Travel

Cloud wine: heli-touring the vineyards of the South Okanagan

A couple’s guide to taking in the wine, food and unique desert scenery of Osoyoos

Travelling by helicopter offers unbeatable views of the Okanagan Valley's vineyards and waterways.
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When picturing British Columbia, a desert isn’t what comes to mind. Yet here I was in the South Okanagan town of Osoyoos, B.C., and here the desert was —  tumbleweeds, rattlesnakes and all. Technically a semi-arid shrubland, the Okanagan Desert is a uniquely stunning Canadian landscape. I mention something to this effect to the helicopter pilot as I take my seat beside him, the blades already spinning. “If you think it looks good from down here,” he says, pointing skywards, “wait until we get up there.”

My girlfriend Tamika and I had woken up in Spirit Ridge Resort on the shores of Osoyoos Lake to a crisp but sunny April day — and were wowed by gently sloping vineyards leading to glittering water below, the Cascade Mountains’ Okanagan Range towering behind us. Spring had arrived late this year, causing the sagebrush-lined mountains to remain snowcapped, a break from the “Wild West” feel of the place. Any brain fog left over from the previous evening’s wine tasting was quickly washed away by the cool air.

Neither of us knew much about wine; we were here for a relaxing-yet-adventurous break from city life. Had we come to the right place, or were we going to end up looking uncultured? My editor’s sage advice rang in my ears: “after taking your first sip, look thoughtful for a moment, then declare ‘that’s a saucy little wine!’”

If we were going to look uncultured, we’d at least have a good time doing it.

Spirit Ridge is an oasis of wellness. Every room is a suite, the views are miraculous and guests are well served with swimming pools (one kid-friendly, one kid-free), hot tubs, a fitness centre,  restaurant and even a golf course. But what makes it truly special is the winery next door, to whose outstanding hospitality the previous night that we owed our fuzzy heads.

Nk’Mip Cellars is the first Indigenous owned and operated winery in North America, and their culture is warmly expressed in everything they do. The name Nk’Mip means “bottomland” in nsyilxcən — due to the winery’s location at the southern end of the Osoyoos reservation — and the Osoyoos Indian Band are majority owners of the winery. Their ancestors, the Syilx of the Okanagan Nation, have lived in the Okanagan valley for thousands of years. 

We’d been treated to a tour of the winery by estate winemaker Justin Hall, a member of the Osoyoos band who first joined Nk’Mip Cellars straight out of high school. Charismatic and energetic, Hall talks us through the history of the winery. Opened in 2002, the winery was the culmination of a 30-year dream for the band, who had entered the grape-growing business in the late 60s. He stresses the ownership they take — “everything here is made by us as a team, we design the grapes, grow them and everything is done on native soil” — and how much of a two-way process winemaking has been. “I’ve helped to grow the winery, but the winery has helped me grow into a man,” says Hall.

Burrata with sea asparagus, fiddleheads and nettle pesto.
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Dark chocolate mousse with haskap berry preserve and black cherry caviar.
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Syilx culture permeates the whole of Spirit Ridge, with the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre the best place to go to get a deeper education on their lands, legends and people. Walk the sagebrush-lined trails leading through the desert to a traditional village, sweat lodge and pit house. 

Our tour of the winery comes to an end in the dimly-lit barrel-filled wine cellar deep in the heart of Nk’Mip. A candle-lit table was set for our group. What would have been the perfect setting for a romantic meal for two became a festive one, as our group ate, drank and laughed the evening away. Dishes inspired by the Indigenous roots of the resort’s restaurant, The Bear, The Fish, The Root & The Berry, came flocking to the table. Burrata with sea asparagus, fiddleheads and nettle pesto; sablefish with pickled mushroom caps and ponzu pearls; wild boar with a gochujang glaze, pickled apples and parsnip puree; a dark chocolate mousse with haskap berry preserve and black cherry caviar — all paired with Nk’Mip wines by Hall. A special aged ice wine, almost red with age, followed dessert — something we’d never tried despite living in Quebec. 

