Stretched between the Northern Pacific coastline and the Coast Range Mountains, British Columbia has always been recognized for its natural beauty and serene tourist appeal. And during the past decade, the region has added the lure of world-class wineries to its abundant attractions. Many who once thought of British Columbia as synonymous with snow and ferries are increasingly drawn to the North coast not just for the beautiful surroundings, but for the pleasures of the vineyard and tasting room as well.
Though British Columbia wines are late-comers to the international wine trade, winemaking is nothing new in this region of Canada. Grapes have been planted here since the 19th century, with the first winery in BC beginning production in the 1930s. Each of BC's viticultural areas -- the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys in the central southern part of the province, and the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island regions on the coast - has a unique microclimate and predictable growing season that make it ideally suited to grape growing.
Viticulture has played a role in this region for centuries, but it wasn't until the eighties, as the result of government-sponsored experimental vineyard plots, that winemakers began making fast and significant progress in harnessing the area's potential. A period of extensive varietal experimentation to determine which grapes would ripen properly and survive the frosty BC winters gave winemakers the head start they needed to make premium varieties without suffering through years of costly trial and error. Growers replaced hybrid vines with high-quality varieties, and with the free-trade agreements with the United States and a GATT decision, the entire BC wine industry restructured and shifted its focus to making quality wine.
During this shift toward quality wine production, many of the region's aspiring winemakers went abroad to study their craft, often attending schools like Weinsberg and Geisenheim in Germany, or the University of California at Davis. They returned home with a variety of winemaking techniques and styles that they continue to apply and adapt to BC's growing conditions and grape varieties. Some wineries also got a boost by tapping the expertise of international winemakers - award-winning winemakers from as far away as New Zealand and Hungary, and as nearby as the Napa Valley, have contributed to the increased success of the region's wineries.
A solid partner in getting the BC wine industry out of the vineyards and into the marketplace is the British Columbia Wine Institute. BCWI serves many roles in the up-and-coming wine industry, among them the promotion of sales, marketing and production of BC wines, the regulation of standards for BC-produced wines, and development and improvement of provincial viticultural and oenological practices.
In 1990, the BCWI introduced wine standards under the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) banner. Like the French ACO (appellation d'origine controlee) and the Italian DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata garantita), the VQA serves as a contract between Canada's vintners and the consumer. A VQA medallion is a commitment to quality and a guarantee that a wine expresses the highest aspiration of the vintner's art as determined by a panel of judges selected from the grape growing, winemaking and restaurant industries.
This hard work and solid research has paid off quickly for BC. Today, 58 wineries with more than 4,000 planted acres are poised to introduce BC wines into glasses around the world.
Two small growing areas, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island, lie in coastal growing regions. Both enjoy warm, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. While climate conditions aren't ideal, winemakers there have met the challenges imposed by weather to produce accomplished, praise-worthy wines.
The Fraser Valley, with two wineries and 20 planted hectares, is the smallest of BC's four viticultural areas. This fertile farming community to the east of Vancouver is the largest agricultural region in the province and has a temperate climate for grape growing.
Vancouver Island is BC's newest wine-growing region. Situated off the coast and an hour's drive from Victoria, 20 hectares of hillside vineyards wind along quaint country lanes that link historic towns. Ten small wineries now add to the appeal of what has always been a picturesque tourist destination.
Further inland is the high desert cattle country of the Similkameen Valley, whose climate is influenced by the Similkameen River and the steep surrounding mountains. Two wineries have found success with 40 hectares planted along the river's edge.
While all four regions have contributed quality wines to the BC trade, the 100-mile Okanagan Valley, cradled in the south central interior, remains the area's largest and most active winemaking region. Grapes were planted in the Okanagan as far back as the 1860s, when Father Charles Pandosy established vineyards at the Obelate Mission.
Though the Okanagan lies on the same latitude as the northern French and German vineyards, it's not classified as a "cold climate" growing region. The Valley is actually the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, which starts in Mexico and has the distinction of being the most northerly desert in the world. Growing conditions in the Okanagan are quite predictable, and the latitude allows sugars to build during long days, which are countered by cool nights that prevent the breakdown of acids caused by constant heat. The unique climate, coupled with soil conditions resulting from pre-historic glacial movement, give this region micro-climates unlike those of any other growing region in the world.
The southern portion of the valley, which receives less that six inches of rainfall a year, is the only classified desert area in Canada. Classic red vinifera grapes are planted widely in this area, where Okanagan Lake helps offset the strong afternoon heat that can rise in the semi-arid desert landscape. In the north end, considerably lower temperatures, coupled with slightly more average annual rainfall, gives growers the opportunity to experiment with grape varieties that thrive in cooler weather. French and German white grape varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and gewürztraminer criss-cross the hillsides here.
The majority of wine produced in the Okanagan white. (The 1998 crop ratio was 65 percent white grapes to 35 percent red.) BC whites, which are fruity and crisp, are usually made in the traditional German off-dry style, with some produced like French dry wines.
Historically, red wines have not been strong in BC. Research is still being done on matching grapes to microclimates to determine the potential of red varieties, but many growers have come to believe that the Okanagan's long growing season and hot microclimate may be just what's needed to produce exceptional full-bodied reds. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir are increasingly common in valley vineyards, with many taking prizes in competition.
The trademark of the BC wine industry is certainly the delicious late-harvest dessert wines and German-style icewines produced by many local wineries. Late-harvest wines are pressed from grapes that've achieved a minimum sugar level of 26.0 Brix. Icewine is made from frozen grapes harvested at -8 degrees Celsius or colder. Pressing of the frozen grapes takes places immediately following the harvest in a continuous process and within the recognized viticulture area in which the grapes were grown. The result is smooth, sweet wines that complement - or even replace - any dessert offering.
Because creating an icewine is a delicate and challenging process (that's often complicated by unpredictable weather conditions and the late-fall nibbling of birds and deer), bottles that do make it to market are highly sought. The prestigious Mission Hill icewine even made international headlines in 1999, when counterfeit bottles resembling Mission Hill were discovered on the market in Taiwan.