Over the last decade, the Okanagan Valley has emerged as North America’s newest premium wine-growing region. This area of British Columbia is an extremely unique, breathtakingly beautiful wine region. Some refer to it as one of the last pioneering fronts in the wine world. The diversity of vines that thrive in various microclimates provides winemakers with a multitude of options to express their creative talents and technical experience. The region has attracted winemakers from around the world and is now home to vintners from France, Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa.
Desert Wine Country
The Okanagan Valley is a 200 km (124 mile) long trough that extends north from the 49th parallel into the central southern interior of British Columbia. Present day topography shows deep valleys lined with a mixture of many different bedrock sources, with the valley floor and lower slopes underlain with silt, sand and gravel laid down by glacial deposits over 10,000 years ago.
The northern end of the Sonoran Desert, which extends all the way south to Mexico, just barely touches across the USA-Canada border into British Columbia, into the south Okanagan Valley in the town of Osoyoos. Referred to as Canada’s only “pocket desert,” geography has everything to do with the dryness of the southern BC interior and shapes the landscape for viticulture.
The climate of the Okanagan Valley is governed by the region’s location in the lee of the Coast Mountain Range. These mountains, with peaks of over 2,450 metres (8,000 ft) are effective weather blocks. While the weather west of the Coast Range in Vancouver is wet, a rain shadow effect is produced east of the range in the Okanagan Valley. Rainfall is lowered to an annual average 410mm (16 inches) in the north (Kelowna) and 200mm (eight inches) in the south (Osoyoos).
Summer months are dry and warm with rainfall usually in the form of brief showers. June is the wettest month. Short hot periods occur when dry continental air invades the area from the desert region of the southeastern United States. Temperatures can often reach 35° C (95° F) or more. The average temperature during the warmest month in the south Okanagan (Oliver) is 22°C (71.6 °F.)
For comparison, the average temperature during the warmest month for Bordeaux, France is 19.6° C (67.3° F) and annual precipitation is 786mm (31 inches); and, in the Napa Valley, California, the average temperature in the warmest month is 19.1° C (66.4° F) and the annual rainfall is 650mm (25.6 inches.)
Vineyards have been established primarily on benches, glacial lake deposits and slope deposits. The soils were mostly deposited in the valley during the last ice age and they vary in texture and depth, which influence their water and nutrient holding capacity and may influence rooting depth and availability of water and nutrients to roots.
Most of the Valley’s vineyards are planted on southern or westerly slopes to take advantage of higher Growing Degree Days, aiming for 1,390 days and above. (Note: Growing Degree Days are calculated by accumulating the number of days where there is sufficient heat to encourage plant growth; for grapes, growth begins at temperatures greater than 10°C / 50°F.) In the south Okanagan Valley in 2003, the Growing Degree Days were at 1,682. In 2002, 1,504; and, 1,472 in 2001.
The southern part of the Okanagan Valley (from Kelowna to Osoyoos) has a moderate climate suitable for grape production. A chain of pristine blue lakes fed by several rivers runs the length of the Valley, moderating intense summer air masses and chilly winter air alike. Viticulturists throughout the Okanagan depend on the water-moderated climate. Intense sunlight and minimal rainfall allow the grapes to ripen to their full maturity, while cool nights help them to retain high acidity. These climatic conditions, along with an adaptation to the Okanagan’s varying soil structure and excellent viticulture practices, produce wines that are full-bodied and highly flavoured with good acidity.
Okanagan Lake is the largest body of water in the Valley. To its immediate south lie three smaller lakes: Skaha, Vaseux, and Osoyoos. The breathtaking landscape features jagged grey cliffs edging the lake, and sage and grass covered rolling hills complete with scenic orchards, vineyards and quaint towns.
The Okanagan Valley falls in the northern hemisphere’s wine-growing belt and shares the same latitude as northern German and French vineyards. While referred to as a "cool-climate" wine region, unique microclimates exist throughout the Valley. The northern tip of the Okanagan Valley is at 50°N, and the southern tip is at 49°.
Some of the latitudes of other key wine growing regions are:
Australia - Victoria: 36°S
A New Era in Winemaking
While winemaking in the region dates back to 1859, the “new era,” which focused on the planting of premium vinifera grapes, got underway in the 1980s and 1990s. The industry was threatened in the mid-1980s by GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that leveled the market advantage previously enjoyed by domestic wineries.
