Is Naramata Bench the Sweet Spot of Okanagan Valley?

By | 30 April 2024

Rod Phillips on a special part of a special Canadian place.


Rod Phillips

There’s something very special about the Naramata Bench sub-region on the southeastern side of British Columbia’s Lake Okanagan, says Rod Phillips.

British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Canada’s second largest wine region in terms of production, is being divided into sub-appellations—a process that is likely to go on for some time. In contrast to Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula—Canada’s most productive region, where years of research into its climate and geography led to the creation of ten sub-appellations in one fell swoop in 2012—BC’s wine authorities have adopted the bottom-up approach: Groups of wineries can apply to have their region designated a sub-appellation based on its being geographically distinct, having clearly defined boundaries, and having reached a commercially viable level of production. 

Until December 2023, 11 sub-appellations have been established within the Okanagan Valley appellation. In the cooler northern region, offerings such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling thrive. The situation is different in the south, where the climate is hotter and lacks moisture—even boasting a desert—with prevalent varieties being Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Chardonnay.

In the middle of the Okanagan Valley appellation, at the southern tip of Okanagan Lake, is the Naramata Bench sub-appellation, recognized in 2019. It is fondly dubbed “the sweet spot,” and there truly is something extraordinary about Naramata Bench, which spans 15 miles (25km) along the lake’s eastern shore. Around 620 acres (260ha) of vineyards are spread among just over 50 wineries, giving Naramata Bench the highest winery-density in British Columbia. The wineries collectively produce a wide variety of high-quality wines. Even though some sub-appellations will have to include “Okanagan Valley” on their labels for a while to keep consumers informed, Naramata Bench is rapidly becoming a standalone brand.


There are wineries not actually situated on Naramata Bench that obtain grapes grown in the sub-appellation. For instance, the Mark Anthony Group owns a 90-acre (37ha) vineyard called Naramata Ranch, which grows mostly Pinot Noir, across six wineries in the Okanagan Valley. In this article, we primarily concentrate on wineries within the Naramata Bench sub-appellation, discussing the different wines they create from Naramata Bench grapes. However, it is important to note that some of the finest wines from other wineries in the Okanagan Valley are made from Naramata Bench grapes—such as the Mark Anthony Group, which exclusively uses Naramata Bench fruit for its premium wines.

Skilled winemaking is indeed a significant factor for a successful winery, but the location and climate of the vineyard are actually the essential foundation. The Naramata Bench is a distinctive section on a geographic scale, according to the bird’s eye view from the lake. It is characterized by a sequence of protrusions that terminate in cliffs, plunging 50 to 100 feet downwards into the water. This land formation appears like a set of brief headlands and coves meeting the lake, as if resulting from molten land. A classic geographical bench, it exhibits a narrow, flat, or gently inclined strip of land, incorporating steep slopes above and below it. As the land extends from the lake, it features a mild inclination in uneven patterns, becoming steeper over approximately a mile. Ross Baker, the winemaker of La Frenz Winery describes his Desperation Hill Vineyard, with its 35-degree angle, as “a calf-burner.”

Climate on the Naramata Bench is largely influenced by the Okanagan Lake. This waterbody stretches 84 miles long and 2.5 to 3 miles wide, the formation of which can be traced back to a succession of glacial periods. The maximum depth of the lake is around 750 feet, but it deepens to 330 feet even close to the shore. Local tales of a creature residing in the dark depths of the lake, named Ogopogo, are common although not seriously considered.

The warmth of Okanagan Lake, even during winter, moderates the conditions of vineyards along its length, including the Naramata Bench. Some vineyards have even been planted a few strides away from the cliff edge. Year-round, the lake breeze offers good airflow within the vineyards, aiding in reducing vine diseases. If you stand in one of these vineyards and face the lake, you can feel the same steady breeze that resulted in the naming of Lake Breeze Vineyards.

