The Okanagan is the place to dip into the vast and diverse world of BC wines. Having an ever-changing terroir, as you pass through the wine regions of Lake Country and Kelowna into Peachland, Summerland, Penticton, the Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench and the Okanagan Falls, tree-lined views in the north change. Travelling southbound, the dramatic peaks of the Rockies become stunning rolling mountains. Further south through Oliver, the Golden Mile Bench, and Osoyoos, you have entered a different winemaking world that is arid and warm. Simply throughout a 2.5-hour drive.
Although a part of the Okanagan, Kelowna and Osoyoos present very different expressions of the wines of BC. In contrast, the entire region sits right below the 50th parallel, the same lateral area as Champagne. These two ends of it are worlds away in the glass. Quails’ Gate Winery in Kelowna and Nk’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos embody this. Even though different, the pasts and presents of each sum up the winemaking landscape of the Okanagan.
Through The Lens of Two Wineries
The 1960s was a significant decade for Quails’ Gate and Nk’Mip (pronounced Ink-a-meep). Quails’ Gate began planting its first vineyards in 1961, and Nk’Mip Vineyards was established seven years later in 1968. Yet the story in the north and the south went further back than these juvenile vineyard moments.
A love affair with the land in Kelowna was kicked off in 1908. Still family-owned to this day, Quails’ Gate was originally a successful nursery business started by Richard Stewart Sr. His son Dick Stewart continued in his father’s footsteps and expanded on them. Buying additional farming land in 1956 on the west side of the Okanagan Lake for fruit farming. Planting grapes along the way, Dick was the family member that first planted the famed Chasselas vines the vineyard is still well known for. The winery was officially started in 1989 by his eldest son, Ben, and named after the more ubiquitous wild bird in the Okanagan.
Centered around the land of a nation, in the southern reaches of the Okanagan, Nk’Mip Cellars belongs to the Osoyoos Indian Band. The centuries-old home of the Band is the Sonoran Desert landscape. However, before 1877, it stretched further north to Vernon, BC. The first vineyards were established when Andrew Peller teamed up with the Osoyoos Band. Fledgling vineyards were started north of Oliver, but through a series of less-than-successful decisions on Peller’s part and the BC government, large tracts of land were developed for a vineyard. Not a complete success at first, it was in 1984, when Clarence Louise became Chief, that the Nk’Mip Vineyards turned the story in the Band’s favour. 2002, Nk’Mip Cellars opened its doors with a name that translates as Bottomland in English for its place at the southern end of the Osoyoos Reservation.
Nk’Mip and Quails’ Gate are wineries a part of the first wave of viticulture in the Okanagan. With histories, although very different, that match up in telling the story of wine in the region. Visiting the wineries today, Quails’ Gate has a cottage-core vibe with vineyards that back onto the Okanagan Lake. Keeping the winery in the family, Tony Stewart is at the helm today with viticulturist Ed Tonner. The focus of their wines is cool climate grapes; each production has a sense of levity, exuberance and vitality in the glass. Nk’Mip Cellars sits among the rolling hills of the south Okanagan, a short drive from Osoyoos Lake. The winery fits into the landscape and has a feel that is one with the world around it. The winery is known for its bold red and white wine productions made by Estate Winemaker Justin Hall, which reflect the fuller style that can be made in the south.
An Exploration of Wine from North to South
Grapes are genuine translators of terroir, that unique catch-all term summarizing somewhereness. Everything around the grapes from the vineyard they were growing in, the climate, the weather, and even the winemaker that finally turns the grapes into wine adds to the sense of place that wine communicates in the glass. It is why similar wine grapes grown in different areas taste different. The epitome of the Okanagan story is told in the glass as Quails’ Gate and Nk’Mip wines are tasted alongside each other. Featuring Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Quails’ Gate Clone 49 2021 Riesling
Made from the Alsatian Riesling clone, #49, this wine is crafted from vines grown in the emerging South Kelowna region. A cool vineyard site with quartz-laced sandy loam soils. The 2021 vintage shows aromas of lime, lemon zest, lemongrass and white peach. Followed on the palate with bright acidity, a balanced finish and long-lasting citrus-hued notes.
Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt) 2020 Riesling
The vintage was a great year in the south for white wine grapes like Riesling. This fully Osoyoos production is crafted from a 42-year-old vineyard and done with just a touch of skin contact. Making for a final wine filled with aromas of ripe orchard fruits, honey, lime and a touch of tropicality. Complemented by a palate that has a mouth-watering feel and a long finish.
Quails’ Gate Rosemary’s Block 2019 Chardonnay
Named after Tony Stewart’s mother, Rosemary, and her role in creating the family winery, this vineyard produces some of the best Chardonnay grapes in the northern Okanagan. A sun-soaked vineyard that makes premium fruit that is then barre fermented in a mix of new and neutral French oak for 10 months. Resulting in a wine that is vibrant with lemon pastry notes, pear, and yellow apple and a taste that is mineral driven and rich in texture.
Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt 2020 Chardonnay
A challenging vintage for the southern reaches of the Okanagan but one that has made some excellent quality Chardonnay for Nk’Mip. This wine is done the whole cluster pressed and fermented in French oak with a portion of new barrels in the mix. Making for a final wine with hints of butterscotch, melon and tropical fruits, followed by a palate that is round, bold and touched with a hint of spices.
Quails’ Gate Dijon Clone 2020 Pinot Noir
This Dijon Clone production is an exclusive selection of clone numbers 828, 777, and 667 from cloned grapes of the French winemaking region. A wine dedicated to the winery founder Benjamin Stewart, as he was a pioneer of Burgundian clones in the area. Hand-harvested and made into wine separately before blending and barrel aging for 16 months, each clone adds something different to the final wine. Crafting a noteworthy production with red cherry, strawberry, blueberry, and green herbal notes. Complemented by an expansive palate with firm tannins and a long-lasting finish.
Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt 2019 Syrah
As Pinot Noir is to the north, Syrah is to the south of the Okanagan. Fuller in style and all about power in the glass, this grape does well in a warmer climate. Justin Hall at Nk’Mip makes a regional expression blending vineyards together and fermenting them separately before letting the final blend come to fruition with 18 months of French oak aging. The final wine is an expression of Osoyoos to the fullest. Filled with aroma notes of violets, black pepper, blueberry and spice. Followed by a bold palate with structure and fine-grain tannins, finishing smooth.