Imagine California's Napa Valley 30 years ago, without the commercial trappings, grandiose wineries, and snaking traffic. Plop a sparkling lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the center, and the pastoral tableau pretty much captures British Columbia's main grape-growing region, the Okanagan Valley. On the same latitude as Germany's famous Rhine Valley, the Okanagan Valley is a semi-arid desert with the hot days and cool nights essential to a great wine-producing climate.
There, a growing number of wineries (58 at last count) are turning out highly rated products at prices averaging just $20 a bottle. If you want to sample the goods, from aromatic whites to full-bodied reds, your best bet is to visit the area. Since the vineyards are typically small, family-run affairs, output is minimal, and most of the bottles are sold locally.
Luckily, the U.S. dollar is still about 20% higher than its Canadian counterpart, making the area a relative bargain. Getting to Okanagan involves a four- to six-hour drive or short plane hop from Vancouver or Seattle. The valley is 126 miles long, so you can tour it easily in a weekend. The well-situated town of Kelowna offers upscale lodging, such as the Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel & Villas along 69-mile Okanagan Lake. You can find more laid-back accommodations in nearby Naramata.
Stop by the British Columbia Wine Information Center in Penticton for a map, and you're ready to get started. Penticton is the place to see -- and taste -- the most in the least amount of time. Clustered along Naramata Road are gems such as La Frenz, Kettle Valley, and Poplar Grove. Across the lake to the west is Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, known for its Oculus Bordeaux-style red. It offers lake views, tours -- and al fresco dining at The Terrace (May-October).
The southernmost tip of the valley, named Osoyoos after the native tribe, is the most arid, and heat-loving varietals such as cabernet and merlot flourish there. A notable stop is the Osoyoos-owned Nk'Mip Cellars. Just north is Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, which operates the Sonora Room restaurant, where you can sample the estate's coveted "library" wines no longer sold to the public.
The northernmost reaches are home to cool-weather-loving grapes such as pinot noir and Germanic whites such as Ortega. That area also is ideal for producing Okanagan's famed ice wines, made from grapes left on the vines to freeze.
You might time your visit to one of the many festivals (thewinefestivals.com). But if you want to stock the cellar, locals suggest visiting before June, when many wineries sell out their inventories.
By Amy Cortese