However, the influence of the lake varies based on the distance from the water. There exists a distinction between the “lower” and “upper” bench, with Naramata Road acting as a boundary along a north-south direction. Wilbert Borren, co-owner of Four Shadows Vineyard and Winery on Upper Bench Road, expresses doubts about the tales of lake-effect on his vines. He mentions, “We all talk about the lake effect. But it makes you question its legitimacy.”

Being “upper” in Naramata Bench does not signify heights of Andean comparability; it simply denotes an elevation of a few hundred feet. Nevertheless, the districts closer to the lake, known as the lower districts, are somewhat chiller due to their geographical placement. The vineyards here are recognized for being sited on land that was once part of an expansive lake bed. Conversely, the higher vineyards are established on rocky terrains, making them somewhat warmer. However, we must note that the Okanagan Lake itself is situated 1,120ft (342m) above sea level. Hence, the so-called elevated vineyards, at 1,800ft (550m) above sea level, are not considerably higher than the lake.

Interestingly, Naramata Bench benefits from its location on the east side of the lake, as it is exposed to the bright, late afternoon sun. This beneficial aspect is particularly apparent in the west-facing vineyards. However, due to the region’s varied topography, some vines face the north, while others are oriented towards the south. Shane Munn, a winemaker at Martin’s Lane, which is a part of the Mark Anthony Group and a respected winery in the vicinity of Naramata Bench, opines that their Naramata Ranch vineyard is “their most diverse site, given the wide range of elevation, aspect, and soil types.”

Another advantage for the Naramata Bench is that it’s shielded by the granite mountains hugging its eastern boundary. The region boasts 1,350 growing degree days (GDD). This is substantially more than the vineyards located at higher altitudes in Lake Country sub-appellation at the north end of Okanagan Lake, which report 1,245 GDD. However, it is considerably less than that of the Osoyoos sub-appellation in the south, which registers 1,641 GDD.

This privileged positioning of the Naramata Bench translated into tangible benefits during the 2023 harvest. Reportedly, much of the Okanagan Valley suffered vine damage due to harsh cold temperatures that winter, resulting in a noticeable decrease in the yields. But Naramata Bench, due to its elevated location near the lake, its favorable air drainage conditions, and its particular soil attributes, was largely spared. For instance, as shared by Colin Ross who is responsible for media relations at Tightrope Winery and the Naramata Bench Wineries Association, at Tightrope Winery, the harvest yield equalled an average year and the fruit quality was excellent. The same seems to be true for other vineyards on the Bench.

Shane Munn from Martin’s Lane voices a similar perspective, applauding the consistent performance of their Naramata Ranch site, even in difficult vintages. He attributes the site’s resilience to its sheltered nature and discusses the low yield issues they face during extreme cold spells.

Naramata Bench is known for its diverse range of grape varieties. Predominantly, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Merlot are grown, but the list includes many others as well. Some of the varieties tasted for this article were Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Barbera, Syrah, Pinotage, Semillon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Roussanne.

Canadian vineyards, especially the newer ones, are known to grow an extensive range of varietals. This leads to a debate about whether Naramata Bench should focus on only a few key varietals. A difference in opinion exists among the winemakers. Elise Martin from La Frenz Winery talks about their balance of microclimates and their proficiency in growing nine different varietals at their five Naramata Bench vineyards.

In contrast, Nathan Todd from Foxtrot winery proposes a narrower range of varietals to be focused on. He stresses on the need for quality rather than quantity. The issue of “varietal politics” as raised by Rebecca Mikulic from Three Sisters Winery, is also mentioned, as achieving a consensus among the fifty wineries on a focus variety seems unlikely.

Nature often dictates the choice of varieties for vineyards. For instance, Malbec and Zinfandel vines did not survive at Three Sisters Winery. However, many wineries choose varieties with which they want to associate themselves. One of the earliest established wineries in the region, Nichol Vineyard & Estate Winery, is renown for its Syrah wines for over three decades. Their original vines, planted between 1989 and 1991, were the first Syrah to be planted in Canada and they are still in production, being ungrafted.

