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I was recently invited by Dino of Grape Escapes to join him on one of his winery tours to the South Okanagan. I gladly accepted and joined in with two sisters visiting the Okanagan from the Lower Mainland and New Brunswick respectively. We started the tour at the BC Wine Info Centre in Penticton where he explained a bit about the wine industry in the Okanagan and then we ran through the steps of tasting with Aaron at the tasting bar with the Hawk’s Haven from Recline Ridge, a fruit-forward blend of Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. We piled into Dino’s comfortable van and headed off toward Oliver & Osoyoos.

Our first stop of the day was at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate, at the north end of Oliver. I began my tasting with the 2009 Gold Chardonnay, with its toasty oak nose and flavours of apple, pear, vanilla and spice. The 2010 Gold White Meritage is a blend of 82% Sauvignon Blanc and 13% Semillon. The Semillon was oaked for 3 months. There are slight grassy notes on the nose and the palate, along with citrus and passionfruit with a round mouthfeel. The 2008 SunRock Chardonnay is the last vintage of Chardonnay to come off the SunRock Vineyard. Due to the fact that the big reds do so well in SunRock, all the Chardonnay vines have now been grafted to Syrah. This Chardonnay was aged in 100% new French oak and has a buttered popcorn nose with a creamy full body and flavours of peach, pineapple and vanilla. Next I did a side-by-side comparison between the 2007 and 2009 vintages of the SunRock Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 has black cherry, cassis, spice and liquorice on both the nose and the palate, along with additional flavours of cedar, leather and cocoa. It has medium-plus acidity and medium-to-full tannins. The 2009 is still a bit tight, with cherry and cassis on the nose and cherry, cedar and cocoa on the palate. It has medium acidity and medium-to-full tannins.

Our second stop was all the way down through Osoyoos to Nk’Mip Cellars at Spirit Ridge Resort. Eileen greeted us at the tasting bar and set us up for tasting. The 2010 Riesling has petrol on the nose and flavours of lime and green apple. The 2010 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay has a buttered popcorn nose with pear and caramel on the palate. The 2009 Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir is earthy with flavours of cherry and spice. The 2008 Qwam Qwmt Syrah has blackberry, blueberry and pepper on the nose with flavours of blueberry, cedar, spice and pepper. The 2008 Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon has spicy jalapeño and cassis on the nose with cassis, berries, coffee and dark chocolate on the palate. We finished off with the 2011 Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine. The grapes that go into this Icewine come from 32-year-old vines. It has honey on the nose and baked apple, citrus and apricot on the palate – delicious! Dino had booked a table for us on the Patio at Nk’Mip for lunch. I had not yet eaten here so was quite looking forward to it and it did not disappoint! Dino and I shared the Tasting Platter, which consisted of locally-caught cold smoked & candied salmon, house made Nk’Mip wine jelly & Salt Spring Island Brie, organic quinoa salad, local tomato bruschetta, venison meatballs, toasted & candied nuts, local artisan sourdough. I chose a glass of the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay to complement it. What a fabulous lunch, paired with stellar views over the vineyards and Osoyoos Lake.

After lunch we headed to Rustico Farm & Cellars, where Bruce was busy with a full tasting saloon. While waiting for our turn we went upstairs to the Quail’s Roost Gallery, the home to the Oliver Sagebrushers, a local community art group featuring different media and artists from beginner to professional. When we came back down to the tasting bar, Bruce got me to pour for our group plus a few other customers in the tasting room, since I’m familiar with all the wines and the stories that go along with them. Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves! After the tasting, Bruce deputized the customers under the trellis of the picnic area, giving out badges and making them Deputy Wine Marshalls (I’ve already been deputized). On the way out Bruce invited us to pick a bunch of Zinfandel grapes from one of the vines at the bottom of the property – such sweet and tasty treat!

Our next stop along the Golden Mile was Road 13 Vineyards where we stepped inside the castle that is the tasting room. We started with the 2011 Honest John’s White, a blend of Riesling, Kerner, Bacchus, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay Musqué. It has an aromatic nose and flavours of lemon and honey. The 2011 Mitchell’s Vineyard Pinot Gris has honeysuckle, apple and citrus on the nose with some really nice minerality on the palate. The 2011 Home Vineyard Riesling has nice minerality on the nose, with some lime and great complexity on the palate. The 2010 Stemwinder is a blend of Chardonnay (that has been oaked) and Sauvignon Blanc. It has green apple, pineapple and some toasty notes on the nose, with smoky minerality on the palate. The 2011 Honest John’s Rosé is a blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Merlot. It has flavours of pepper, strawberries and red cherries. The 2010 Honest John’s Red is a medium-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Gamay. It has cedar, tobacco and dark fruit on the nose with smoky flavours. It has medium-plus acidity and medium tannins. The 2010 Rockpile is soon to be renamed ‘Seventyfour K’, referring to the total length of rows in Road 13’s vineyards, if placed end to end. This wine is a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a bit of Viognier. It has a smoky, meaty nose and palate with flavours of violets, blackberry, plum and mocha. It has medium acidity and medium-plus tannins. The 2009 Merlot Syrah is 76% Merlot, 23% Syrah and 1% Viognier. The wines were all vinified and barrel-aged separately then blended together. The final result has flavours of blackberry, cherry and pepper with medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins.

Our final stop of the day was Hester Creek Winery. Kristen ran us through our tastings and it was nice to catch up with Shauna and Larry while there. We ran through the entire portfolio, with the exception of The Judge, which wasn’t open for tasting, and the Trebbiano which is sold out. The 2011 Pinot Gris has apple, pear and citrus on the nose and lemon and pear on the palate with nice acidity and a round mouthfeel. The 2011 Pinot Blanc has melon and green apple on the nose, and green apple, citrus and melon on the palate with crisp acidity. The 2011 Character White is a blend of Pinot Gris, Trebbiano, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc with flavours of melon and tropical fruit and soft-to-medium acidity. The 2011 Selected Barrels Merlot has a meaty, smoky nose along with cherry, and flavours of cherries, chocolate, smoke and pepper with medium acidity and tannins. The 2011 Selected Barrels Cabernet Merlot is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot with cassis and plum on the nose and palate and a mocha finish. It has soft tannins and medium acidity. The 2011 Character Red is a blend of Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot. It has flavours of cherry, plum, coffee and pepper. The 2009 Reserve Merlot has a smoky nose with cherry, blackberry and mulberry on both the nose and palate, with additional flavours of smoke, leather, mocha, plum and toffee. The 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc has smoky cedar on the nose (reminded me of fond memories of saunas in Finland!) along with flavours of raspberry, blackberry, plum and pepper. We finished with the 2011 Late Harvest Pinot Blanc. It is rich and decadent with honey and baked pears on the nose and honey, pear, apricot and citrus on the palate.

On the ride back to Penticton we pulled out some of the snacks that Dino always has packed for his guests: assorted cheese, crackers, grapes and some tasty dark chocolate! I can highly recommend Grape Escapes to anyone visiting the valley, or for locals who would like a designated driver for wine touring. Having grown up in Penticton Dino is full of interesting information on the history of the Okanagan. I definitely learned a few things on the tour!