John Schreiner: The Similkameen: a valley worth discovering

2015 Jul 8th

The Similkameen: a wine valley worth discovering

Jean-Martin Bouchard, the superb winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards in the Okanagan, has a secret weapon: grapes from a vineyard in the Similkameen Valley called Blind Creek.

“I have never seen any fruit like that,” says Bouchard, who has begun to build Road 13’s top red blend around Similkameen grapes. And some of the varieties will likely be released individually. “For sure, we are on our way to creating something very special with Petit Verdot,” he says. “It is 100 per cent from Blind Creek. Since 2011, it has been the strongest wine we have in the cellar every year.”

Road 13 is just one of many wineries supplementing their Okanagan grapes with Similkameen fruit. The vineyard area in the Similkameen Valley has tripled in the last eight years and now totals 266 hectares. The rocky mineral-laden, sun-bathed slopes produce the vivid flavours that make the wines so memorable. There have been vineyards here at least since 1976 when the Similkameen’s oldest winery, St. Laszlo, planted its vineyard at Keremeos. The winery itself opened 31 years ago and continues to welcome visitors with rustic wines in a rustic wine shop.

Today, however, it is one of 18 wineries in the area, most of them exceedingly smart. Seven Stones Winery hosts wine dinners in an underground barrel cellar built two years ago. Clos du Soleil Winery has a grand winery and tasting room under construction. Orofino Vineyards, 10 years old this year, has a unique winery and tasting room made of straw bales with solar panels for power.

Orofino’s green ethic is a signature of the Similkameen. The dry climate is so disease-free that half of the farms in the valley are organic and the rest are nearly so. The two fruit wineries, Rustic Roots and Forbidden Fruit, are pioneer organic growers. If you have never considered fruit wine, you might well be converted by Fameuse, the sparkling wine from Rustic Roots, or Pearsuasion, the oak-aged pear wine from Forbidden Fruit.

The early wine tourists who stopped in the Similkameen usually arrived with their own recreational vehicles. There are good camping spots in the valley, but other accommodation was basic at best. Recently, two mini-resorts have opened: Tree To Me, with five suites, and VineGlass Renewal Resort, a winery with three suites. Forbidden Fruit has a house for rent and Klippers Family Farm has three new suites on its organic farm. As well, Klippers offers workshops in canning fruits and vegetables.

You can fill your trunk with wine without ever driving on to the Okanagan. Here is what would be in my stash. Viognier from Hugging Tree Winery, which opened last year. From Orofino, Scout Vineyard Riesling and Passion Pit Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (the vineyard was formerly a gravel pit popular as a teen hangout). From Seven Stones, Row 128 Merlot and Pinot Noir rosé. From EauVivre, Cabernet Franc and a red named Buddafull whose quality rises above the pun. From Corcelletes, which has moved to the former Herder Winery, a fine red called Menhir and a white called TriVium. From Clos du Soleil, an elegant Bordeaux blend called Célestiale. From Robin Ridge, one of B.C.’s best Gamay wines. And from Vanessa Vineyards, which may open a wine shop this summer, a powerful Syrah and Meritage red packed with flavour. And that is just a start.

John Schreiner is author of John Schreiner’sOkanagan Wine Tour Guide and other bookson wine.