Currently managed by owner-winemaker Ross Hackworth, Nichol Vineyard offers a broad array of distinguished wines sourced from vineyards within roughly 985 yards (900m) distance from the winery. Some of these wines include a delectable traditional-method sparkling wine made of Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier which ages five years on lees, herbal Pinot Noirs, rather austere Pinot Gris, elegant Cabernet Francs, and a mildly gamey St Laurent produced from vines planted in 1989.

Whereas Nichol has chosen Syrah as its signature variety, Foxtrot Vineyards started with a small batch of 4 acres (1.6ha) of Pinot Noir, planted in 1997 and 1998. Despite three ownership changes, Pinot Noir remains the focus, now complemented by Chardonnay. Co-owner and president of Foxtrot, Nathan Todd, shares his ambition to highlight Pinot Noir, and speculates that it’s the variety that Naramata Bench ought to pursue. Todd, along with his Foxtrot associate, Douglas Barzelay, share a passion for Burgundy, displayed by their co-authored work with Allen Meadows, Burgundy Vintages: A History from 1845 (2018).

Also motivated by Burgundy, Todd aims to explore the varying expressions the variety develops under the diverse conditions of Foxtrot’s vineyards, which he refers to as “a dog’s breakfast of soils”. In 2020, reflecting his vision, Foxtrot released five distinct Pinot Noirs, each in small lots. This trend is also visible at Martin’s Lane, where their Naramata Ranch, predominantly planted with Pinot Noir, has 42 distinct blocks and their winemaker Shane Munn has launched a single-vineyard and two single-block Pinot Noirs from the “near perfect” 2022 harvest. Similarly, Scott Robinson, Little Engine Wines’ winemaker, uses 13 clones of Pinot Noir and ferments them in small batches as he prefers “to have as many pieces as possible to work with.”

Pinot Noir is a significant variety in Naramata Bench. Despite having varying styles, it is consistently marked by its bright acidity and good balance. This emphasis on Pinot Noir isn’t unique to Naramata Bench, as it is also a close contender with Merlot for the most planted grape variety in British Columbia.

In contrast, Terra Vista Vineyards, located at the southern end of Naramata Bench, has established an Iberian specialty by planting Albariño and Verdejo in 2008. They later expanded with Garnacha and Mencía (Canada’s first plantings), in addition to Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Albariño and Verdejo make up one third of production, with the blends named Fandango and Figaro. Winemaker Nadine Kinvig is known for her range of white wines that exhibit focused fruit, balance, and vibrant acidity.

The variety of orientations and soil conditions in Naramata Bench foster the production of small-lot wines from selected sites. This variety has contributed to the successful cultivation of a wide range of grape varieties in the region. Ironically, this could become a distinctive feature of the area, with the range of wines reflecting the diverse growing conditions.

The concept of winemaking on Naramata Bench continues to draw both longstanding residents and newcomers. The name ‘Deep Roots Winery’ signifies not only the vines planted in the clay and loam soils but also the multi-generational presence of the Hardman family, the winery’s owners. The estate’s Hardman Vineyard descends to the edge of the bluff above Okanagan Lake, highlighting that the family has farmed there for over a century. Will Hardman, the winemaker and fourth generation of the Hardman family, is a testament to this enduring familial connection.

The Hardmans were initially grape growers who supplied to wineries. However, they ventured into opening their own winery and produced their first vintage in the year 2012. Presently, they cultivate a 20-acre estate in Naramata Bench. This includes the 9-acre Hardman Vineyard where they grow Muscat, Gamay, Merlot, and Malbec, and the Rayner Vineyard where they farm Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Malbec, and Syrah.

On the other hand, Domaine Roche prides itself on having profound roots in the French tradition. Dylan Roche, the proprietor and winemaker of Domaine Roche, hails from Vancouver. He was working as a cycle mechanic in Beaune before he ventured into viticulture and winemaking. He has gathered experience in winemaking in places like Burgundy, New Zealand, and

Bordeaux. Pénélope Roche is the other owner of Domaine Roche. She is a family member of the ex-owners of Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan, known for their superior wine-making for six generations. Pénélope has studied in Bordeaux and has worked at famed wineries in New Zealand, Spain, and Australia, before she arrived at Naramata Bench.

