isn’t the only thing the area’s known for. The Similkameen Valley has long been producing grapes for use by wineries in other parts of the Okanagan, but in the last few years it’s blossomed into a wine region in its own right – on top of 600 acres of vineyards, it’s now also home to 12 licensed wineries. It was even named one of the top 5 wine regions you’ve never heard of by enRoute Magazine.
With that kind of reputation, we knew it had to be good. And so, while on a recent getaway in nearby Tulameen, my friend and I set out ambitiously to experience all that the Similkameen Valley wine region has to offer – in one marathon day of wine touring.
Tip: the Simikameen Wineries Association has a stamp card that you can pick up at any of the 9 association wineries (most of the wineries in the area are members, but not all). Get 5 stamps, and you can submit your card at any member winery for the chance to win a case of wine! (still crossing my fingers)
Starting at the west end of the valley, we planned to work our way east and then loop back around. The first stop on our tour was Robin’s Ridge Winery, where we had a lovely tasting just steps away from the grapevines. We also picked up the handy map & stamp card provided by the Similkameen Wineries Association (pictured above).
Our next stop was Herder Winery & Vineyards. The setting at Herder is stunning – the vines slope slowly up and away from the road towards the hills, where the owners’ home (and tasting room) is located. The slight elevation of the tasting room provides a fantastic view of the vineyards and the valley; I would have been quite content to sit and sip a couple of glasses at Herder. But we still had a lot of wine to taste and a lot of ground to cover, so after a brief tasting of their Josephine red blend and their Three Sisters Pinot Gris (yum!), we were back on the trail.
Just a few blocks down the street, we found Clos du Soleil Winery, where friendly winery manager/winemaking assistant and Montreal-transplant Jean-Felix Boulais poured us tasters in the quaint farm setting (this is something I love about wine touring in BC – more often than not, the owner or winemaker him/herself will be pouring your tasters for you). Their rosé was perfect on the hot, dry afternoon, and I picked up a bottle to take home.
Up next was Orofino Winery, which has the distinction of being Canada’s only strawbale winery. Owners John and Virginia Weber built the winery back in 2004, and the strawbale walls are both ecofriendly and practical, providing the perfect insulation for consistent barrel room temperatures. And adding to the awesome factor, their tasting room/office building is 100% solar-powered! You can taste wines in said tasting room, or bring your own picnic and purchase a bottle to enjoy in their garden. I’m a white wine kind of girl, and both the reislings I tried here were a favourite of the day for me.
By this point we’d worked up an appetite, which was perfect timing for the next stop on our list: Crowsnest Winery. Sharing a name with the BC highway that cuts through the Similkameen Valley, Crowsnest is not only a winery & tasting room, but also a restaurant serving up authentic German cuisine (and, to quote my friend, the schnitzel sandwich was “worth writing home about”). We opted to skip on the wine tasting here and go instead for a mug of their house-made apple cider, which was wonderfully tart after many of the sweeter white wines we’d been sipping. Our lunch on the shaded patio next to the vines made for the perfect break from our busy day of touring.
Our next stop, Eau Vivre, made a bit of a name for itself this year when it was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in BC wine for the second year in a row (for their 2010 Pinot Noir). Owner Dale Wright filled us in on the details of the presentation ceremony as he poured us tasters, and as we sipped, we could see why they’d won. Similarly to at Orofino, at Eau Vivre you can bring your own picnic, buy a a bottle of vino and enjoy your lunch in the gorgeous gardens – something I could see myself doing regularly if I lived in the area.
At the eastern-most point of the Valley, looking over the banks of the Similkameen River, lies Forbidden Fruit Winery. They’ve been growing organic fruit for almost four decades, so it’s no surprise that they make a pretty great fruit wine. More recently, they’ve started making grape-based wines as well. Their pear wine got my #1 pick (along with their wonderfully picturesque setting).
Making our way back towards where we started in Keremeos, our next stop was Seven Stones Winery. We got lucky with the timing of our visit – they had just opened the new addition to their winery that morning, and we were able to get a tour from owner George Hanson. The addition is somewhat of an unusual one – instead of expanding out, they’ve expanded down, and have built two connected “caves” underneath the existing facility. One of the caves is the new barrel room for the winery and the other will be used for private events and tastings – and the cool temperature and gorgeous finishing will lend itself well to both purposes!
We managed to sneak into Rustic Roots Winery before it closed, which gave us just enough time to try their delicious fruit wines and learn a bit about their fascinating history. The farm that the winery is on was originally founded in the late 1880s, and has been in the family for 5 generations. During that time, it’s been everything from a dairy to a cattle rearing operation, finally finding its place as the winery it is today. The family focuses on sustainability (the 30 acre farm is fully organic), and you can check out photos of the different generations as you taste their wines in the tasting room. History nerd approved!
Last, but definitely not least, was Sage Bush Winery, which is actually located inside of a fruit stand on Highway 3 just at the entrance to the town of Keremeos. They had a very tasty Pinot Gris that was such a unique pink-orange colour, I had to buy a bottle to take with me. And as an added bonus, we were able to snag some of that fresh BC fruit on the way out.
In the end, we didn’t make it through ALL of the area’s wineries (a task I am now willing to admit might be a bit ambitious for a single day), but we definitely experienced enough of the wine and the fantastic people working with it to realize why the Similkameen Valley has made a name for itself as a wine destination. I’m ready for round two!
Food, Wine & Relaxation in the Thompson Okanagan region
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