British Columbia Wines – The Triumph Of A Cool Climate

Let me set out my stall here. I propose that if you want to find the world’s most exciting and vibrant wines then just start by looking for wines from cool climates. The benefits of cool climate wine growing are so persuasive that if you are in the market for a thrilling, fresh and racy wine then you could just make climate your first criteria. A cool climate that is.

Note the adjectives though – exciting, fresh, thrilling, vibrant, racy. And note the absence of words like rich, opulent, big, jammy or powerful. The former adjectives are more the domain of cool climates, the latter are more the domain of warm.

Pinot Noir from one of BC’s best producers, Tantalus Vineyards just outside Kelowna

If you find yourself drawn to wines with cool climate character you are not alone. People’s wine tastes have been gravitating towards wines that fit the “thrilling, fresh and racy” end of the spectrum. Just ask any somm or wine bar owner or the guy at your favourite wine shop. They will tell you that wine drinkers are opting for wines that are light on their feet and have an acidic verve. Think of them as wines where acidity provides a perky backbone and the fruit is bright and freshly picked. These are the “it” wines in the current market, the “bangers”.

As a case in point let’s check out some terrific examples of cool climate winemaking in the Okanagan valley wine region of British Columbia, Canada. BC makes triumphant wines in an ideal cool climate. With the soils and the climate and the market all working in your favour all you need to make some of the best wines in the world are talented viticulturists and winemakers. Fortunately, they abound in BC and we are going to visit a few of them. Let’s go.

The Scientific Magic Of Cool Climates

Wine is probably the world’s most cherished marriage of art and science. Unfortunately the science part can be dense and boring. But if you really want to make the most of your wine passion you will benefit from a bit of science. So before we get to our visit to BC let’s do some chemistry. The good news is that I’m not the best qualified person to talk about wine chemistry so I’ll just generalize!

The view over Vaseux lake from Blue Mountain Winery (photo courtesy of Wine BC)

1. Cool climates typically result in slow and late ripening of the fruit

This has an important effect on the acid balance in the grapes. Grapes contain about equal parts of malic and tartaric acid in the early stages of maturation. Keep in mind that grapes are unique among fruit in that they have such a high proportion of tartaric acid. It’s why grapes make great wine and other fruits don’t.

You see what happens is the malic acid concentration reduces with maturation while the tartaric acid concentration remains high. This acidity is absolutely critical to wine being so delicious. The killer factor for cool climates though is that at harvest there is a nice tartness from both the remaining tartaric acid and a relatively robust level of malic acid. So less jammy, more crisp.

2. Less sugar means less alcohol

The corollary of greater acidity is less sugar. And that means less alcohol after fermentation. And that means a lighter, more elegant kind of wine that doesn’t tend to have the heat and weight of a warmer climate wine. Higher alcohol levels can have sensory advantages in wines so this is not a binary thing. Wine is complex and balance is paramount. But low alcohol levels are a sought-after thing these days.

3. Colour is enhanced, fruit flavours are fresh

I’m mixing up some of the chemistry by lumping colour and flavours here but let’s not get bogged down. In short, colour and flavour intensity tend to get sealed in by the cooler nights – you can think of this as having fridge-like effect. These strong diurnal shifts are often credited with greatness in wines – think of the success of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc wines from Marlborough or the neighbouring Nelson wine region.

BC’s Cool Place In The World

With wine regions it is all about geography. You need interesting slopes and aspects, good soils, a variety of microclimates and ideally a decent size body of water to moderate temperature extremes. Say hello to the Okanagan valley wine region. Stretching 200 km from south to north starting at the border with the United States, the Okanagan valley is a winegrower’s dream. Soils of rock, sand and clay that result from glacial action and volcanic eruptions. Sloping contours flanking both sides of the valley floor. A dry climate that creates desert conditions in some areas. Sufficient summer heat to ripen some of the most noble grapes in the world. And all of this arrayed along a series of incredible lakes winding up the valley.

But how does BC stack up against other premiere cool climate wine regions? One of the most important factors for viability of any agricultural region is the Growing Degree Days that the place experiences. GDD is a way to measure heat accumulation in a growing season. With wine grapes there are indices that group regions according to their GDD. The Okanagan wine region is roughly equivalent in GDD to places like Burgundy, the Wachau in Austria, the Tokaj region in Hungary, Eden Valley in Australia, Central Otago in New Zealand etc. Interesting stuff!

