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Nov 17, 2017

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Okanagan BC
by Lora Lewis
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.6

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 gew├╝rztraminer 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.

Inniskillin Okanagan

Inniskillin Okanagan has expanded greatly since their first vintage in 1994. Located in the Southern Okanagan Valley, the winery is a partnership between Inniskillin Wines and the Inkameep Indian Band (Okanaguen Tribe). The Band has established 265 acres of beautiful lush vineyards located near Okanagan Lake, which moferates temperatures year round.. In 1996, Inniskillin purchased an existing winery, Okanagan Vineyardsalong with the 22-acre estate Dark Horse Vineyard. The spectacular vistas from the vineyard overlook the pristine valley floor of lakes, apple orchards and vineyards, and the majestic Cascade and Selkirk Mountain ranges.

Winemaker and general manager Sandor Mayer has been with Inniskillin since 1990, having been winemaker/vineyard manager for Okanagan Vineyards. Current production is 20,000 cases, up from 3,300 in 1994. Inniskillin produces a wide variety of wines, including chardonnay, gewurtztraminer, cabernet, Meritage, merlot, pinot noir, vidal (late harvest and ice wine) and riesling ice wine.

Quails' Gate Estate Winery

Located on the site of an historical 1870s home, Quails' Gate has come a long way in its slightly more than 10 years of operation. Initially producing fewer than 4,000 cases annually when established in 1989, winemaker/viticulturalist Peter Draper and the Stewart family have recently seen the opening of a new $2 million production facility increase production capability to 60,000 cases.

Quails' Gate produces a range of wines including merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chasselas, Optima late harvest and riesling icewine, and is perhaps best known for its Family Reserve pinot noir and chardonnay.

Visitors to the winery can also enjoy Quails' Gate's Old Vines Patio, where bistro-style fare is served daily May through October.

Summerhill Estate Winery

A visit to Summerhill is a breathtaking and eccentric experience. From the large "floating" champagne bottle and glass that greets visitors, to the 10-square-meter replica of the Great Pyramid used for aging wines, this place provides no ordinary afternoon at the winery. Summerhill makes it a priority to offer "the very best from pure nature for those who appreciate all natural foods and wines."

In addition to a stunning 50-kilometer view of Okanagan Lake and the surrounding cityscape, Summerhill boasts the relaxing Smokehaus Veranda Restaurant, a boutique wine shop, and a "working" historic log cabin museum and native village. Even more enticing are the wines, including a rare pinot noir ice wine and ice wine dosaged sparkling wines.

Gray Monk Estate Winery

Surrounded by peaceful vineyards and a panoramic view of Okanagan Lake, Gray Monk Estate is another jewel of the valley. Proprietor George Heiss laid the foundation for Gray Monk's future in 1976, when he converted to vinifera grapes using imported plants from France. The result was the now-famous auxerrois, pinot gris and gew├╝rztraminer wines. Heiss now couples his intensive, traditional training in winemaking with ongoing experiments and testing to create consistently excellent white wines. Grey Monk is also expanding production to include red wines aged in oak barrels.

The winery is complimented by a large open patio, where guests can enjoy tasting and a light snack against the lake and mountain backdrop.

Sumac Ridge Estate Winery

Founded in 1979, Sumac Ridge holds the title of the first estate winery in the BC province. Many of its wines come from Black Sage Vineyards, where 115 acres of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc are grown.

Sumac Ridge is the only BC winery to produce a white meritage - a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc. It was also the first in the province to produce premium sparkling wines, which are made in the traditional method - fermented and bottle-aged at least two years.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards sits on the hillside of a former gold mining creek in scenic Oliver. Winemaker Sandra Oldfield and general manager Kenn Oldfield present numerous wines, including a wonderful kerner icewine.

Guests can take advantage of a self-guided winery tour, opportunities to ask questions about the winemaking process and to hike on a specially designed circular "Golden Mile" hiking trail past the Tinhorn Creek gold mine ruins.

If quality and commitment to craft are any indication of success, BC wineries will no doubt be players to watch in the future of the international wine industry.


Jackson Triggs Winery

Hawthorne Mtn. Vineyards

St. Hubertus Estate

Hester Creek Estate Winery

Domaine De Chaberton Estates Limited Winery

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