THE OKANAGAN WINE REGION
ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP WINE DESTINATIONS
GREAT WINE IN CANADA?
As proud Canadians, having great wine produced locally is something many of us take for granted. However, in the eyes of much of the world, the Canadian wine industry is still very unknown, and perhaps our best kept secret. It’s not surprising when you look at our volume in comparison to other countries in the world. Canada represents only 0.1% of global wine exported. However, as many a wise man have said ‘it is not the quantity, but the quality that matters’.
There is no doubt that the Okanagan Valley is an anomaly of the Canadian landscape. This is because it is the northernmost extension of the Sonoran Desert. Bordered by magnificent mountains, and host to beautiful tranquil lakes, the Okanagan Valley is extremely fertile, and a perfect location for world class vineyards. If you have a globe in your home, or perhaps google earth, take a look at what lies roughly on the same latitude around the world, and you will notice a little town called Champagne in France. It’s perhaps why we produce such sensational sparkling wines like Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cipes Brut.
Although the Okanagan is on the same latitude as the Champagne region in France, it’s climate is very different. A semi-arid climate resulting from the rain shelter of the coastal cascade mountains, and moderated by sloping vineyards around the Okanagan lake. Characterized by intensely hot summer days, and cool evenings, irrigation is very much required. The Okanagan only sees on average 12 inches of rain annually.
The Okanagan region also gets two hours extra sunlight during the growing season when compared to our southern hemisphere competitors. This arguably gives our wine a flavour punch nurturing high natural sugars, balanced acidity from the cool evenings, and complex tannins from the resulting skins. Beyond the perfect macro-climate, the Okanagan region is also very diverse with many different microclimates which results in unique growing conditions, only suitable to particular varieties. When the right variety is matched with it’s perfect microclimate, often wines of particular distinction are produced.
The Okanagan Valley stretches about 125 miles long and 12 miles wide, and it’s unique soil composition was formed by volcanic action, and several glaciations over 10,000 years ago. The glaciers left various deposits of sand, gravel, and silt on the floor and lower slopes of the valley. Sediment erosion by wind and water has since continued to make many mineral rich and fertile areas, each one unique.
Terrior is the belief that a wine is given identity by it’s unique environment. It has been how the french and other european wine producers categorize the quality of their wine for a very long time. It is more important than grape variety and is gradually becoming very popular and trendy in the marketing of Okanagan wine. Many producers are focusing on single vineyard wines now to express the flavour of particular sites. You often pay more for the careful craft and labor intensive small volume production.
OKANAGAN WINE REGIONS & SUB-REGIONS
The Okanagan wine district can be characterized by the sum of several unique wine regions from North to South:
Lake Country, and Kelowna (904 acres planted) - Generalized as heavier soils with sandy loam, clay and limestone but honestly, every vineyard site is different.
Peachland and Summerland (355 acres planted) - Fertile ice age clay and rich volcanic soils.
Penticton / Naramata (898 acres planted) - Glacial lake sediments, including silt, sand and gravel.
Okanagan Falls (539 acres planted) - Diverse soils and aspects.
Oliver (3543 acres planted) - Well-drained fluvial fans of stony gravelly sandy loams.
Osoyoos (2301 acres planted) - Soils are very deep sandy glaciofluvial materials overlying granite bedrock.
OKANAGAN GRAPE VARIETIES
Prior to the late 80s the majority of wine grapes planted in the Okanagan Valley were from the native species Vitis Labrusca, and Hybrid species which produced varieties such as Marechal Foch, Baco Noir, Vidal, Kerner, Zweigelt, Ehrenfelser. Hybrids (two or more species bred together) were developed by scientists to hold up in cold conditions and short growing seasons. In the 80s and 90s there was a phenomenal chain of events that led to the award winning varieties and wines we have today:
Pioneer vintners refused to believe that the only wine we could grow in the Okanagan was hybrid wine grape varieties or the ‘funky’ tasting Labrusca varieties. They didn’t give up, despite many setbacks, and instead developed revolutionary canopy management techniques with new trellis systems, and aggressive low yield pruning which produced quality wine grapes from the Vitis Vinifera varieties from Europe.
The North American Free Trade Agreement with the USA in 1987 meant that Canada could no longer just rely on it’s wine being much cheaper than imports. It had to match their quality of production, and the much in demand vogue European varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinots produced from the Vitis Vinifera species.
In knowledge of this the federal and provincial governments financially supported the vintners in pulling up the old hybrid and native varieties to be replaced by Vitis Vinifera varieties. About 70% of old vines were replaced. So when you have an old vines Marechal Foch or Ehrenfelser from Summerhill Pyramid Winery next time, appreciate it was one of the few that survived this turn of events, and the vintner must of believed it to be worthy.
A Vintners Quality Alliance was established so that consumers could be guaranteed authentic canadian appellations, varietal percentage, vintage and a high standard of wines.
Today there are over 80 varieties in the Okanagan valley. Relative to much of the world, we have an industry still very much in it’s teenage years experimenting and trying new things. It’s exciting and vibrant, striving for international recognition.
ICE WINE (Eiswein)
Perhaps the biggest accident that has made Canada’s wine industry known the most is Ice wine. Produced when wine grapes are left on the vine until optimum temperatures of about -10C are achieved. Naturally frozen grapes are harvested often in the cold of the night, and pressed whilst in their frozen state to extract a concentrated syrup like juice leaving behind much of the grapes water as ice crystals. The result is an elegant natural desert like wine. This strict natural process of harvesting frozen is why about 75% of Canada’s Ice wine is produced in Ontario (Canada’s largest wine region). In fact, the often mild winters of the Okanagan make it very risky and challenging to create an ice wine, and grapes may rot, or be otherwise lost before the freeze occurs. Also, Ice wine takes roughly seven times the volume of grapes when compared to a regular bottle of wine. Hence the high price tag of a quality ice wine!
OKANAGAN AGRICULTURAL CHANGE
There are about 9,000 acres of wine grapes planted in the Okanagan today. It has been an agricultural area for a long time. Once an area dominated by apple orchards, more recent years have seen them being replaced by higher value crops such as wine grapes and cherries.
Sitting on one of the great lakes of Canada, ourselves, and about 200,000 others are blessed to call Kelowna home. It is a vibrant city, with a rapidly growing population, cultural diversity, and surrounded by beautiful nature. It has the perfect four season climate for outdoor enthusiasts. With farms, orchards and vineyards everywhere if you like high quality local ingredients then this is the city to live in. It’s not surprising the culinary scene is exploding here.
OTHER DELIGHTS IN THE OKANAGAN
There are so many things to enjoy when wine tasting in the Okanagan: soak up the warm friendly people, capture the stunning views, swim in serene lakes, golf on over 40 courses, sun bath on one of the many beaches, sail into the sunsets, ski champagne powder, hike or dare to climb the mountains, and savor the fresh local produce. It is one big playground.
Want more information, we often share our thoughts, and latest loves in the Okanagan in our BLOG.
Also check out:
Where to Eat?