The wine route less travelled

This B.C. valley boasts some of Canada’s biggest reds, best whites

Jennifer Cockrall-King
Photograph by Jeff Bassett

Over the trill of songbirds in their 2.2-hectare vineyard, John and Virginia Weber acknowledge that the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia’s southern interior—home of their Orofino winery, opened in 2005—might be the least well-known of B.C.’s appellations.
(Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan Valley and the Gulf Islands are the other four viticulturally distinct grape-growing regions in B.C.)

Only a 30-minute scenic drive over a mountain pass from the well-travelled Okanagan wine routes near Penticton, or a sporty, twisting 20-minute detour from Oliver or Osoyoos along the U.S. border, the Similkameen Valley is one-twentieth the Okanagan’s size and, until very recently, home to so few wineries it remained well below the radar. However, Orofino’s sophisticated Bordeaux-style reds and crisp, mineral-edged whites, as well as stellar offerings by neighbouring Herder Winery (opened in 2003), Seven Stones (2007), and Cerelia (2009), have the insider wine crowd buzzing—even if they’re not quite ready to throw the Similkameen name around at a dinner party.

“When we first arrived here in 2001,” recalls Virginia Weber, “there were three wineries. Now there are 10.” In other words, just enough to make a day of wine-tasting in a 30-km stretch that makes up the Similkameen wine route. Signage and other amenities are lacking, so a good GPS and an up-to-date guidebook are very helpful. Since 2009, the newly minted Similkameen Wineries Association has been working to put the Similkameen on the Canadian wine map through local events and at major wine shows.

“Similkameen wines aren’t new. We have 20-year-old vines here at Orofino,” smirks John Weber, when asked why his wines are so good for such an undiscovered region. Traditionally, it was more of a grape-growing region that supplied high-quality grapes to Okanagan wineries. The few estate wineries that did exist earlier didn’t win the valley many fans either. But in the last few years, a new breed of winemaker has moved in. They are (for the most part) young and ambitious, asserting themselves as a quality-obsessed appellation, not just an accessory to the Okanagan next door.

It’s no big secret why Big Vino and mass tourism haven’t taken over the Similkameen. It’s not for the faint of heart, both for wineries and visitors alike. Lacking the moderating “lake effect” of the 135-km-long lake that runs through the Okanagan, summer temperatures can reach above 40° C in July and August. Notorious afternoon winds sweep through the narrow valley daily. And thanks to the steep mountains and clear skies, the nights cool off dramatically. It’s a brutal landscape that really only appeals to the most intrepid of winemakers and winery visitors. It also is the key to being able to produce some of Canada’s biggest reds and best whites.

“Grapevines need the swings in temperature,” explains veteran B.C. wine writer John Schreiner. “Otherwise, the acidity can be burned out of the grape if it stays hot continuously. With the cooling off at night, you get the bright fruit flavours.” Schreiner’s books are essential companions for anyone interested in the province’s next big (little) winery. “The Similkameen also has lean soils,” he continues, “and it would be difficult to overproduce on these soils. With potatoes, that’s not a good thing, but with grapes, it is.” In other words, less fruit per vine yields more concentrated flavours and ultimately better, more complex wines.

As it emerges from the shadow of the Okanagan juggernaut, that is one of the biggest hurdles Similkameen wines now face. The productions are so small most good wines don’t make it out of the region. Almost none make it out of B.C. And with barely the critical mass of wineries to make it a destination in itself, it will have to rely on the draw of having the Okanagan next door for a while longer. It’s a complicated relationship, but not without precedent in the wine world. Transplanted Californian Lawrence Herder, the valley’s first cult-status winemaker, sums it up: “If the Okanagan is the ‘Napa of the North,’ then the Similkameen is its Sonoma.”