When you are in Kelowna make sure to visit the best wine store in town, Cask & Barrel in West Kelowna. And ask for their phenomenal wine curator, Shanyn Ward! It’s on my list for Best Wine Shop In The World.

How To Excel With The Varieties That Thrive

Of course not every grape variety adapts well to cool climates. Zinfandel and Grenache for example like it hot – you won’t find them in Austria or northern France or BC. And those varieties that like it cool usually don’t do well in a hotter place – Pinot Noir and Riesling being examples of grapes that you are just not likely to grow in Montsant in Spain or Castel del Monte in Puglia. The winemakers of the Okanagan have a diverse range of microclimates to work with in this long valley. But all of them are “cool”. So they choose from a palate of grape varieties that they are passionate about and that suit the particular place.

Here are a few of my favourite winemakers from different parts of the Okanagan valley wine region. Terravista roughly in the middle, Tantalus in the north and Moon Curser in the south.

The Perfection of Cool Climate Varietals at Terravista Vineyards

Terravista Vineyards on the Naramata Bench overlooking Lake Okanagan primarily focuses on a range of Spanish and French white varieties. And they do it so, so well. Recently they have added a Syrah to their lineup. Dallas and Eric Thor acquired the winery from the Okanagan valley winemaking legend, Senka Tennant and her husband Bob. Senka and Bob remain involved in advisory roles. Dallas and Eric have inherited Senka’s inspired vision to plant Albarińo and Verdejo (native to northwestern Spain) on the Naramata bench vineyard. In matching the varietals to the site Senka says “It was totally a risk to decide to grow them here. You just don’t know. But some of the big decisions in life are like that. Something inside just tells you. At some point if you think about the logic too much maybe that’s not the best – sometimes you just have to follow your heart.”

Terravista Vineyards winemaking facility is like the wines – elegant and perfectly adapted to the place

The selection of the varieties turned out extremely well. Terravista is a small producer with a passionate dedicated following and their Albariño Verdejo blend, called Fandango, is perfection. Dallas and Eric are also big believers that their Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier blend demonstrates how well Rhône varieties adapt to the Okanagan valley wine region. And likewise their Syrah – grown further south in the valley – shows just how elegant BC wines can be.

The Focused Approach Of Tantalus Vineyards

At Tantalus Vineyards, one of the top couple of producers at the northern end of the Okanagan Valley, Riesling and Pinot Noir are the primary focus together with Chardonnay. Felix Egerer is Vineyard Manager at Tantalus and describes his philosophy in the vineyard:

“My team and I make a point of farming the Tantalus property with nature instead of against it. We have eliminated the use of synthetic inputs into the vineyard. We have started implementing a no-till cover crop program in an effort to regenerate the soil. By increasing the efficiency of everything we do, we have been able to make more time to step back and observe what is happening in our vineyard blocks. This allows us to adapt our practices to what the vineyards need at any given time in the season rather than creating a recipe at the beginning of the season and sticking to it no matter what nature throws at us.”

Felix and I at Tantalus in early spring

In terms of cool climate winemaking Felix has some background outside of Canada – he was born in Germany, studied winemaking at the premiere university in Germany, Geisenheim, and worked in the Pfalz. He has also studied at UC Davis in California. “You can never let your guard down in cool climate regions. The growing season is already way shorter than in warmer climates and in some years nature decides your season is over before you want it to be. You learn to observe your surroundings in an effort to draw conclusions for your vineyard. Snow lines on the mountains, flowers and shrubs in bloom, wildlife behaviour, they all give you pieces to the puzzle that is farming. My favourite part is the annual dance of sugar versus acidity at harvest time. If you nail that balance in the fruit your end product will always be superior.”

Elegant and impactful – the wine tasting room at Tantalus Vineyards

At The Warmer End of Cool at Moon Curser

The southern-most end of the valley the Okanagan wine region becomes downright hot in the summer. At Moon Curser Vineyards, just a mile from the US border, Chris and Beata Tolley make some of the best wines in BC. And with some of the most fascinating varieties. The landscape and the temperatures are surprisingly desert-like. Chris says “To give people an idea, the south end of the valley is an extension of the Sonoran Desert and is part of the geography that includes the Yakima Valley in Washington. We get 1500 growing degree days which is getting to be similar to the Rhône although the temperature profile is different.”

