In 2016, Prince William and Kate Middleton flew across the Atlantic to visit Canada as part of their Commonwealth tour. It was then that the rest of the world learned about one of the world’s best-kept secrets: British Columbia's wine country.
Along their journey, the Duke and Duchess stopped in to taste the local fare, including food and drink sourced from the Okanagan Valley, a small region in Western Canada that is also home to Mission Hill Winery.
“We are incredibly grateful and humbled to have The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit Mission Hill Family Estate,” Mission Hill Winery owner Anthony von Mandl said at the time. “This is truly a gift for the Okanagan Valley and will provide an unprecedented opportunity to showcase to the world the very best of British Columbia’s wine and food industry.”
It’s no surprise that the couple fell in love with the drop-dead gorgeous winery thanks to its picturesque rolling hills, perfectly planted vineyards, and a tasting room so well designed that the royals probably thought they were back in Buckingham.
The best part about their trip is you can experience it too. Here’s everything you need to know about paying a visit to the von Mandl Family Estate's various wineries across the Okanagan Lake, which make for a great and affordable road trip (so long as you have a designated driver, of course).
The von Mandl Family Estate is made up of several wineries across the Okanagan Valley.
Mission Hill Winery may be the main attraction visited by the royals, but the company has a lot more going on that would be worthy of a return visit by Will and Kate.
The von Mandl family also owns Martin’s Lane, a vineyard just across the lake with a modern elegance that can only be experienced by appointment. There, art lovers will be delighted by giant sculptures modeled after Daniel Baker, who won a contest as the world's closest lookalike to Vincent van Gogh, and a lakefront tasting room with views that will leave any visitor in awe. In total, there are more than 200 wineries dotting the region.
About 80 minutes down the road from Mission Hill, von Mandl also recently opened up a small tasting room at its CheckMate Artisanal Winery. The room is a glass cube sitting in the center of the vineyard, which is a temporary fixture as the winery’s larger building is finished. The room’s simple aesthetic means all the focus stays squarely on the world-class wines.
The Okanagan Valley has an ideal wine-making climate.
You may think a northern country like Canada has a less than ideal climate for growing grapes, but it turns out the Okanagan is the near-perfect location for these tiny fruits to thrive.
To be precise, the wineries of the Okanagan are all located around latitude 50 and longitude 49 and sit 400 meters above sea level. Because the vineyards are located so far north, they experience more hours of sunshine during peak growing season, thus helping the grapes to mature faster. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the region receives an astonishing 2,000 hours of sunlight per year, and is home to Canada’s only true desert at the very tip of the Great Basin Desert region. CheckMate is the best vantage point to see this desert region while sipping a glass of Chardonnay.
Of course, this exceptional climate is great for more than just grapes. The area has long been known for growing stone fruits such as cherries and peaches, and produces 80 percent of Canada’s apricots, and around 40 percent of its pears and plums.
Mission Hill isn’t the only vineyard in town, but according to its many awards, it is the best.
There are plenty of fantastic wineries dotting the Okanagan Lake, but Mission Hill and its partner wineries are the best places to experience some of the area's award-winning wines.
"We're writing the history of this area right this second. This is Napa before it was Napa," Graham Nordin, director of wine experience at Mission Hill Winery, told Travel + Leisure.
He further explained that in 1994, Mission Hill’s 1992 vintage won "Best Chardonnay" at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, making it the very first Okanagan winery to receive such high recognition. In 2011, the Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir followed suit by winning best Pinot Noir under £15. In 2013, Mission Hill did it again and won the first trophy for a Canadian wine at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Von Mandl truly put the Okanagan on the map with these awards and more, Nordin said, proving the Okanagan was “more than just beaches and peaches."
Will and Kate enjoyed quite the wine flight on their tour.
While on their 2016 visit, the royals were lucky enough to taste a few of the vineyard’s more recent additions, including its Bordeaux-style blend Oculus 2012, with tasting notes that include plum, blackberry, boysenberry, leather, and spice. The royals also enjoyed its single-estate Chardonnay, Perpetua 2012, which is part of its legacy collection. That wine has much lighter notes including pear, lemon curd, and baking spice flavors.
For those looking to indulge like Will and Kate, Nordin revealed that the couple “really enjoyed the Oculus” and shared that at home, they are typically Merlot drinkers. The couple even packed a few bottles of wine to share with their family and friends back home.
Mission Hill welcomes royals and non-royals all year round.
The Windsors aren’t the only ones who get to see and taste all of Okanagan’s offerings. Commoners are welcome to join the wineries' sommelier-guided experiences, too.
At Mission Hill, those experiences each begin with a glass of the winery’s finest offerings before guests are escorted through the grounds to learn about the wine-making process, see where the barrels are aged, and learn more about how the estate is putting the Okanagan on the global wine stage. Along the way, guests can even discover a few hidden treasures such as its ancient wine relic case located in the wine cellar. There, the family’s personal collection of ancient wine decanters is housed inside an alcove carved directly into the hillside’s volcanic rock.
As for the best times to visit the area, that totally depends on what you’re after. May to October are ideal months to visit to see the wine-making process in action, while the first two weeks of August are the optimal days to see the grapes start to ripen. As for seeing a harvest first-hand, visitors will want to focus their vacation days in on September.
But, if those dates don’t work that’s OK too as Mission Hill offers exclusive events all year long, including cooking classes featuring locally sourced Okanagan ingredients.
Now, all you need to do is put on your royal crown and reserve your spot in advance.
Getting there is easy for U.S.-based wine lovers.
Depending on where you’re coming from, you could either choose to fly or drive into the Okanagan. Alaska Airlines, West Jet, Delta, United, and Air Canada all have flights directly into Kelowna Airport, which sits in the heart of the Okanagan.
For those with a bit of time, road tripping from Vancouver to Kelowna will provide you with stunning natural views and plenty of places to stop along the four-hour drive. Just make sure to appoint someone as the designated driver before entering wine country.
As for where to stay, Kelowna offers something for everyone. For a more inclusive stay that’s perfect for couples or families, book a night or two at the Marriot Grand Okanagan Resort. There, guests will find spacious rooms, several dining options, an outdoor pool, and unparalleled views of the lake. Those looking for a chance to explore more of downtown should stay at Hotel Zed, a retro-style, hot pink boutique hotel. There, guests will be delighted by the bright colors and amenities including a rooftop bar, pool, and even a mini-disco.