Producers knew that ultra premium wines were their future. They responded by removing two-thirds of the planted acres to make room for more suitable premium vinifera grapes and introduced strict wine standards under the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) quality seal. The 19 existing wineries worked with growers to rebuild and to forge a new beginning – one that promoted quality over quantity.
Currently the total grape acreage for the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys is 1,777 hectares (4,392 acres) and tonnage produced in the 2003 vintage was 14,061 metric tonnes (15,500 tons.)
Principal Grape Varieties
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon thrive in the hot, sandy soils in the southern Valley while Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir are planted in the cooler northern vineyard sites.
Note: totals in table do not add up to total grape acreage and tonnage reported, as the table includes only the main varieties grown (There are about 38 red varieties and 39 white varieties grown in the Okanagan Valley).
The Region Today
Today in the Okanagan, there are 235 different vineyards, producing 20,320 tonnes (20,000 tons) of grapes annually. 50% of total production is white grape varieties, and 50% is red varieties.
As a comparison, Bordeaux, France has 114,930 hectares (284,000 acres) of vineyards and Napa Valley, California has 14,164 hectares (35,000 acres.)
The province of British Columbia is home to approximately 95 wineries, and there are four distinct wine regions in British Columbia: the Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island. The Okanagan Valley accounts for 95 percent of total production. While the region has yet to establish sub appellations, the Black Sage Bench, the Osoyoos Lake Bench, the Golden Mile and the Naramata Bench are emerging micro-climates worth noting.
While international data is not broken down by region, Canada, as a country, ranks 34th in terms of global wine production. The closest New World wine region in size to Canada is New Zealand, which ranks 26th.
France ranks first for world wine production, at 55.3 million hectolitres (1,216.600 million gallons) in 2002. Italy, is 2nd at 43 million hectolitres (946 million gallons) in 2002. Spain has the most area under vines in the world, and production comes in at the third highest in the world, yet is more variable each year due to scant rainfall and soil. The United States is the world’s 4th largest producer of wine at 23 million hectolitres (506 million gallons.) Other rankings to note are Argentina at 5th, Australia 6th, South Africa, 8th and Chile, 16th.
Canada’s Wine Standards – VQA
Vintners Quality Alliance is a set of strict national standards that govern the production of wine. The system dictates that wines bearing the British Columbia VQA seal must be made from 100% British Columbia grown grapes. They must remain true to varietal character and be free of faults. The standards stipulate acceptable brix levels at harvest, Designated Viticultural Areas (DVA) and labeling terminology, and Icewine production. Each wine must pass a blind tasting review by a panel of trained sensory technicians before bearing the VQA logo.
While the Okanagan Valley has received international acclaim for its sparkling and table wines, the region is widely recognized as one of the world's leading producers of Icewine, which was first made in the Valley in 1973.
Icewine harvest can only occur after grapes freeze naturally on the vine at -8°C (-18°F) or colder. This means that the grapes must remain on the vine until winter, and as the grapes hang they continually ripen, sugar concentration grows, and intense flavour develops.
The grapes are picked and pressed in a continuous process before they thaw. This ensures that the natural water portion of the juice stays within the grape skins in the form of ice crystals. The resulting low yielding nectar is highly concentrated, and the resulting wines are very popular for the deep flavours and natural sweetness they impart.
A Wine Region with Distinct Aboriginal Roots
There are several Indian tribes in the Okanagan Valley that form the Okanagan Nation. The Bands are Interior Salish speaking people, who have inhabited this land for thousands of years. Many of the towns and lakes in the Okanagan derive their names from the native language. There are slight variations from Band to Band (“Okanagan” in British Columbia is spelled “Okanagon” in Washington State for example) and different interpretations also evolved over the centuries. There are approximately 52 separate language groups in Canada, 23 of which are in British Columbia.
The word “Okanagan” has
a dual meaning: it refers to the name of the people, and also
how they wear their hair (gathered on the top of the head, tied
with buckskin twine and adorned with feathers). “Osoyoos” means “shallow
place where lakes join” or “joining of two great lakes.” Skaha
Lake is “Dog” Lake. Penticton means “a place
where people gather” and Kelowna means “Grizzly Bear.”
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