Chris and Beata Tolley of Moon Curser Vineyards

Chris and Beata make remarkable wines from the standard Bordeaux varietal suite as well as some truly outstanding examples of Syrah, Tempranillo, Dolcetto, Arneis and Viognier/Roussanne/Marsanne. The Moon Curser Syrah exhibits the black pepper (and slightly earthy) character that cooler climates can impart. Chris has been innovative in finding varieties that work well in the particular place where he grows. For example he says that Dolcetto is well-suited to the Osoyoos area. “It grows well in sandy soil and it ripens well in our ripening period. And it produces a very nice wine which is the ultimate test after all.”

For a “cool climate region” you might not imagine that Rioja’s iconic grape, Tempranillo, would work particularly well. But interesting things can happen when you match a variety with a certain terroir. Chris describes the unique character traits this way “We get hot here but we don’t have a long hot season – it tapers off quickly at both ends. And so we get a very different Tempranillo than Rioja – varietally correct but distinct to the valley”

The vineyards of Mooncurser near Osoyoos – the Sonoran desert north!

Other “Best Of The Best” Wine Producers In The Okanagan Valley Wine Region

Quails’ Gate Estate is perennial quality leader in the Okanagan and has one of the best restaurants in Canada. Among others their Chenin Blanc is exceptional.

Blue Mountain Winery is always at the top of critics’ lists in BC. Try their Gamay against a top vintage Beaujolais for a fun terroir comparison!

Winemaker’s Cut is a relative newcomer that is absolutely crushing it in quality. Try their Grüner! It must be the classical music they play to the vines.

Tightrope Winery is another one of the best small wineries on the fabulous Naramata Bench. Everything they make is excellent and the Rosé is sublime.

Maverick Winery is known for obsessive attention to hand-made wines including hewing vineyards out of sheer rock. The Bush Vines Syrah demonstrates why!

Useful Links And More Information is an incredible resource provided by The Wines of British Columbia. This is part of the BC Wine Institutes initiative to promote BC wines and provide quality certification for wineries is a good site for planning your visit and provides links to many of the best wineries is an official BC Tourism site with loads of information including lots of pages dedicated to wine touring is a great site for information about tourism including wine touring in the holiday destination of Kelowna is a good resource for activities in and around Vancouver including wine tourism

Cover photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia, and Tinhorn Creek Vineyards

More Great Content From The Wine Beat!

The World’s Greatest Wine Varieties (you might not have heard of yet) – There are some great cool climate examples in here!

History, Wine and Energy at Nikolaihof in the Wachau – A visit to one of Austria’s greatest winemakers in their singular, magical location

The Cocktails with Winemakers Podcast Series – Felix Egerer is our guide for these podcast introductions to winemaking

An Interview With Senka Tenant of Terravista Vineyards – A podcast introduction to the wonderful wines of Terravista on the Naramata Bench in BC’s Okanagan

2 Thoughts

  1. Hi Craig, love the article on cool climate wines, and how you position the Okanagan winegrowing region in with the worlds other more well known ones. We do indeed endure some great winegrowing challenges here, but in the end, it’s the cool climate that allows us to end up with the amazing finesse and balance that one can achieve with such great diurnal temperatures, and solar radiation. I’ve just begun a new position here in the Okanagan with Tightrope Winery after many years in the wine industry in Spain, and am so absolutely impressed with both Grahams approach to Sustainable Viticulture (he is one of the pioneers of the new Sustainable Winegrowing Certification in the OK) and with Lyndsay’s winemaking style (which you obviously agree with). We are all grateful here for the mention in your article, and glad that folks like you are venturing up to this neck of the woods to explore, and write about this ever evolving wine region. Love to meet you in person on your next visit! Salud!

  2. Great piece. I really appreciate the detail around your discussion of acidity and GDD, as well as your comments about how the OK Valley has pockets of “warmer” climate growing areas which allows producers to work with varieties which we might not expect to see in these parts. That hallmark fresh acidity found in many BC wine is becoming one of our signatures, and as a lover of of wines from places like Burgundy, Eden Valley, Tasmania and Central Otago, they resonate with me! The high acidity and lower alcohol levels can lend fantastic versatility with food – and aren’t food and wine intended to come together?! I love a lot of what’s coming out of the Okanagan, but I am also very excited about what’s going on in our “Wine Islands” region: coastal cool-climate. But let’s save that discussion for another day! Santé

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