The Okanagan river winds through its valley, framed by snow-capped mountains.
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The views from above are panoramic, tilting as the helicopter arcs its way north over Osoyoos Lake. We’re a grape’s throw from the US border, as we spy Washington State to the south. This is the first time in a helicopter for both of us and the ride is surprisingly smooth. I catch Tamika’s eye and grins spread across our faces.

Osoyoos comes from the word sẁiẁs, meaning “narrowing of the waters” or “place where two lakes meet” in nsyilxcən, the local Okanagan language. From this vantage point, you begin to understand why. As we rise higher we glimpse more and more bodies of water between the snow-capped mountains, a juxtaposition to the arid shrubland.

Starting all the way up in Armstrong, North Okanagan, the lake system is fed by meltwater from the eastern mountain snow packs, which then flows down through a series of lakes connected by the Okanagan River — Kalamalka, Okanagan, Skaha and Vaseux — before reaching Osoyoos Lake. The Okanagan River snakes down into Washington State before feeding the Columbia River. After 2,000 kilometres, the water finally reaches the Pacific Ocean.

This is a journey 10,000 years in the making, started when glaciers rolled through the area. Our pilot points out two opposing rock faces known as nʕaylintn (McIntyre Bluff), which all those millenia ago held up those frozen rivers of ice. As the climate warmed up, the giant mountains of ice broke, unleashing those founding torrents of water to the south.

As the last glaciers retreated, they left behind massive deposits of sand, gravel, sediment and ephemeral creeks, creating the conditions for the Okanagan valley’s vineyards to thrive. The creeks helped inspire the name of Phantom Creek Estates, another stop on our tour.

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Opened in 2020, Phantom Creek Estates is a relative newcomer to the South Okanagan wine scene, but it’s already a heavy hitter. Their namesake vineyard has produced WineAlign’s Best Red Wine in Canada on three occasions. Perched atop Black Sage Bench on the eastern flank of the valley, a few kilometres north of Osoyoos Lake, this winery is more than just a winery. It’s an outstanding venue of modern architecture, elegant events and sleek style. As we approach, we pass under two marble-carved sculptures of winged beings, bowing as if to welcome us. Between them, sun-bathed mountains sit majestically in the background. 

From air to earth, we now continue our trajectory, heading underground. We move through the various rooms involved in the winemaking process, guided by director of winemaking Mark Beringer. “We take care in every step of a grapes tumbling, leaping journey from berry to wine,” says Beringer. Everything is so high tech, top of the line, the luxurious aesthetic maintained throughout. Apparently much of the construction was done with Egyptian limestone, meaning the odd seabed fossil can be spotted in the walls. 

The two angels of the Terra Natura sculpture flank the entrance to the Phantom Creek Estates. The winery cost $100-million to construct.
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The chandelier sitting at the centre of Phantom Creek's Founder's Cellar is composed of hundreds of individually-blown pieces of glass.
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Many of the impressive rooms used in the winemaking process at Phantom Creek double as event spaces.
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The cellar is dimly lit, and a sweet grape scent hangs in the air. The humidity is kept high resulting in a slight haze, pierced by beams of sunlight from the windows far overhead. Oak barrels line the walls, rich red rings around the exterior of each hinting at the liquid within. “There were no corners cut,” says Beringer. “It’s not about the next five years, it’s about the next 100.”

Tamika and I are almost constantly in awe. If there were ever a winemaking Bond Villain, this would be his lair. We venture deeper underground reaching what must be the beating heart of the winery. An imposing circular cavern, rings upon rings of Phantom Creek barrels spiral around a moodily-lit glass-walled tasting room. And at the centre of everything, hanging above a wine bottle-laden round table, a fiery, bursting nest of gold — a chandelier composed of hundreds of pieces of blown glass. “Welcome to The Founder’s Cellar,” says Beringer grandly. 

We’re treated to a very special wine tasting under the glow of the glass sun: their ever-popular 2017 pinot gris, the first-ever tasting of their 2021 rosé, a merlot from Phantom Creek’s Kobau vineyard on the Golden Mile Bench, a chardonnay — so good I declare “I love chardonnay now!” — and more. Founder’s Cellar experiences are available to book upon request.

