The quickest way to get to the Similkameen Valley in Canada’s western province of British Columbia is to fly to Penticton then rent a car and drive 30 minutes southwest to Keremeos. But those in the know relish the four-hour, 350km drive up from Vancouver via the scenic Crowsnest Highway. It’s one of the world’s great road trips.
Heading inland from the Pacific coast, Crowsnest Highway (BC Hwy 3) winds up into the Cascade Mountains and through spectacular Manning Provincial Park, then chicanes back down again into the semi-arid southern BC interior. Through the mountains, the highway parallels a fast-flowing stream that eventually broadens out into the majestic Similkameen River, which then tracks the snaking road until reaching the farming town of Keremeos and nearby hamlet of Cawston.
You’ve arrived in the Similkameen Valley, one of Canada’s most exciting wine regions hidden in plain sight. This emerging appellation lies, figuratively and literally, in the shadow of the much larger and more visited Okanagan Valley. Compared to the Okanagan, the Similkameen is blessedly empty of people. It is also stunningly beautiful, with soaring mountains framing the valley floor and vineyards interspersed among the older fruit orchards.
Undiscovered and unspoiled
The valley is arid and sunny, with less precipitation and more sunshine hours than almost any other BC wine region. That, plus the persistent winds that blow down from the surrounding mountains, helps keep the vineyards dry, clean and disease-free. No wonder Cawston is the organic farming capital of Canada.
Another key factor contributing to the exceptional fruit quality is the high diurnal range. While summer daytime temperatures on the valley floor can reach 40ºC, the nights are much cooler, resulting in a longer growing season and higher natural acidity in the grapes.
The region doesn’t yet have a distinctive wine identity, but there are some indicators of terroir affinity emerging. Riesling has planted a serious stake in these stony soils, as has Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon.
From just a couple of wineries a decade ago, there are now 12 cellar doors open to the public (from April to October), stretching 26km from Keremeos almost down to the US border. Most are small-scale and family-owned. For more information, visit Similkameen Independent Winegrowers.
The Similkameen Valley is a work in progress, but it retains a strong collective pioneering spirit among its farmers and winemakers – and the wine options are growing exponentially. There aren’t the hotels, restaurants and bars visitors might have experienced in other wine regions, but that is all part of the Similkameen’s charm: a relatively undiscovered and unspoiled corner of Canada with a real sense of place and authenticity. Which makes a visit here especially rewarding.
Six Similkameen Valley wineries to visit
In 2018, siblings Anna and Sascha Heinecke took over the reins from their parents at Crowsnest Vineyards, a family-run winery, restaurant and guesthouse. Since then they have pursued a vision of estate-grown, terroir-driven winemaking. They are custodians of some of the oldest vines in the valley, with original blocks of Riesling, Chardonnay and Merlot first planted in 1989. With the family’s German heritage, their Riesling is particularly adept, with crisp minerality, balanced acidity and citrus fruit. Open daily in season.
After Seven Stones founder George Hanson died suddenly in 2021, seasoned winemaker Dwight Sick took charge at this charming winery in the southern Similkameen Valley. Sick believes strongly in sustainable agriculture and practises light-touch winemaking. Visit the underground barrel caves, unique in this region, and enjoy a tasting and picnic on the stunning terrace overlooking the Similkameen River below, while watching raptors hawking the valley. Open daily in season.
John and Virginia Weber founded Orofino Vineyards in 2001, after moving to the Similkameen Valley from Saskatchewan. Since then they have pioneered micro-terroir winemaking in the valley, creating a suite of ever more impressive wines each reflecting their unique sense of place. Most of their vineyards are on the Cawston Bench, but they’ve also acquired a high-altitude plot in the cooler Olalla Gap off Highway 3A north of Orofino and planted 1.2ha of Cabernet Franc there. While all Orofino’s wines are delicious, don’t miss their single vineyard Rieslings, in particular the Home Vineyard Old Vines. Open daily in season except Tuesdays.
Set against the mountains on the Upper Bench above Keremeos, Clos du Soleil is forging its own vinous path, focused on the classic Bordeaux grape varietals. It’s surprising how well Cabernet Sauvignon does here at 49º North, contributing a distinctive perfumed elegance to the estate’s flagship Signature red blend. Co-owner/winemaker Mike Clark’s Capella white blend (Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc) is no slouch either. Open daily in season, by appointment.
