Exploring BC Wine

There’s no shortage of opportunities for winery visits out west

British Columbia is home to a handful of wine regions that are all radically different from one another. Even the Okanagan Valley, BC’s largest region, responsible for making well over 80 percent of the province’s total wine production, has its own set of very different microclimates. It’s impossible to summarize BC wine as a whole, suffice to say that it’s a land of incredible diversity and experimentation.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the westernmost province to sample its increasingly famous—and delicious—wines. The following is a brief overview of the province’s recognized wine regions, which are officially known as Geographical Indications (GI).

Okanagan Valley

View of an Okanagan VineyardNumber of wineries: 132

Oldest winery: Calona Vineyards, 1931

Acres planted: 8619

Top grapes: Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay

Spanning 250 kilometres along a narrow, winding glacial lake, the Okanagan Valley wine region stretches from the rolling fields of Armstrong and Vernon in the north, southward through the tourist mecca of Kelowna in the centre, and farther south right up to the US border and the parched deserts around Oliver and Osoyoos. Vineyards stretch east and west up both sides of the valley, where the short, hot summer is offset by a long, cold winter: daily summer highs regularly spike above 40C while winter lows can dip below -20C, reaching the very limit of what Vitis vinifera grapevines can survive.

As you’d expect from such a widely ranging landscape, the variation in climate, soil and growing conditions is huge from one end of the Okanagan to the other. The northern half of the Okanagan is coolest, so grapes that thrive in cooler climates fare best here: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gamay. Down in the warmer south, Bordeaux and Rhone varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz thrive in the heat.

There’s a movement underway to divide the Okanagan Valley into smaller sub-GIs in order to better reflect the individual terroir in each area. The Golden Mile Bench is the first of these new sub-GIs, established just last year in 2015; others under consideration right now are Osoyoos and the Black Sage Bench, Okanagan Falls, Naramata/Penticton and Kelowna/Lake Country.

When visiting the Okanagan, be prepared for a lot of traffic and line-ups: because it has the highest concentration of wineries and was already a tourist hub before it became known as a wine destination.

Similkameen Valley

hsg-dish-bc-wineNumber of wineries: 14

Oldest winery: Keremeos Vineyards (now called St Laszlo), 1984

Acres planted: 691

Top grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay

Windswept and far less-travelled than the neighbouring Okanagan, BC’s Similkameen Valley is a hotbed of organic agriculture. Some 40 percent of the area’s farms are organic—vineyards included. Much of that is thanks to the incessant wind, which can be annoying to some but also causes a drying effect that acts as a natural pesticide and fungicide. Similkameen wines are notable for their beautiful floral aromatics, herbal undertones and pure minerality. The area is also a welcome respite for tourists weary of the big crowds throughout the Okanagan, and it is only a short drive away over a lovely mountain range.

Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands

Number of wineries: 45

Oldest winery: Zanatta Winery, 1992

Acres planted: 526 acres

Top grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Ortega, Marechal Foch

Tucked just on the western side of the island’s high mountain ranges, the wineries nested in forest clearings throughout Vancouver Island’s fertile Cowichan Valley specialize in grapes that enjoy the cool climate and long frost-free growing season. Vineyards are centred around the town of Duncan, though they stretch as far north as the town of Nanaimo and as far south as Victoria, into the Saanich Peninsula.

While a number of cool-climate varieties grow here (notably Pinot Noir and Gris), hybrid varieties—the underdog of the wine world and often overlooked as making an inferior wine—have a place of honour and respect on the island. Hardy and enduring, they were among the first grapes to grow and thrive here, and are still produced in fairly large quantities, though they are being steadily replaced with vinifera vines. A number of producers also import some grapes and juice from other regions, notably the Okanagan, in order to produce the bold red wines that customers often ask for, but which cannot ripen in the island’s cool climate.

The Gulf Islands (also nicknamed the “wine islands”) are scattered throughout the stretch of ocean between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island. Five of them are home to wineries: Salt Spring, Pender, Saturna, Quadra and Hornby. With a similar climate to Vancouver Island, you’ll find corresponding types of wine being made throughout these little islands—which are perfect for a quiet, relaxing vacation away from the mainland crowds.

Fraser Valley

Number of wineries: 23

Oldest winery: Domaine de Chaberton, 1991

Acres planted: 63

Top grapes: Blattner Reds/hybrids, Blattner Whites/hybrids, Pinot Noir, Bacchus

It’s easy to miss the signs for the couple dozen wineries scattered along the Fraser Valley as you cruise down the highway to Vancouver. Located just 100 kilometres outside of Vancouver’s downtown core, the Fraser Valley is the province’s agricultural hub: over half of BC’s farming activity is located here. Because of the area’s coastal influence, the climate is much milder than in the inland regions, with higher rainfall. While this means there’s little threat of winter damage to the vines, it can be a struggle to fully ripen grapes here. Specific site selection is very important, and the area is known as an experimental zone for various newly developed hybrids.

Emerging BC Wine Regions

Enterprising winemakers continue to stretch the boundaries of where wine is made throughout BC (and, indeed, throughout the rest of Canada as well). These emerging regions represent the newest frontier of wine, and they are located in some unlikely places: nestled throughout the sparkling lakes in the Shuswap, tucked into the arid hills around Kamloops, hidden in the forests and mountains near Creston. If you’re up for an adventure, seek out the producers eking out their living in these places—which just might be the next big thing in BC wine.

mel priestley

mel@vueweekly.com