The grape outdoors

By Francis Pearce, Daily Mail

Last updated at 10:19 25 June 2003


Long, hot summers and mild winters have helped make the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia the garden of Canada, and its orchards have long been a draw for tourists. But now the valley's vineyards and wineries are also proving to be a surprise attraction.

I knew that farmers had grown fruit there since the turn of the last century, and the chance of eating apples and peaches straight from the tree appealed.

But the only Canadian wine I could recall was Cracklin' Rosie, the subject of Neil Diamond's song about desperate solo drinking on a native reservation.

So it was, with a mixture of curiosity and misgiving, that I took Highway 97, the wine trail that runs north up the Okanagan Valley for 140 miles from the U.S. border to the mountain lakes. The first revelation was that the road starts at the edge of Canada's only desert, the Sonoran. It receives about 12 inches of rain a year and summer temperatures can reach 44C (111F).

The road took me through a string of small communities bordered by rolling grassland, orchards and lakes, the largest of which was Okanagan, a 90-mile stretch of water dotted with clusters of dinghies, small fishing boats and moored floatplanes.

There were sunbathers on the lake's sandy beaches, and on the fringes of one small town, a baseball game had drawn a crowd who picnicked from car boots as they watched.

At the mid-point of the trail is Kelowna, the valley's largest city with a population of 100,000, 30 vineyards and 11 wineries.

I began my tour with a visit to the St Hubertus Estate, a small, family-run organic vineyard and winery south of the city.

As the proprietor, Andy Gebert, showed me round the vines, we disturbed a deer and it crashed off into the surrounding woodland.

It was so peaceful as we sampled some wines and looked out over the lake, but some larger wineries have up to 25,000 visitors a year.

Wine tours have become very popular in the past few years, Gebert explained, mainly because Okanagan Valley wine has improved so much.

After a shaky start, in little more than a decade Okanagan Valley wines have begun to rival those of other New World producers, such as New Zealand, and some are considered world class.

On the opposite side of the lake to St Hubertus, Mission Hill farms 1,000 acres of grapes, and is one the few Canadian estates whose wines find their way on to the shelves of British wine merchants.

The winery was bought in the Eighties and rebuilt six years ago to create a visitor attraction.

With a bell tower and a loggia, the result could easily have been a tacky, mock-renaissance theme park, but it has more of the relaxed air of a college during the summer break, with lawns leading to a terrace restaurant overlooking the vineyards and lake.

My unhurried meal ended with a chocolate dessert accompanied by a glass of Ice Wine. A speciality of the North Okanagan, it uses late harvest grapes picked, often at night, when they are frozen.

Simpler, more traditional cooking is offered at Davison Orchards, a 50-acre farm outside Vernon run for 70 years by the same family.

The Davisons' original wooden cabin is now a farm shop that sells 50 types of home-made jam and chutney, while a converted barn houses the bakery and restaurant.

Visitors can roam the orchards, picking and eating fruit as they go. Each variety is at its best for only two weeks, so the farm grows 20 types of apple to ensure there is always at least one at its peak.

They include the enormous, red Fuji, which is so cherished in Japan that a single apple costs £20 - which makes the licensed scrumping all the more enjoyable.

Eating and drinking have become a big part of valley tours. There are wine festivals from May to October in the Okanagan, and farmers' markets in towns along the wine route each weekend.

I chose a self-drive holiday, but farm and winery tours are on the itineraries of a growing number of package tours.

Given the strict drink-drive laws in Canada, and the fact that the food and the wine are so much better than I had expected, I might be more inclined to let someone else do the driving next time.

Travelfacts 1stclass Holidays (0161 877 0432; ( has a 15-day fly-drive touring holiday in British Columbia from £929 per person from June to September. Scheduled economy flight with Air Canada to Vancouver costs from £721 per person.

Sorry we are not currently accepting comments on this article.