The Okanagan Valley is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world (and that is saying a lot given the beauty that often comes with wine country)
Winemaking and Canada are not words that many people in the wine world associate together (with the exception of that scourge of Canada’s wine reputation, ice wine). But there are a few places that, geography would have it, produce world class wines. And it is all about the geography in the Okanagan. Stretching 250 km from south to north starting at the border with the United States, the Okanagan is the kind of geographic anomaly that is a winemakers dream. Soils of rock, sand and clay that result from glacial action and volcanic eruptions, a dry climate that is (in some cases) a literal desert, and sufficient summer heat to grow some of the most noble grapes in the world. Oh yeah – and it’s all set along a series of incredible lakes winding between beautiful mountain ramparts.
Quails’ Gate Winery – high quality wines with a view like that!
Where is the Okanagan Valley?
The Okanagan Valley is in the central-south region of BC, running from Osoyoos to Kelowna.
Set in the rocky mountains in the Province of British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley is a 4 hour drive east from Vancouver and is just across the US border from the State of Washington. There are a series of distinct winemaking regions, each with it’s own micro-climate as you travel from south to north. Near the city of Osoyoos on the US border, the climate is desert and this is one of the best places to grow Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and Rhône varietals like Syrah and Viognier. As you go north through the Black Sage Bench, the Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Falls and on to the Naramata bench near the city of Penticton the climatic conditions and soil conditions vary to a great extent. The local regulatory authority, the BC Wine Authority, is examining the creation of individual recognized geographic appellations in addition to the few already in existence. Towards the major city of Kelowna and onwards to Lake Country the climate becomes distinctly cooler and varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer express themselves very well.
Why the Okanagan Valley for Wine
Little known fact: Often the best climate for winegrowing is a cool climate. Cool climates preserve some of the most important elements of wine grapes: fruit flavour, colour and acidity. The Okanagan is blessed with strong “diurnal” changes in temperature – so much so that some say the most important feature of the Okanagan is the warm days and cool nights. As Blue Mountain Winery’s Ian Mavety says: “Warm days with the bright sunshine result in ripe fruit character. The cool nights retain the acidity in the grapes, which just accentuates the fruit flavours and aromatics.”
Blue Mountain Vineyards overlooking Lake Vaseux
Who are the Winemakers?
Pinot Noir – a grape the Okanagan does exceptionally well
There are more than 160 wineries in the Okanagan Valley. Some of the best are: Quails’ Gate, Blue Mountain, Mooncurser, Maverick, Black Hills, Terravista, Tantalus, Laughing Stock, Tightrope. But that is just scratching the surface – you have to tour the valley to find your own favourite. There are wines for every budget – many are quite expensive.
Listen to the podcast with Senka Tennant of Terravista Vineyards on The Wine Beat podcast
When to Visit
Rieslings from the Okanagan are bracing, crisp and world-class.
The best times are in the late spring and early fall. July and August can be very busy. If you are a skier, then coming in winter might be a great way to combine your wine passion with some of the best skiing in the world.
Photos and maps courtesy of The BC Wine Institute.