Whether navigating through Burgundy, Napa Valley, Chianti or the Barossa Valley, sampling new wines, experiencing gorgeous scenery, dining at fine restaurants and hobnobbing with fellow enthusiasts - wine based travel can be an insightful, enjoyable effort. But serious wine touring…in British Columbia, Canada? You bet.
Called the Okanagan, this spectacular, up-and-coming wine region begins at the northernmost tip of the Sonoran desert, just over the US/Canadian border. The Okanagan Valley exists in a rain shadow between British Columbia’s majestic Monashee and Coastal mountain ranges producing an arid agricultural zone with long hours or northerly summer sun - perfect conditions for grape growing. To put this simply - though British Columbia lies above the 49th parallel (the latitude line separating the United States from Canada) it might seem too northerly to ripen grapevines properly. However during the actual growing season, this region receives plenty of long hot days, with ample hear units reaching the grape vines. The desert climate helps keep unwanted rain out and the resulting vineyards produce vines with sufficient maturity. (In fact many Canadians retire to the Okanagan area for its warm, dry climate) Add in modern technology and a commitment to produce fine white and red wines, and you can taste the results. Winemakers from around the world (including Bordeaux) have relocated to this region for its wide open spaces and ability to produce fine wines. Seek out a bottle of Osoyoos LaRose as a fine example of a worhty red blend.
The Okanagan is divided three main regions surrounding a few lakes roughly bisecting the Okanagan. “South” Okanagan is made up of the towns of Summerland, Penticton, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Oliver, and Osoyoos; “Central” comprises Lake Country, Kelowna, West Kelowna and Peachland; “North” comprises Armstrong, Enderby and Vernon. Vineyards and wineries are primarily located in the Central and South Okanagan areas. There are very few wineries in the North Okanagan as it still remains more of a ranching area.
The Okanagan wine industry (and by extension the greater BC wine industry) began in the Central Okanagan in 1932 (with Calona Wines - BC’s first commercial winery) and then in earnest in the 1970s when wineries such as Mission Hill, Gray Monk, Cedar Creek, Sumac Ridge, Quails Gate, St. Hubertus and Tantalus planted roots.
Today, there are about 135 active wineries producing in the Okanagan with more than 9,400 acres of planted grapevines. The areas around Oliver and Osoyoos contain the greatest number of vines, with Merlot being the number one varietal. Chardonnay is the second largest varietal grown in the Okanagan followed by Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. Vineyards thrive on the east and west sides of the lakes, starting with Osoyoos Lake in the south and the larger Okanagan Lake farther north, near Kelowna, the largest city. Nearby towns include Oliver (the self-proclaimed Wine Capital of Canada), Penticton and the tiny town of Naramata. (Naramata roughly translates into “My wife’s smile” in the native dialect.) The scenery is pretty, the people friendly and the wines are for real.
c. Bob Ecker 2013