Rugged, individual, pioneering, wind-battered – these words best evoke the remarkable Similkameen Valley. This striking region lies to the west of the southern Okanagan Valley; the Richter Pass connects them, and it’s a truly stunning drive. Besides geographic proximity, the two regions have much in common. Both are narrow valleys with low rainfall and hot summers, so ecologically they are very similar, with interior drybelt habitat dominated by Ponderosa pine and sagebrush. However, in many ways they are very different.
To put it simply, it could be said the Okanagan is bigger and the Similkameen is smaller – which is true in terms of area, population, and wine production. But the Similkameen does not ‘feel’ small. More rugged, more rustic, more remote, it has a wild grandeur that the Okanagan does not have, as spectacular as it is. Where the Okanagan is highly developed with bustling towns and cities, highways, golf courses, and resorts, the Similkameen is blissfully quiet and unspoiled. It is a superb place to visit, with a very special old-time/back roads atmosphere.
The Similkameen is a tighter, narrower valley with steeper, taller, more dramatic mountains than the Okanagan. It is a river valley, not a valley of lakes. Without the moderating influence of a lake, it has a more extreme climate – hotter, colder, windier. It is therefore a much harsher environment for grape-growing. The ground is stonier, water is scarce (just 13 inches or 323 millimeters annually); summer nights are hotter, winter nights are colder. It sounds daunting, which it is, but where vines struggle, they produce superior fruit, and the Similkameen is producing some captivating wines with serious structure and ageability. Stylistically they combine fruit intensity with brisk acidity and a signature flinty, saline minerality.
Grape-growing is long-established – there were some very big vineyards in the pre-VQA era – but winemaking is not: the first winery (then Keremeos Vineyards; now St. Lazlo) was established in 1984. Today there are 14 wineries and 691 acres (280 hectares) of vines.
Soils vary according to location and topography; very rocky in areas unaffected by glaciation; sandy/silty/loamy at lower elevations. There are fewer grape varieties than in the Okanagan but the selection is still diverse – Gamay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc; Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer. Standards are high across the board, but the Bordeaux reds – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon – deserve special mention. So too does Riesling, usually racy editions with terrific tension, nervy acidity balance by limey/peachy fruit intensity and a striking crushed rock finish.
Do not overlook this singular valley when you are touring or socking away wine in the cellar. It may be a bit off the beaten path, but you will be richly rewarded with jaw-dropping visual beauty, interesting characters, and great wines with true identity. The towns of Keremeos has a couple of great spots to eat, and one of B.C.’s historic grist mills has been restored to pioneering splendour. The Similkameen is also the organic growing capital of our province, and the fruit stands along the highway are ripe for the picking.