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Little Engine Wines offers charcuterie-paired wine tasting and has become a popular wedding venue.
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Lunch at Poplar Grove's restaurant is filled with refined nostalgia. Pairs well with a refreshing chardonnay and unbeatable views.
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Painted Rock's winemaker fetches us a glass of an experimental petit verdot. To call this wine "full bodied" would be an understatement.
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Before we know it, we’re getting back in the helicopter, rising up above the endless rows of vines. Where to next? By my count there are around 70 wineries in the South Okanagan. And we have a helicopter; we could go anywhere. The artisanal Checkmate? The perfectly placed lakeside Painted Rock? How about lunch at Poplar Grove’s exquisite restaurant? Or a wine-paired charcuterie board at quaint Little Engine Wines

I’m getting a sense of how much this place has to offer. It’s an eclectic group, with winemakers from all over the world working in competition and yet together to put B.C. wines on the map. We’ll do as many as we can during our trip, but for now it’s Culmina Family Estate Winery.

Located at the foot of Mount Kobau, only a short drive from Phantom Creek, Culmina’s gently sloping vineyards have a shot at the best view in the Okanagan — though competition is fierce. In contrast to Phantom Creek, Culmina’s charm is in its warm, rustic simplicity. The winery is comparatively small, and their French winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon’s demeanor is laid back and friendly. Yet his passion for wine is obvious, and his approach to viticulture is thoroughly organic. “We spray our vines with a nice tea of harvested ferns to fight off the grasshoppers,” Enixon says with a grin.

Culmina's winemaker, Jean-Marc Enixon.
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Enixon comes from a wine-loving family of quarriers and foresters from the small French village of Manot. That passion was distilled into him, and after graduating from the prestigious Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture de Purpan in Toulouse, he gained winemaking experience from all over the world, including France, California and China. Yet he and his young family found their home in the Okanagan, and he has only the highest praise.

“This valley has so much variety,” says Enixon. “I grew four varieties of grapes in France. Here, I grow 18. That’s what’s nice: in this country you have one wine for each person.” 

He’s also blunt about what it takes to be a winemaker. “You have to be crazy,” he laughs. “And passionate.”

It’s a mad scientist approach that Enixon applies to all areas of his life. As much as he loves his new home, there was one thing sorely lacking.

“Saucisson!” he shouts. “There was none here. So I had to start making it myself.” A trip down to the wine cellar confirms this. There’s saucisson drying among the barrels. “Humidity controlled,” says Enixon, knowingly. 

Stunning Okanagan scenery lure photographer Tamika Miyashita (left) and Can Geo assistant editor Thomas Lundy out from behind the camera.
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Is there a better way to experience the Okanagan than by helicopter?
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With each winery visited, we leave with a little more knowledge about wine than before — as well as a bottle or two. While I continue to exalt my new hero, B.C. chardonnay, Tamika is gaining a new love of syrah — a grape more than one winemaker we met declared the future of the Okanagan. We learn about the petit verdot variety of grape, usually used in very small percentages in blends, such as a Bordeaux, due to its heavy tannin, colour and floral aromas. Yet some winemakers in the Okanagan are experimenting with high percentages, and we were even given a taste of a 100 per cent petit verdot wine. A saucy little wine indeed.

The helicopter drops us off back at Phantom Creek after a full couple days of wine tasting and flying — I calculate that we’ve tasted more than 50 wines in total. There’s a dinner going on, with the winemakers of most of the wineries we visited in attendance. We bag ourselves an invite and sit down for yet more wonderful food and drink. As I look at the winemakers and sommeliers around me hailing from all over the world — France, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, U.S.A and more — I’m reminded of Enixon’s belief that there is a wine for everyone here. 

We were hoping to find a travel destination rooted in wine, but that went beyond wine. Between the stunning landscapes, welcoming people and exciting mode of transportation, this unexpected desert tucked away in a wee corner of British Columbia had gone beyond our expectations. We’d feared our amateurish knowledge of wine would leave us looking unsophisticated, and now found ourselves surrounded by new friends. We clink our glasses, toasting Osoyoos.

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