On the Black Sage Road
Lush green acres of vines stretch across the sun-bleached landscape of an arid valley desert in the south Okanagan. From the air it could be a study in geometry, an agricultural quilt where the pattern is dictated by water resources, and farms in transition from orchard to vineyard. The Black Sage Road runs along the east side of the valley, meandering southwards from the outskirts of Oliver toward Osoyoos. This 30-kilometre drive is home to some of the most lauded wineries in British Columbia and earliest vineyard plantings in the area.
The region has a long history a part of the unceded territory of the Syilx (sjilx) Indigenous people, and well before the Okanagan became a hotspot for new world cool-climate viticulture. British colonists took liberty to assign traditional Syilx lands to European ‘settlers’, and in 1877 the Osoyoos Indian Band registered under the Indian Act as a reserve. More than a century later they and seven other Bands are now part of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, formed in 1981 as First Nations government in the Okanagan. Indigenous peoples of this area have tended these lands for generations, and as we explore the region it’s on their lands we travel.
The nsyilxcən (Nis-yeel-ten) language, part of the Salish language, was originally spoken here and the Band is working to bring the language back into daily life. Two regional parks have been returned to their Syilx names: Haynes Point is now (again) Sẁiẁs (swee-yous) Provincial Park, and McIntyre Bluff to its original place name of nʕaylintn (Ny-lin-tn).
The Osoyoos Indian Band is an integral part of this region’s wine history. Of their 32,000-acre reserve lands, almost one-third is used to grow grapes. The Band was instrumental in developing the Black Sage Road as a serious viticultural area. Before Helmut Becker ran The Becker Project (1977 to 1982), proving more than 30 vinifera varieties could produce premium quality wine in the Okanagan, the Osoyoos Indian Band began planting Inkameep Vineyard on the Black Sage Road in 1968. It was one of the first in the South Okanagan and eventually grew to more than 350 acres. Later, Nk’Mip Cellars opened in 2002 with a 21-acre vineyard and was the first Indigenous owned and operated winery in Canada.
After the Inkameep Vineyard, another large-scale and risky planting was undertaken over 1993 and 1994 by stalwart wine industry leader Harry McWatters. He and a business partner planted approximately 115 acres of Bordeaux varieties on what was still relatively unproven land on the Black Sage Road. Their risk paid off as the vineyard saw good results and the wines made from those vinifera grapes achieved international acclaim. The original property was eventually divided into two separate but neighbouring vineyards; today you’ll find them as Black Sage Vineyard as part of Sumac Ridge, and the Becker Vineyard (formerly Sundial Vineyard) with Phantom Creek Estates.
As for the land itself, think mostly sand. This is the northernmost point of the Great Basin Desert but the deep sand here is a result of late deglaciation activity in the Okanagan Valley eons ago. The area was once a glacial lake, and the breaching of ice dams deposited thick glaciolacrustine silts and alluvial fans along this valley; the ‘fans’ (tall sand-like towers along the west valley ridge) can be seen on the Golden Mile Bench, particularly above Tinhorn Creek and Hester Creek. As more Okanagan Valley sub-regions seek geographical indication designations of their own (sub-GIs), these distinct differences like the sand and gravel deposits on the Black Sage Road play a key role in establishing the area’s unique terroir. Elevation, aspect, climate, and people, are parts of that seemingly indefinable mix that gives wine a sense of place.
Situated on the east side of the valley, Black Sage Road vineyard aspects are treated to long days in the Okanagan sunshine and intense heat. Ancient rock that heaved to the earth’s surface millennia ago now stand as silent sentries, acting as a heat sync to capture the sun’s warmth and sharing it with the vineyards long after dusk. It’s also a ‘pocket’ desert, averaging approximately 2,040 hours of annual sunshine and limited amounts of rain at fewer than 20 centimeters. Those deep benches of sand can be up to 90 metres deep, lending to well-drained soil with limited available nutrients. Combined with low rainfall levels and deficit irrigation, vines are content to keep their roots dry while really stretching down to find water. Seeing such green vineyards, it’s difficult to remember this area is part of the network of deserts that extend all the way to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico.
Dozens of wineries are a literal stone’s throw from one another and a solid independent culinary community is eager to share the region’s best, making the Black Sage Road easy to explore. Pack a lunch or pull up a seat at one of the local digs and allow the day to unfold, whether by car or on bicycle. Stop frequently. Ask those around you for recommendations because they’re happy to share. With that in mind, here are a few wineries you really should visit when you can.
Le Vieux Pin
5496 Black Sage Road
Named for one solitary, old growth pine tree on the estate vineyard, Le Vieux Pin has been exploring this terroir since 2005. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and the warm breeze will show you what winemaker and viticulturist Severine Pinte discovered on her first visit: hints of France with a distinctly south Okanagan flavour.
From a French-inspired wine focus to the swaying tips of lavender bushes, this is old world winemaking on a brave new cool climate frontier. Specialties here include succulent and savoury white wines (sauvignon blanc, a roussanne, viognier, and marsanne blend, and chardonnay) with opulent and refined red wines (syrah three ways) and the delicate yet intense Vaila – a pinot noir rosé. Smaller lot production means many of these wines disappear quickly. levieuxpin.ca
4315 Black Sage Road
Phantom Creek is the vision of Richter Bai, who has assembled a formidable wine team and acquired a solid group of vineyard sites including the winery’s namesake – formerly owned and planted by Richard Cleave. Other notable vineyards under this roof are the Becker Vineyard (formerly Sundial) on Black Sage Road and Kobau Vineyard on the Golden Mile Bench. These are aspirational wines from a team aiming for the top. Try the vineyard-focused portfolio of wines like Block 1A Syrah (Becker Vineyard), cabernet sauvignon (allocated to their Grand Cru Club), or chardonnay (Becker Vineyard), among other ambitious efforts to capture this sense of place in a bottle.
4821 Ryegrass Road (just off Black Sage Road)
Bartier Bros. is the partnership of siblings Don and Michael Bartier, the former a business-minded accountant and the latter a respected winemaker. They’re Okanagan originals, having grown up in the valley, which means they know just about everyone around. Michael listens to the land they care for and the vines they grow on it. Some time ago the Bartiers purchased the Cerqueira Vineyard along Black Sage Road, a site Michael was intimately familiar with. The sum of all things here is robust, complex red wines (cabernet franc, merlot, syrah), sunshine-driven bright white wines (semillon, chardonnay, obrigado), and a couple of colourful characters (Rosé, Granite – an orange wine). These are popular wines that sell through quickly.
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery
500 Burrowing Owl Place, off Black Sage Road
A cornerstone name among British Columbia wine producers, Burrowing Owl has held a significant viticultural presence on the Black Sage Road for decades. The Wyse family began replanting vineyards here in 1993 but only licensed a winery four years later, readying it in time for the 1998 harvest. Today the winery has grown to include guesthouses and a restaurant. The team at Burrowing Owl takes seriously their commitment to the environment and were early adopters of environmental technology, like using the naturally sloping hillside to build a gravity flow cellar plus installing solar and geothermal heating. Key wines to try in this portfolio are pinot gris, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and Meritage.