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A tasting tour to Canada’s wine capital

Nearly four dozen vineyards producing boutique wines and serving farm-to-table food are driving the growth of Oliver in British Colombia

Oliver’s weather allows for multiple grape varietals. Photo: Alamy
Oliver’s weather allows for multiple grape varietals. Photo: Alamy

Lush valleys cradle marshmallow clouds. Mountains march across the horizon like a stone army on the move, their every heave and thrust etched against a vivid blue sky. Rolling hills, dotted with orchards and vineyards, glisten in fifty shades of green. The air is so sweet I can almost taste it.

I am in Oliver, the “wine capital" of Canada, a town that nestles in the scenic dry desert ecozone and mirror lakes of Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Wedged between the Columbia Mountains, the valley straddles 250km. As the hottest and driest stretch in Canada, its terroir is rich with glacial deposits formed during the Ice Age, perfect for producing an array of grape varietals—from sun-ripened reds to vibrant whites.

And I am here to sniff, swirl and sip my way through a slew of wineries. Driving along the Okanagan Valley on Highway 97, I am surrounded by terraced vineyards and cherry, peach, apple and prune trees on both sides. Signs pointing out wineries pop up occasionally. About 40-odd wineries producing fine tipples, along with fantastic farm-to-plate food, are driving business in the Okanagan Valley wine region, according to my driver-cum-local guide Ryan Silverthorn.

Some of the wines they produce rank among the world’s best, he tells me. “From family-run boutique vineyards to world-class operations, the Okanagan Valley wines are rich in tradition and character," says Silverthorn, a wine lover himself.

Before it became known as Canada’s wine capital, Oliver was the “home of the cantaloupe". In 1919, John Oliver, then premier of British Columbia, had an irrigation canal built. The availability of water turned the arid town into a landscape lush with rotund cantaloupes, grain crops and fruit trees. Grape cultivation followed soon after.

The Oliver community, as expected in a town of about 5,000, is closely knit. Everybody knows everybody. Sunday brunches, grape-stomping competitions and wine festivals act as great social lubricators.

Interestingly, some farming families from India have also developed strong roots in Oliver. Migrating (mostly from Punjab) during the 1970s and 1980s, they began as farm labourers, plucking fruit and making wine. Now some of them own and run award-winning estate wineries.

Punjab-born siblings Sukhi and Balwinder Dhaliwal are among them. After cultivating grapes for other vintners, they leveraged their experience to launch their family label, Kismet Estate Winery, in 2013.

The winery produces 6,000 cases annually. On the road, a gargantuan sign in the shape of a red wine bottle points to it. The cellar is lined with hundreds of bottles, many of them award-winners with medals around their necks. Pouring out their best-seller Safed, a citrusy white wine blend, for me, tasting room manager Curtis Boomhower informs me the name comes from the word white in Hindi. “Our wines are deeply reflective of the terroir of South Okanagan; they are earthy and full-bodied."

As I amble around the capacious tasting room, I notice racks and tables displaying wine-related knick-knacks—wine corks transformed into keychains and bottle openers.

A farm worker loading Cabernet Franc grapes. Photo: iStock
A farm worker loading Cabernet Franc grapes. Photo: iStock

“We mostly sell grapes to winemakers in the area, but retain about 10% of the fruit for our own production," Boomhower says. “We have also added a four-room guesthouse as well as Masala Bistro, an Indian cuisine restaurant, where we do wine pairings."

To counter competition, the prices are modest. My vineyard tour, which included tasting seven wines, costs all of Canadian $10 (around 540).

A kilometre further down the road, we are in the Naramata Bench, a subregion of the Okanagan Valley wine region. Here, I am booked for a sampling at Ruby Blues Winery helmed by the effervescent Ruby Mahrer, 67. Vibrant paintings, kitschy bric-à-brac and a section devoted to funky shoes make this winery as unorthodox as its owner.

The shoes—from stilettos to boots to pumps—have been designed by Mahrer. “The shoes have become the winery’s insignia and are used in our wine line-up, including two blends, the white, and the red stiletto called Strawberry Heels Forever," says the winegrower. “We are probably the only winery in the country selling footwear. We also feature the work of many artists, such as Jennifer Garant, who designed the labels for our winery."

Migrating from Switzerland to Canada in 2000, Mahrer and her husband Beat bought an apple orchard. But soon their passion for wine led them to clear out the fruit trees and plant grapes instead. “We ordered in some plants from France and started to grow a vineyard," Mahrer says as we amble around her 8-acre winery overlooking the hills, grape twigs crunching underfoot. Neither she nor her husband have a background in wine production, she adds. “We learnt by trial and error, but later also hired a winemaker."

The couple decided to name the winery after The Rolling Stones song Ruby Tuesday, “which is about a free-spirited young woman following her dream".

The boutique winery produces about 4,000 cases per year, growing all its grapes on site. About 95% of the wine is sold at the winery. What are their charges for the tasting? I ask. “A smile," says Mahrer. “We don’t charge for the tasting; only if you buy!"

The last stop on my wine trail is Elephant Island Winery, another boutique operation in Naramata Bench. Founded by Miranda and Del Halladay in 1999, it is renowned for its individualistic wines. As I enter the cavernous winery, Miranda, 45, is wrapping up a wine-tasting session.

“My husband and I share a passion for fine alcohol and good company," Miranda says with a smile. “This triggered our interest in winemaking and wine exploration," she adds, pouring a white, red and dessert wine for me to taste.

In truth, I am impatient to taste the fruit wines Elephant Island is famous for. So I switch to the Crab Apple Wine, which, Miranda explains, possesses a high sugar content. Fresh, clean and fun, its taste is sunshine on my palate. As a bonus, the fruit’s skin gives the wine an intense neon pink hue, making it eminently Instagrammable.

A tasting at a vineyard in Oliver. Photo: Alamy
A tasting at a vineyard in Oliver. Photo: Alamy

Miranda’s foray into fruit wine was guided by her grandfather, Paul, whose recreational pursuit of fruit winemaking and distilling left her with a trove of notes and recipes. “My granddad believed that there was a market for well-crafted fruit wines which local winemakers weren’t exploring."

The vintner also enrolled for a wine course at Institut D’Oenologie de l’Universite in Bordeaux, France, to burnish her professional credentials. Today, Elephant Island is successfully tapping a segment that is looking to shake things up a little with unconventional wines. “Through our portfolio, we want to showcase the reverence and techniques that we apply to all of our winemaking and fruit-growing at Elephant Island. Thankfully, people appreciate our creative repertoire," adds Miranda.

As the late evening sky turns lavender, we go out to explore the vineyards that are silhouetted picturesquely against the hills. Miranda urges me to try their best-seller, the blackberry wine. It tastes of blackberries, cinnamon-brushed strawberries, and fresh off-the-tree Italian plums grown right here, all wrapped up in a tangy clean liquor. I quaff the glass in one go, a toast to the friendliness of the people of Oliver, and the flavours of the produce of this land.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalistwho writes on food, travel and culture.

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