Domaine Roche owns two organically nurtured vineyards, which were acquired in 2014 and 2016. They grow variety of grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Schönberger, and

Zweigelt here. All wines from this label, apart from the Bordeaux red blend, are single-vineyard wines. The style of these wines as described by Dylan Roche is “not overly bold but in the middle zone of power.” They have multiple pinot noir offerings designed to accentuate complexity, balance, and texture.

Ben Bryant, an Australian national is another external player in this league. Before moving to Okanagan Valley in 2018, he was the chief winemaker at Pernod Ricard. He made the move to take up the role of vice president of winemaking for the Mark Anthony Group, stationed at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. In two years, he started 1 Mill Road Winery with his partner Katie Truscott. The storage of this winery is at the Naramata Wine Vault. This facility offers a storage solution to smaller wineries by providing storage barrels in temperature-controlled conditions, in a bid to create additional room capacity in these wineries. 1 Mill Road sources some grapes from outside Naramata Bench. However, most of their delicious Pinot Noirs come from their in-house Home Block and the 4-acre Black Pine Vineyard situated at the north of the Naramata Bench.

The varieties of wines produced on Naramata Bench have a significant range. Generally, they all possess a strong natural acidity, making them refreshing. However, hot vintages can pose a challenge, as exemplified by the extensive heatwave in 2021. Despite this, producers on Naramata Bench strive to take advantage of the acidity promoted by the region’s climate. Lindsay O’Rourke, a winemaker at Tightrope Winery, references the large diurnal range during the growing season and mentions her aim to create a “restrained style” of wine. Matt Mikulic from Three Sisters winery emphasises the acidity in his wine, while pointing out that they do not solely produce highly acidic variants. Well-balanced acidity and fruit flavours is a consistent attribute of Naramata Bench wines.

Some winemakers aspire to create more robust wines. Steve French, co-owner of Little Engine Winery, mentions his pursuit of a robust style in his top-tier Pinot Noirs. Though his Silver-tier Pinot Noirs do not see new oak, the Gold and Platinum tiers do. His motivation is driven by customer interest and the neighbouring province Alberta’s liking for beef and red wine. Little Engine’s Pinot Noirs are flavourful and maintain a balanced structure along with their generous fruit flavours. An example of a more sizeable effort is Little Engine Union 2020, a blend of Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc.

Most Naramata Bench wineries have been established since 2000, so it is early to test the wines’ ageability. For this article, several wines from past years were tasted. Examples include Little Engine Platinum Pinot Noir 2017 and Little Engine Gold Merlot 2017 which were both in excellent condition. Foxtrot Henricsson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 was elegant with beautiful fruit flavours, while Nichol Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015 is maturing nicely.

The future of the sub-appellation is uncertain. Ownership changes are expected to continue, but opening new wineries may not be feasible due to climate disruptions affecting the harvest. The variety of wines might become more limited, but a few likely will continue to dominate production. As the initial excitement of becoming a new sub-appellation dwindles, Naramata Bench is confidently settling into its reputability as a region known for superior wines. Climate change and its impact on harvests may reduce enthusiasm for new ventures in this area, just as it has in other regions.

Domaine Roche Vig Len’s Cuvée Pinot Noir 2020

A small lot of clone 828 aged 14 months in Burgundy barrels. It shows finely nuanced and well-focused fruit and top notes of spice, with perfectly calibrated acidity. | 95

Nichol Vineyard Old Vines Syrah 2021

From vines planted in 1991, aged 24 months in puncheons, this is unfined and unfiltered. Richly aromatic, with dark berry and herb flavors supported by finely tailored acidity. | 95

Foxtrot Estate Pinot Noir 2020

Crafted from clone 115, and having spent 14 months in barrel (25% of which was new), this wine showcases remarkable structure and fruit complexity (dominantly red and black cherry), accompanied by delicate tannins. | 95

