If you think that Wine Country and Canada have as much in common as beaches and the Arctic Tundra, think again.
In the Western Canadian province of British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has developed into a significant wine-producing area. This undiscovered wine country is often referred to as the “Napa of the North”.
That may be stretching the truth somewhat with Okanagan wine production a literal drop in the bucket compared to that of Napa Valley.
Located in the southern interior, the Okanagan is characterized by a dry, sunny climate, beautiful landscapes, and a series of lakes.
The mountains are lined with ponderosa pine, which give way to cacti, tumbleweeds, and fragrant sage brush.
The region receives a mere 10 to 12 inches of rain annually and is geographically considered a semi-desert—the hottest and driest place in Canada. But the sandy slopes are the foundation of an ever-expanding industry that is producing world class, award-winning wines. In 2011, BC wineries won over 2,000 medals in national and international competition.
Before becoming a wine destination, the Okanagan was a family holiday spot, best known for its “beaches and peaches”—the lakes with their sandy shores, boating, and waterskiing as well as the countless farm stands offering fresh produce and fruit. The beaches and peaches—and cherries, apricots, apples, and pears—are still there, and the Okanagan still welcomes families. With its mild, dry climate, the region is also popular with golfers, hikers, and bikers.
Popular cities and towns in the Okanagan include Vernon, Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland, Pentiction, Naramata, Oliver, and Osoyoos.
Although the premium Okanagan Valley wine industry didn’t begin until the late 1980s, it’s booming now with over 180 licensed wineries.
After dabbling for decades in easy-to-grow hybrids and labrusca (native American varieties), the Okanagan wine industry got its real launch in 1988. In a move designed to counter the North American Free Trade Agreement’s negative effect on the Canadian wine industry, the government began paying growers to pull out labrusca and French hybrid vines and replant with the more desirable European (Vitis vinifera) grape varieties.
Today, most vines in the Okanagan Valley are less than 25 years old and many of its wineries are still run by the families who started them.
The wide diversity of growing environments in the Okanagan means that the region is suited to an unusually varied selection of grape varieties.
The top white varietals include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling with some grapes being left to freeze on the vine for the region’s famed ice wines. These are concentrated, sweet dessert wines often served in chocolate shot glasses.
Among the reds, expect outstanding Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Marechal Foch, and Syrah.
Combined with their ever-increasing depth of knowledge and experience, Okanagan wineries continue to drive quality forward with every new vintage. We experienced that tremendous momentum on our most recent visit last month.
Wineries that clearly exceed our grape expectations include Tinhorn Creek, Burrowing Owl, Gehringer Brothers, and Hester Creek along Oliver’s Miracle Mile; Quail’s Gate, Mission Hill, and Cedar Creek overlooking the shores of Okanagan Lake near Kelowna; and NK’mip (pronounced ‘Ink-a-meep’) Cellars, North America’s first aboriginal owned and operated winery near Osoyoos Lake. NK’mip sits on natural desert land surrounded by the stunning contrast of sagebrush and vineyards.
Wineries with quirky names reflect the Valley’s colorful history. For instance, Blasted Church alludes to an Okanagan Falls church dismantled with dynamite.
Haywire, an old Canadian term that refers to wire once used for baling hay, which tended to tangle in a chaotic way, is an apt description of the steep learning curve in transitioning from the city to owning a vineyard and winery.
And don’t overlook Dirty Laundry which takes its name from the true story of a Chinese fellow who, after escaping the hard work on the railway, came to Summerland in the early 1900s and started up a laundry service—but the rumor persisted that upstairs he had gambling and a brothel.
Wine festivals are a great opportunity to meet the winemakers and sample wine. A superb wine experience, the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival is now in its 34th year (October 3-13, 2014). Other annual festivals include the Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival (January 17-25, 2015) and the Spring Okanagan Festival (April 30-May 10, 2015).
The summer beach experience and tree-ripened fruit is still part of the Okanagan’s unique charm. But now the RV also comes back loaded with cases of wine.
Anyone who tries to make you believe that he knows all about wines is obviously a fake.
―Leon D. Adams, The Commonsense Book of Wine