SIMILKAMEEN VALLEY, B.C. — Emerging from an adventurous 20-minute drive through the hilly and twisting roads of the western Okanagan Valley, we pause at the intersection of Awesome and Stunning: the gateway to the Similkameen Valley.
It is raw beauty to the right as we look down the vast and seemingly infinite valley where the meandering Similkameen River shimmers in the bright sunlight below us, and, to the left, breathtaking mountains tower above pastoral farmland, vineyards, fruit trees, grazing cattle and untethered horses. It is a peaceful, awe-inspiring scene of natural and rugged eye-candy.
You can’t stop staring.
It’s no wonder enRoute Magazine called the Similkameen Valley “one of the world’s 5 best wine regions you’ve never heard of.” It has existed for years in the shadow of its more famous sister valley, the Okanagan, with all its warm lakes, picture-perfect vineyards and wineries, idyllic resorts and large urban centres.
But who knew all this was right next door?
Set amongst the dramatic backdrop of craggy mountains, it is not surprising that wine lovers and thrill seekers alike are starting to take notice.
The Similkameen Valley has been growing fruit and grapes for decades, but it is only recently that there has been a rush of wineries to emerge. Grapes in the past have been sold off to wineries in the Okanagan. But when awards started piling up for wines made with Similkameen fruit, winemakers decided it was time to control their own destiny and make their own wine.
There are currently over 600 acres of vineyards in the Similkameen and eight wineries — Cerelia, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Forbidden Fruit, Orofino, Robin Ridge, Rustic Roots, and Seven Stones — have joined forces to form the Similkameen Wineries Association to help put the spotlight on developments in the region.
Similkameen is also considered to be the “organic capital of Canada” with an estimated 42% of all crops grown organically. This is due to the ideal conditions of dry heat, long hours of sunlight and the famous wind that whips through the valley keeping pests and diseases at bay.
Part of the reason the Similkameen is making such diverse and interesting wines is the complexity of the local terroir. Soils have been deposited from retreating glaciers, meltwaters, floods and streams. Wind-blown soils, alluvial fans and coarse rocky material have been broken down from the surrounding mountains. These soils and the different elevation and aspects of the vineyards and orchards allow successful wines to be made from aromatic whites to full-bodied and complex reds. The sun-drenched, sweet fruit is the perfect basis for an endless array of fruit wines.
It’s not only the fresh produce and wine that are bringing an increasing number of tourists to the Similkameen Valley, it’s also a region that boasts some of the best outdoor activities in British Columbia — from hiking and fishing to just exploring in the rolling hills, rocky outcrops, alpine meadows, jagged peaks the and abundant alpine summits that help define the region.
You can also soak up some history at the Grist Mill and Gardens in Keremeos (the fruit stand capital of Canada) or at the Mascot Gold Mine in Hedley.
And dotting the Similkameen landscape more and more frequently are wineries, many using organic fruit from grapes and myriad fruits that grow so well here.
Our first stop on our tour takes us to the Forbidden Fruit Winery located on Ven’Amour Organic Farms, a certified organic tree fruit farm, vineyard and nature estate located inconspicuously along the banks of the pristine Similkameen River in Cawston.
The winery produces an array of premium tree fruit wines and grape wines from estate fruit grown on the property’s 147 acres. Owner Steve Venables has created an organic oasis of goodness out of the rugged wildlife habitat that surrounds his property.
He grows myriad fruit including cherries, apples, pears, apricots, plums, peaches and grapes and has been organically certified since 1985, long before it became stylish to do so.
“When we first opened it was hard to get traction,” Venables says, because many consumers considered organic fruit an inferior product. But with people now more concerned about their health and a fear of pesticides, the pendulum has swung back in favour of organics.
Only 10% of the fruit grown on the estate is used for making wine while the rest is sold at farmers’ markets around the region.
“We feel we live in a garden paradise,” says Venables.
His wines are particularly unique and delicious, — from the Pearsuasion pear wine with its spicy fruit on the palate, to the Cherysh Cherry Rose, all ripe cherries and rhubarb, to the fabulous Caught Apricot Mistelle, which Venables calls the “nectar of the Goddesses” — Forbidden Fruit is a must stop while trekking about the valley.
Further down the road we are treated to an organic feast at the Rustic Roots Winery and Harkers Organics where eating is described as “farm to table TODAY.” In other words, if it wasn’t picked fresh that day, they don’t serve it.
The Harkers are a sixth-generation farming family with 30 acres of land where they grow 12 acres of ground crops including heirloom tomatoes, peppers, herbs etc., and 18 acres of tree fruits. The family also runs a brokerage for 15 other organic farms in the Similkameen where the collection of produce is sold to a variety of local, high-end restaurants, retail and wholesale outlets as well as their own farm market and Rustic Roots Winery.
“All our eggs aren’t in one basket,” Sara Harker tells us. “It’s important to be diverse so we can be sustainable.”
All the wines at Rustic Roots are fruit-based, no grapes are used at all, but what makes the winery unique is that all the fruit wines are made like grape wines, mostly dry, fresh with complex flavours and textures, as opposed to the fruity and sweet styles of a lot fruit wines.
“We wanted to change people’s minds about what fruit wine is,” says Harker.
The Rustic Roots Cherry 2013 tastes very much like Pinot Noir, with lovely cherry-raspberry flavours and a complexity I haven’t seen before in a fruit wine. The Rustic Roots Fameuse 2013 uses apples from a single, 100-year-old Fameuse tree on the property and blends in estate plums for a riot of flavours that leave you refreshed and satisfied.
Rustic Roots also makes a range of hard ciders from both estate-grown apples and pears that are simply some of the tastiest in the region.
Our last stop of the day took us to Clos du Soleil, a serious grape winery located just outside the town of Keremeos.
Clos de Soleil, a French term meaning an enclosed vineyard of the sun, refers to the typical rocks, soil and sun, which define the “special piece of land where we grow our grapes,” says winemaker and owner Michael Clark.
The enclosure is the mountain that forms a tall natural stone wall at the back of the vineyard almost surrounding the cobbled terroir which lends its unique flavours to the wines. You can see the gentle slope on the property as you climb to the top of the vineyard and look down at the winery, which was just being completed during our visit.
Perhaps most importantly, the winery’s name highlights the long days of sun which pour in on the Similkameen Bench, one of B.C.’s most unique and promising microclimates.
“It’s exciting to be a part of an emerging region,” says Clark as we sip his wines among the vineyard.
It’s a terroir that lends itself to Bordeaux-style reds and whites with a distinct, region-specific component of minerals, layered herbality and expressiveness.
The wines are outstanding — from the Capella, a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, with creamy apple and pear notes, to the Signature, a dead ringer for Bordeaux red, with complexity, balance and ripe flavours — and a testament to what the region has to offer now and for many years to come.
Note: See wine reviews from the Similkameen in Rick’s Picks.