It starts a few clicks past Hedley, going east, that point where Highway 3 stops being a tilt-a-whirl of hairpin turns and Mad Max passing lanes, and becomes a lithe, meditative ribbon of road. The soft lifts and gentle falls of the rounded inclines and declines seem to meet your equilibrium instead of scrambling it (see: Anarchist Mountain), it’s more like gliding than driving. It’s very hard not to speed here, and policemen know this. The river has been beside us the whole time but for me, this is where the Similkameen Valley begins.
It begins for wine around here too, although most vineyards lie further east. The valley widens to fit famers fields and orchards – the monoculture of other regions doesn’t exist in this quilt of crops – and the sun has more to work with. It gets hella hot here in summer, but nighttime brings kind winds and the valley – without a moderating body like, say, a big lake – cools down dramatically. Grapes love this. Big diurnal swings keep vital acidity and freshness, some varieties would cook here if it didn’t happen. Was that a cop car I just sped by? Nope, all good.
The fruit stands west of Keremeos have made the local sign-maker wealthy, I reckon. They all clearly have the best fruit. I’ll hit them on the way back, I’ll pick the one that says “Ice Cream” the biggest. I have learned not to speed here. Through the town, up the bench, eastwards.
The hills get closer on the north side, I can see those alluvial fans, the triangles of sand, gravel, sediment and silt that point up the slopes. They’re so raw. They look like oopsies but they’ve been here longer than people have, built by water and time. Glaciers had a great party here back in the day, they blasted through the valley like The Who through a Holiday Inn, but they brought calcium and unique soils, the wines here are great because of them.
Between Keremeos and Cawston the air thickens and so do the vineyards. Looking south explains the cluster: there’s a gap in the south ridge of mountains as the river enters the US, so vineyards climbing up the north side get around 1hr more sun per day than the Okanagan does in autumn (when it counts). That may not sound like a big deal if you’re not a grape: the Similkameen can consistently ripen late ripening varieties better that anywhere else in BC – if you’ve had one of those BC Cabernet Sauvignons that smelled like a Greek Salad, it didn’t come from here.
But what does come from here? Writ large, organic grapes: this is the "Organic Farming Capital of Canada" (40% of all vineyards are certified). Ripe red grapes, for sure, although more elegant whites can grow nicely here. Is there one unifying identifier that screams “Similkameen”? Not yet, but no BC region has that yet, it takes longer to emerge. There are really good wines here, though, undeniably so. Shall we?
First is Clos du Soleil. There’s no actual Clos (a stone fence/enclosure), it’s just a couple of barns, but I’m undeterred because a) aesthetics have zero bearing on quality, and b) they’re, like, really good barns. A handsome White Bordeaux-style wine called Capella 2021 opens, three parts Sauvignon Blanc, one part Semillon. Some Semillon is from Oliver but this is mostly Keremeos. Quite ripe Sauv Blanc for BC, a trace of grass on the nose and the citrus is more grapefruit than lemon. Faint cheese rind and banana Nerds. Layered and substantial. The Semillon shows as beeswax on the nose and grip on the finish, the grapes are getting along famously. This has gas in the tank to age a decade, but life is short and Capella is fab.
The Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve 2013 is an unexpected treat, most top-end library releases cost way more than this, and this 2013 has both feet planted firmly in The Zone. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with the usual allies rounding off the difference. A great example of what this valley can do with that grape. Cassis and black pepper, gravel and lavender. Age has softened the frame but not the nose. Brilliant.
Cabernet Franc gets its chance to drive the bus in the 2016 Meritage from Howard Soon’s Vanessa Vineyards. Howard won the Order Of Canada for his innovative work at Sandhill, and he’s not coasting here. Rocks are employed between the vines to catch heat, radiating it to the vines during the cold night, just like in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A black pepper burst on the nose gives way to red fruits. The blend of French and American oak brings a cup of coffee to the Plum Party, with the smaller portions of Cab Sauv and Merlot contributing black and red currants.
Orofino is always an undervalued treat, and the entry Red Bridge Red, basically a Meritage with bits of Syrah and savage Zinfandel, defines their vibe perfectly. John and Virginia Webber, both imports from Saskatchewan, have been quietly brewing beauty in small batches for two decades; I’m pretty sure that their Petit Verdot was the wine that made me Google Similkameen all those years ago. Red Bridge shows cherry, sage, and mocha. It wants us to be happy.
The Mt. Boucherie winery is across the lake from Kelowna (on Mt. Boucherie, as it turns out) but they have been busy down here for a while, bottling under their own label as well as Rust Wine Co. and Original Vines. These folks are some of the most experimentally ambitious vintners I have come across, testing the perimeter fence like raptors, not afraid to break weird. Witness these 3 different harvests from Cawston’s Lazy River Vineyard:
The Mt. Boucherie Blaufrankish 2021 is Encino Man, plucking an ancient Austrian grape from a much different world and dropping it into our modern market. Blaufrankish is what happens when Syrah and Pinot Noir use a Ouija board, and Boucherie doesn’t round off the freaky bits: white pepper, crushed raw blueberries with Indian spice and forest floor. Medium bodied and characterful, a masterful food wine that gives many Austrian iterations a good arm wrestle.
When I picture the Rust Wine Co., it’s always tinged with sepia because the oxidative, Old-School-New-World Vibe throws back to the smooth styles of Retro-California. The Merlot 2019 knows you’ve had a long day. We don’t have to talk about work, let’s just dance. French, American and Hungarian oak temper the chalky minerality, and chocolate blackberries tossed in Port lead the nose. Remember Lowney’s cherry blossoms? So does Rust. Nutmeg, cinnamon and Turkish coffee haunt the (very) spicy finish.
The Original Vines Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 comes from the schist-iest granite soils on Lazy River. This site can fully ripen Cab, no small feat in our cold climate, since the grape takes a month longer to get to the sweet spot. Fresh without turning green. Surprisingly spicy. Aged in Barriques, this is a densely structured Cabernet Sauvignon, acting in a very Cab-like manner (not a given, in our province), and evokes the build and body of Red Mountain to the South. Winery advises cellaring but this is charming right now.
Heading back towards Keremeos on the Upper Bench Road, the Corcelettes Estate beckons, particularly their rich, balanced take on Cabernet Franc. Like its cousin, Franc can break out in dandelions if you can’t ripen it properly, but this 2020 Estate Franc is suave potion indeed. The Pleasure Button is pushed as frequently as the Flap button in Joust. Black Pepper and unsweetened chocolate open, with layers of red currant and red Nibs following through to the landing. Love the shape of this. Powerful and intense while remaining light on its feet.
Now for the fruit stands.
Join us on Sat Feb 25 from 2-6pm to sample some of these delectable delights from BC's Similkameen Valley.
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