Moraine Estate Winery Pinot Noir Reserve 2020

Sourced from 17-year-old vines and aged for 11 months in French oak, this lighter-style Pinot Noir presents robust flavors of red fruit and herbs, complemented by vibrant acidity. | 94

1 Mill Road Winery Black Pine Pinot Noir 2022

An elegant wine aged 9 months in used oak, this is replete with luscious flavors of cherries and ripe red berries, with top notes of spice, all supported by fresh, clean acidity. | 94

Little Engine Wines Platinum Pinot Noir 2020

This is a Pinot Noir in a more generous style that surrenders nothing in the way of structure and balance. It has well-defined fruit, balanced acidity, and very good tannic structure. | 94

La Frenz Winery Reserve Vivant 2021

A blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Chardonnay, and reminiscent of a Rhône white, this is quite rich and opulent, with good palate weight and bright acidity. | 93

Tightrope Winery Fleet Road Vineyard Barbera 2021

From 2007 vines and aged 12 months in French oak, this delivers across the board: lovely layered fruit, with balanced, bright acidity. | 93

Hillside Winery Mosaic 2016

A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, this is richly flavored, well layered and structured, still with some grip in the tannins. | 93

Joie Farm En Famille Pinot Noir 2020

A single-vineyard Pinot Noir aged ten months in oak, this shows an aromatic nose and generous fruit led by red and dark cherries with herbal top notes, paired with fresh acidity. | 93

Lock & Worth Winery Apricot Hill Vineyard Merlot Rosé 2022

The single-vineyard, whole-cluster Rosé from 2005 is both expressive and rich. It is unfined, unfiltered, and has been aged six months in puncheons. | 93

Upper Bench Estate Winery Altitude 2019

The mixture of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot provides a medley of layered fruit. The crushed berries and red fruit are most noticeable, aided by well-adjusted acidity for somewhat of a juicy texture. | 92

Deep Roots Winery Syrah 2020

With 5% Viognier, this delivers dark fruit and berry, along with herbal and spicy notes. Good palate weight and an attractive texture, with some juiciness. | 92

Laughing Stock Vineyards Blind Trust White 2022

Two thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one third Semillon, made in oak and stainless steel, this lovely wine is taut, almost austere, with well-defined fruit paired with vibrant acidity. | 92

Lake Breeze Vineyards Riesling 2018

This Riesling is dry but never so extreme as to be austere, boasting delicious, rich and complex fruit flavors that hint at an attractive diesel note. It has decent weight on the palate and is invigorated with bright acidity, aging gracefully | 91

Three Sisters Winery Rebecca Sparkling Wine 2019

An elegant balance of Chardonnay (90%) and Pinot Noir (10%) made in the traditional method produces this sparkling wine. It promotes lovely fruit flavors reminiscent of citrus and apples, adorned with a delicate mousse and fine, effervescent bubbles. | 91

Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery Merlot Reserve 2019

A lovely cool-climate Merlot, with a rich, nuanced texture and well-defined flavors of red fruit and crushed berries; all backed by well-tailored acidity. | 91

Elephant Island Winery Cabernet Franc Reserve 2017

Made from the best barrels of the vintage, this is a fairly austere Cabernet Franc, with well-focused fruit, notes of tobacco leaf, good acidity, and a light tannic grip. | 91

Black Widow Winery Hourglass Reserve 2020

A concoction of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon grown at a heightened elevation, this yields well-layered flavors (ripe dark fruit, crushed berries, seasoning) with a satisfying balance of acidity. | 91

Terra Vista Vineyards Albariño 2021

A single-vineyard, stainless-steel-matured, entirely Albariño that brings forward explicit peach and nectarine fruit, alongside favorable palate weight and glowing, vibrant acidity. | 91

Poplar Grove Winery Three Roses Pinot Noir Rosé 2022

Salmon/copper in color from three hours’ skin contact, this attractive dry rosé delivers layered sweet and sour cherry flavors backed by bright acidity. | 91

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *