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Wine is Geography
Where grapes are grown, the soil they’re grown in, the weather, the air, the sun and the growing techniques all affect the character and quality of the wine.
It’s an unfamiliar concept today. We’ve come to expect standardization in products as a guarantee of quality. We’d probably all agree standardization is great when you’re buying a car. It’s tough to buy parts for a one-of-a-kind car.
But wine thrives on regional nuance, and its finest interpretations and expressions are decidedly regional. In fact, wine is at its best when pushed to be increasingly site-specific.
The great wines of the world are the result of skilled grapegrowers and winemakers working together to bring out the unique qualities of the grapes that nature provides. The Wines of British Columbia are among these great wines.
BC Wine Regions
The Okanagan Valley is approximately 300 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. The valley is long and narrow and runs for 160 kilometres from the US border at 49 to 50 degrees north.
The next phase in further identifying and understanding BC terroir is to create sub-regions within the large area of the Okanagan Valley, linked to unique climates, soil types and resultant wine styles. The Golden Mile Bench, the first sub-Geographical Indication, became officially recognized in 2015. The Pacific Agri-food Research Centre (PARC) has identified four unofficial sub-regions in the Okanagan.
There are significant climatic differences from north to south, for example:
Kelowna - 1,200 Celsius degree days and 12 inches average annual rainfall.
Osoyoos - 1,450 Celsius degree days and 8 inches average annual rainfall.
1,200 degree days.
Heavier soils with sandy loam, clay and limestone.
Common varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, others.
1,319 degree days.
Long frost-free autumn due to lake proximity and sloping aspect.
Common varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, others.
SUB-REGION: Okanagan Falls
1,407 degree days.
Diverse soils and aspects, with some vineyards on terraced slopes.
Common varietals: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, others.
OFFICIAL SUB-GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION: Golden Mile Bench
1,484 degree days.
Well-drained gravel, clay and sandy soils.
Common varietals: Merlot, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, others.
Associated Wineries: C.C. Jentsch Cellars, CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, Fairview Cellars, Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, Hester Creek Estate Winery, Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards, Road 13 Vineyards, Rustico Farm & Cellars, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards
SUB-REGION: Black Sage/Osoyoos
1,492 degree days.
Soils are very deep sand.
Common varietals: Bordeaux varieties, Chardonnay, Syrah, others.
The Okanagan Valley lies in a rain shadow, between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges. This results in very low annual average rainfall. The area between Oliver and the US border is the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert, which begins on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
Summers are generally very hot: average temperatures in July and August are warmer than in the Napa Valley. Summer daytime temperatures can reach 40°C, and are often above 30°C for several days in a row.
In the summer, there are long daylight hours and high light intensity due to the northerly latitude. In late June, daybreak is as early as 5 am and nightfall as late as 10:30 pm. This helps with prolonged daytime photosynthesis and grape ripening.
In summer there can be a four-degree average daily difference in temperature between Kelowna and Osoyoos. This results in a preference for red varieties in the south and white varieties in the cooler north. Precipitation is spread evenly throughout the year and wind is not a major concern.
The winters are cold and temperatures can drop below zero for long periods. Temperatures can fall to -25°C, but this is rare. The winter of 1978 was the last season severe enough to cause considerable vine kill. The region’s lakes moderate temperature extremes.
The soils, vineyards and local climates of each area have been mapped by PARC, and there are widespread differences throughout the valley. The southern part of the valley has deep sandy soils whereas the northern area around Kelowna is mainly composed of clay and gravel.
Several lakes run along the valley floor, the biggest of which is Lake Okanagan at 144 kilometres long and 3.5 kilometres average width. It is over 750 metres at its deepest point and is the source of much-needed water for irrigation.
The northern part of the Okanagan Valley, between Kelowna and Naramata, is narrow and marked by steep hillsides. The area for planting vineyards is limited.
The Naramata bench area (near Penticton) is marked by sloping vineyards in close proximity to the lake, with excellent exposure to the afternoon sun.
Higher-altitude vineyards, some of which are planted on slopes, mark the Okanagan Falls area. A few vineyards are planted on terraces.
From Oliver to Osoyoos, the valley fans out with flatter land in the Black Sage vineyard area. This is where the majority of acreage is planted, and is the area with the greatest potential for new development.
Vineyards extend from Keremeos to Chopaka on the US border. Keremeos Vineyards, now called St. Laszlo, was the first winery to open in the valley in 1984.
The Similkameen Valley lies to the west of the southern Okanagan Valley; the Richter Pass connects them.
PARC notes that the average annual number of degree days from 1998 to 2003 was 1360. The Similkameen can be colder in winter than the Okanagan Valley because of the absence of a major lake to moderate the temperature. Due to the high mountains on both sides of the valley, and the reflective action of the rock, the heat is held in the valley long after the sun sets.
The valley is arid with persistent winds that can reduce the moisture in the vines and the soil. Much of the overhead irrigation water can evaporate before touching the ground. The wind does minimize mildew, so vineyards generally don’t require frequent spraying.
Various soil types, including stony, gravelly, and silty loams from glacial rock formation.
A long narrow valley with steep mountainsides and an absence of major lakes.
Merlot, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon , Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc , Pinot Gris, and small amounts of Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
The winery that established the Fraser Valley as a credible wine-growing region was Domaine de Chaberton. It opened in 1991 south of Langley, close to the US border.
There are climatic variations across the Fraser Valley with certain areas receiving lower rainfall than others. While there is significant precipitation in the fall and spring, July and August can be very dry and growers must practice irrigation.
Frost is not a major concern, although this is a challenging climate with limited degree days - resulting in potential lack of ripeness in certain vintages, particularly with late ripening varieties. Given that the region is in the coastal area, humidity – leading to powdery mildew and Botrytis – is a concern.
The fertile delta south of the Fraser River is Vancouver’s agricultural hinterland. Soils are predominantly silty and high in organic matter.
Generally flat but with occasional rolling hills.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Germanic white varietals, others.
Winemaking began around 1920 with wines produced from loganberries by the Growers’ Wine Company. The first modern commercial vineyard began in 1970, just south of Duncan.
A provincial government-funded trial, named the Duncan Project, assessed about 100 different varieties between 1983 and 1990, and identified Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Ortega as promising varieties.
The Zanatta winery opened in 1992 and was the first of the modern wineries.
There are wineries spread over the southern half of Vancouver Island. Several wineries are in the Cowichan Valley, close to the town of Duncan. There are also producers close to Nanaimo, as well as in the Saanich Peninsula, with some close to the city of Victoria.
Several areas have local climatic conditions conducive to grape growing. Wineries in the Cowichan Valley are generally shielded from Pacific Ocean storms by nearby mountains, and have a long growing season with low frost risk. Although there are high amounts of precipitation from November through April, the summers are dry enough to require irrigation in most vineyards.
Several wineries source grapes from the Okanagan Valley. Varieties planted on Vancouver Island include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Gamay, Ortega, Muller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and many others.
This is an exciting new region for viticulture. There are now vineyards and wineries on many Gulf Islands, including Salt Spring, Pender, Saturna, Quadra and Bowen. The first plantings began in mid-nineties, with Saturna Island starting their first of four vineyards in 1995.
The mild climate of the Strait of Georgia is very conducive to grape-growing, although scarcity of water and extreme aridity in summer present challenges. Like the Okanagan and Fraser valleys, the Gulf Islands region had a well-established fruit-growing and market-gardening tradition in the late 1800’s.
A number of different varietals are planted including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay and others.
An emerging region, the wineries of the Thompson Valley are pioneering an exciting new region and changing the boundaries of quality BC winemaking. The first winery in this area opened in 2012 (Harper's Trail Estate Winery).
Nestled amongst the natural beauty of the North and South Thompson Rivers in and around Kamloops, the rain shadow of the high coastal mountains and the semi-arid conditions and diverse microclimates provide many creative options for winemakers. Average growing degree days: 1,280.
Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Maréchal Foch.
Other Emerging BC Regions
New vineyard areas are being developed in other parts of the province including in Shuswap/ Spallumcheen, Lillooet, Creston, Trail, Castlegar and Prince George. These areas are largely still experimenting to find which varieties are best suited to their growing conditions, but some good quality wines are already being produced and showing the potential.