The Okanagan Valley – bridging the divide between the Old World and the New

24 08 2017

After a week touring the Okanagan Valley with the British Columbia Wine Institute, I have come back bubbling with enthusiasm for these delicious wines. The unique climate and soils result in a combination of ripe fruit and racy acidity that bridges the gap between cool climate and warm climate.

Where is the Okanagan Valley?
Spin the globe and you’ll find British Columbia on the western side of Canada. Drive four hours inland from Vancouver over the mountain ranges and you’ll come to the vast Lake Okanagan, 84 miles long and 3 miles wide, a mecca for summer holidaymakers keen on water sports. It even has its own Okopogo monster which lurks in the depths and looks just like the Loch Ness monster. Geologically this area was created by volcanic and glacial action. The mountains rise up pretty steeply from the edge of the lake but there are a series of benches on both sides which look like flat giant steps and it is here that the vineyards can be found at an altitude of around 400-600m. There is one official sub-region which has just been created, called Golden Mile Bench on the west side of the valley and there are a few unofficial sub-regions: Kelowna, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Black Sage Bench (opposite Golden Mile Bench), Osoyoos and the Similkameen Valley. “Kelowna” means “grizzly bear” and bears do regularly trundle down the mountains when the grapes are ripe and sweet and wreak havoc in the vineyards if they are not well-protected with electric fencing. Cougars and particularly deer are also a nuisance.

I thought Canada was too cold for wine?
It’s not cold here in the Okanagan which has been called the land of peaches and beaches. A land of extremes, summer temperatures can get up to 30-40 degrees C during the day and then drop right down at night. The higher latitude gives two hours more sunlight per day in the summer than Napa. At the end of summer the weather suddenly changes and there is often a cold snap with freezing temperatures in November which announces the ice-cold winter where temperatures can dip below -20 degrees C. The short growing season from April to end October is very intense for the vines. Believe it or not, it’s so dry on the eastern side of the coastal mountain range that vines have to be irrigated as annual rainfall is only 12-16 inches a year. This helps keep disease away and many growers are practising or converting to organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Whilst generally cooler at the north end of the lake around Kelowna and getting warmer the further south you go down to Osoyoos on the US border, microclimates are nonetheless formed from the shading of the mountains. The east side gets the afternoon sun long into the evening and is therefore warmer than the west side and where the mountains fold around ravines it creates a shadowing effect which means that it’s possible to grow Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon on the same estate in some places, which is pretty unique.

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What about the soil?
The soils are very diverse with ancient volcanic bedrock and newer glacial soils. The lake formed behind a glacial dam and was some 300 metres higher than it is now. When the ice melted over 10,000 years ago it did so in several stages exposing terraces or “benches” of deposited silts as the water flooded out. These flat benches at the edge of the current lake are ideal sites for the vineyards. In general the northern end has more clay and gravel while the south is much sandier but within a vineyard soils can vary widely. Growers dig several soilpits to check the soil type, pH, water holding capacity and match the right grape variety before planting.

Which grapes are they growing?
The most planted grapes are Pinot Gris and Merlot but these aren’t necessarily the most exciting wines. The cool nights help preserve the grapes’ natural acidity and the cool sites can produce some really racy Riesling and structured Pinot Noir while Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Viognier do well on warmer sites and there’s some fabulously silky Gamay being made too. Many growers have invested in concrete eggs and amphorae and there are plenty of skin contact/wild ferment/low sulphur/orange wines to be found, both still and sparkling. The signature of these wines is their ripeness of fruit and yet fresh acidity, making them somewhere in between cool and warm climate, old and new world. The high natural acidities are a great opportunity to make Traditional method and Pet Nat sparklings.

How good are the wines?
Some wines that I tasted during my week were beautiful, delicate, fragrant, nuanced, others were powerful and plush. It’s a very exciting area. Many vines are still very young, growers are experimenting to see what grows best where and winemakers are finding the style that works for their fruit. It will be fascinating to follow these wines as they develop and the vines get older.

The wines definitely hold their own on the world stage. This was proved at the annual British Columbia Wine Judgement where they select a different red and white grape each year and 30 or so judges blind taste them against international counterparts. First they are ranked for quality and then judges try and decide if they are from BC or International. I took part this year and we were tasting the most widely planted grapes, Pinot Gris and Merlot. Blind tasting is great fun and inevitably a humbling experience and much as I would like to say that I could spot all the countries of origin, I couldn’t. I was looking for that combination of ripeness and acidity and I got half the BC Pinot Gris right and two thirds of the Merlot. My top three Merlots were all Okanagan. That in itself proves the point that these wines can stand up to international scrutiny.

How come we haven’t heard about these wines before?
Well as one grower put it, “We’re thirty years young and ten years serious.” Vinifera vines weren’t trialled until the 1970s and it was only in the 2000s that plantings started to increase. In 1990 there were only 17 wineries, today there are 275 with nearly 9000 acres planted at the last count with new wineries popping up all over. As a popular holiday destination for people all over Canada and nearby US states, all with a growing thirst for these delicious wines, the wineries can easily sell all that they produce at the cellar door, through their wine clubs and to Vancouver restaurants – they don’t actually need to export. In fact there’s a shortage of grapes to meet demand and this is pushing up vineyard land prices. However the savvy owners, several of whom built a fortune in Vancouver in the finance industry, know that you earn your price point in the international market and are keen to start or increase their exports.

You haven’t mentioned Icewine…
When temperatures get down lower than -8 then it’s time to think about Icewine and this delicious sweet wine is a popular style with visitors. You can find Icewine made from all sorts of different grapes, even Syrah! But the Okanagan is about so much more than Icewine…

So which wineries do you recommend?
Here is a list of the wineries that I visited/tasted over five days and are worth looking out for:
50th Parallel
Bartier
Bella
Black Hills
Burrowing Owl
Cedar Creek
Clos du Soleil
Culmina
Hillside
Jackson Triggs
Laughing Stock
La Stella
Le Vieux Pin
Little Farm
Martin’s Lane
Meyer
Mission Hill
Nkmip
Orofino
Okanagan Crush Pad
Poplar Grove
Painted Rock
Quail’s Gate
Summerhill Pyramid
Tantalus
Upper Bench

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