Okanagan Valley: Canada Wine Region

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007 at 12:00 am

The Okanagan Valley is British Columbia’s oldest and main grape-growing region. Although it lies on the same latitude as the northern German and French vineyards, the Okanagan Valley is not all classified as a "cool-climate" growing region.

Distinct microclimates occur throughout the Valley, from the hot, sandy, desert soils in the southern valley to the cooler vineyard sites in the north, with their deep topsoil and clay. Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Pinot noir grow in the south, while Pinot blanc, Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer are grown in the mid and northern regions, some left to freeze on the vine for the region’s famed Icewines.

Diversity within BC’s Okanagan/Similkameen wine regions goes well beyond variable microclimates and grape varieties. Wine styles also vary broadly throughout the valleys, as do the nationalities of their winemakers. Look for wine styles reminiscent of those found in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Winemakers within this multi-ethnic winemaking region often pay homage to the wine styles of their homelands.

The British Columbia wine industry was reborn in the late 1980s when many cool-climate, hybrid grape varieties were uprooted and replaced with vinifera wine grapes which now thrive in selected microclimates along Lakes Okanagan, Skaha and Osoyoos and as far north as just above the 50th latitude. As a result of this bold government-subsidized "pull-out program," 90% of the hybrid-grape vineyards in the Okanagan Valley were removed, setting the stage for plantings of vinifera grapes.

The nature of Okanagan Valley wine making was dramatically changed, particularly in the area south of McIntyre Ridge in the Southern Okanagan Valley, where 50% of BC’s wine grapes now grow. Today, fine red varieties, as well as whites, have taken hold in the beautiful and agriculturally protected South Okanagan region. Less than 10 inches of annual rainfall are typical here since this region falls within the northernmost extension of the Sonora Desert — a desert that shares its influence with both the Okanagan and eastern Washington wine regions.

To fully appreciate the diversity of the Okanagan’s wine-growing climates and styles, plan to follow the crush on one of your trips to the region. Begin in the southern end of the Valley (see map), where grape harvest begins as much as three weeks earlier than in the north. Continue traveling north and notice the cooling of the temperatures. The further north you travel, the later the harvest. Grapes ripen more slowly, and wine grape varieties change to those best suited for cooler climates.

If you are not able or choose not to visit the Okanagan during the harvest season, it’s still a good idea to start your tour in the southern region, during the cooler part of the day. You can visit the more rural wineries located in the richly agricultural and rural south during the morning hours, and travel north through the valley to complete your tour.

Many fine bed and breakfast lodging choices are located near wineries, or you can find several fine hotels in Osoyoos in the most southern part of the Valley, just north of the Washington border of the United States