Wine Culture Magazine

Once borderline for wine, this region on the 50th parallel now produces reliably great vintages

The barrel cave at O’Rourke Family Vineyards winds deep into the hillside, offering plenty of storage space for the rock star team of winemakers. Photo courtesy of O’Rourke Peak Celllars

In 1990, Gray Monk launched its enduring Latitude 50 white blend, which became the largest selling VQA wine of its time. It was named for the winery’s location at the 50th parallel of latitude north, generally regarded as the outer limit for successful viticulture. In those days, Gray Monk was the northernmost winery in the Okanagan Valley and the only one on Okanagan Lake north of Kelowna, in the Municipality of Lake Country.

When George and Trudy Heiss planted their vines above Okanagan Centre in the early 1970s and a decade later opened Gray Monk Winery, they were unswerving believers in the viability of a B.C. wine industry. (Something most others were not.) They also played a key role in inviting Geisenheim’s Helmut Becker to the Okanagan to trial plant Germanic varieties, which have since become the foundation of the industry. Those included the winery’s namesake Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), which is still B.C.’s most widely planted white grape.

At the time, occasional vine-killing temperatures were not unusual. In neighbouring Washington State, major wineries even budgeted for a “winterkill” every seventh year. However, a string of milder vintages and fewer vine-killing events were indicative of a changing climate—and an indication that this corner of the Okanagan was no longer the borderline region it once was.

Lake Country’s growing number of wineries has turned it into a destination in its own right.

Over the last decade, while not quite “Naramata north,” Lake Country’s growing number of wineries have turned it into a destination in its own right. Almost without exception the vineyards are well positioned to take advantage of southwestern exposure and sloping terrain. Not only that, where Gray Monk’s sun-drenched patio was once the sole option, a handful of others now offer the chance to dine well and drink in the spectacular lake setting.

In short, the newcomers have built on the Heiss’s vision and have taken wine touring to the next level.

The patio at Arrowleaf Cellars offers sweeping views of Okanagan Lake. Tim Pawsey photo

Just up the road from Gray Monk, their former growers Arrowleaf Cellars were among the first to establish a winery and vista-kissed tasting room run with Swiss precision. Focused, well-made and affordable, the wines include a perennially impressive Bacchus, excellent Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, among others.

Curtis and Sheri-Lee Krouzel searched up and down the valley for a vineyard site before finding it—some 11 kilometres north of Gray Monk, right across the lake from their cabin. A decade after launching 50th Parallel Estate Winery, their dream has come to fruition in a landmark winery including a panoramic tasting room, top drawer restaurant and wines to match. Varieties made include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling, all of which receive considerable accolades.

The “glamour farmers” Curtis and Sheri-Lee Krouzel have found an ideal site for Pinot Noir and bubbles at their 50th Parallel Estate Winery. Tim Pawsey photo

Burgundian varieties are also the focus at nearby O’Rourke Family Vineyards, the flagship sibling to O’Rourke Peak Cellars (also in Lake Country). Both are owned by Edmonton’s Dennis O’Rourke, who made his fortune in construction. The former—itself a construction tour de force—features a gravity-fed winery and 280 metres of barrel cellars hewn out of the granite hill.

O’Rourke’s Peak Cellars is home to a spacious, glass-wrapped tasting room with circular bar as well as an informal bistro overlooking the lake. Recently O’Rourke assembled a dream team of winemakers Stephanie Stanley and Nikki Callaway, while legendary chef Bernard Casavant oversees the kitchen.

Moreover, there are signs that the viticultural boundary may be moving even further north. In 2019 entrepreneur Marcus Frind (who recently opened Frind Estate on the former W.A.C. Bennett property in West Kelowna) unveiled plans for the Okanagan’s largest planting since Vincor’s 1988 Osoyoos and Black Sage Bench project. The ever bullish Frind (who sold his Plenty of Fish online dating service for US$575 million in 2015) has assembled 900 acres near Vernon.

However, unlike his Lake Country neighbours to the south, Frind plans to concentrate on Bordeaux varieties, including significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. Even taking climate change into account, that variety is generally regarded as challenging to ripen north of McIntyre Bluff, in Okanagan Falls. One can only hope that Mother Nature grants him a fair degree of latitude.

A taste of lake country

Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2019
(Okanagan Valley, $16.99) Good varietal expression, apple, pear and stone fruit.

Arrowleaf Cellars Bacchus 2018
(Okanagan Valley, $22) Grapefruit, floral and tropical notes, fresh citrus palate, dry finish.

50th Parallel Unparalleled Pinot Noir 2017
(Okanagan Valley, $50) Black cherry, pure fruit, plush structure and a lengthy end.

O’Rourke Cellars Riesling 2019
(Okanagan Valley, $21) Developing petrol, green apple, citrus, bright fruit, mineral undertones.

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