Owned by the Baessler family, who originally hail from Switzerland, second-generation Charlie and Jesce Baessler’s estate sits next door to Clos du Soleil overlooking Keremeos, with similar microclimatic conditions. The vine rows are planted north-south, which Charlie explains helps with sunlight exposure on these south-facing slopes. From its 12ha of planted grapes, Corcelettes makes around 6,000 cases of wine a year. An outdoor tasting on the upper patio perched above the vineyard is not to be missed. Reservations advised. Open daily in season.
Named for the numerous butterflies that owner Suki Sekhon discovered on his first visit to this site – Vanessa is a Greek word for butterfly – Vanessa is one of the newer wineries in Similkameen. The west- and south-facing hillside vineyards and extremely rocky soils make this an ideal site for growing black grapes. The rocks absorb daytime heat, reflecting warmth back during the cool nights, which helps produce complex, intense flavours with notable minerality. Winemaker Howard Soon is a veteran in the BC wine world, and his estate-grown red wines are among the best in the valley. Open Thursday to Monday mid-April to end May, then daily in summer.
My perfect day in the Similkameen Valley
Start your day with a visit to Klippers Marketplace and Café, where a delicious breakfast of home-baked pastries, granola or fruit smoothies, accompanied by great espresso coffee, awaits. You can also stock up here on fresh organic produce, preserves and juices from the Klippers farm. After breakfast, head down Highway 3 to the southern end of the valley, home to several wineries – including Seven Stones. Or drive over the picturesque Chopaka Bridge to explore the more rural right (west) bank of the river. Just remember that most of this land is the traditional territory of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, and respect their culture and customs when traversing it.
Lunch and afternoon
Heading back up Highway 3, veer right onto Barcello Road, which hugs the base of the mountains to the east. After 6km, turn off onto Lowe Drive and head to Crowsnest Vineyards for a wine tasting and lunch at the Heinecke’s idyllic restaurant. Choose from house-made charcuterie platters with artisan sourdough breads, fresh salads and vegetables, and seasonal fruits – all grown by local farmers surrounding Crowsnest. After lunch, further winery visits await nearby in Cawston or on the benchlands above Keremeos. Riesling fans should make a beeline for Orofino, while lovers of both red and white Bordeaux blends will already have an appointment booked at Clos du Soleil.
The standout restaurant for dinner in the Similkameen is Row Fourteen. Yes, it’s located in the 14th row of the Klippensteins’ apple orchard! You can choose either the Herbivore or Locavore Harvest Menus, or order à la carte. Using all locally grown or farmed food, meals don’t get any fresher than this.
Your Similkameen Valley address book
Two modern, elegantly appointed suites overlook the vineyards of this winery in Cawston. Located above the winery barrel room, the open-plan living/dining/kitchen areas are bright, spacious and lead onto large furnished decks. Kitchens are fully equipped to make great meals.
The closest thing to a resort hotel in the Similkameen. It’s located in the far south end of the valley so is quite isolated, but has a beautiful wilderness setting near the river and an outdoor swimming pool – a rarity in these parts. Accommodation ranges from mountain view suites with private balconies to a unique glamping option in two authentic indigenous tepees, one of which has a soaker tub. A continental breakfast is included.
Surrounded by an apple orchard, this two-storey building has two ground-level and two upper-level suites, all with three bedrooms. All suites have well-equipped modern kitchens and dining/living areas, and outdoor decks or patios with barbeques. A short walk to Row Fourteen restaurant (see below).
The region’s top-rated restaurant leads the way with brilliant fresh food in an elegant, airy space and large outdoor patio. The restaurant celebrates the region, from farm to vineyard to forest. Great selection of Similkameen Valley wines. Open for lunch and dinner, closed Monday-Tuesday. Reservations required for dinner.
More café than restaurant, you can nevertheless have a delicious breakfast here, and they also serve light lunches in summer. Open in season, check hours online.
A charming, casual restaurant attached to the winery of the same name. If weather permits, eat outdoors on the patio beside the vines. Think charcuterie and cheese platters, home-baked sourdough bread, and wine flights. Open for lunch and dinner. Enquire about their outdoor wood-fired pizza nights.
Stop off at one or more of the many fruit and vegetable stalls that line the Crowsnest Highway just before Keremeos (the fruit stand capital of Canada) and in Cawston (Canada’s organic farming capital). Load up on delicious seasonal fruits and veggies such as peaches, apples, apricots, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, corn and much more.