I have had the good fortune of visiting Okanagan Valley two years in a row (2013 and 2014). I have tasted dry wines from this region only as four years ago; and I find that hard to believe. I have been tasting the sticky and sweet style for many years. Hence my picture was not altogether clear on what this wine region was all about. Because tasting wine is about a proposition that I talk about all of the time: ‘tasting is believing’. As much as I might wax poetically about dry wines from Canada I fundamentally center on direct experience is the best education on this region.
I might also add in this article that I have taste very few wines from Ontario–and I should also say–the dry kind as well. I have such a limited exposure but I do hope that I will be able to change that soon. Hence my perspective is to view is truly to talk about Okanagan Valley for the remainder of the article.
My best resource was to view online sources for information on the Okanagan Valley as the Wikipedia entry was less than helpful The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition has about eight small paragraphs on Okanagan Valley–and this might be missed because if you were expecting to find this in an Okanagan Valley heading you would miss it altogether. There was not a reference point back to Okanagan Valley and hence you would have to go to the Canada entry.
Wine making in the new world is a very recent phenomenon in many respects. US Prohibition was a terrible thing for wines being created and the ramp up took several years to see many wine regions being reborn. New Mexico has the oldest tradition in the U.S. and due to a major flood and prohibition pretty much eliminated winemaking in this U.S. state. New Mexico rebirth was the late 70s. So now my story shifts to Okanagan Valley where in about the same time a rebirth happens here. Vitis vinifera was planted at the First Nations Indian Band of Nk’Mip in Osoyoos in 1975. This was the largest planting at the time. This is a significant move that paves the way for more Vitis vinifera to be planted through the valley displacing Hybrids and Vitis Labrusca There were small parcels of Vitis vinifera through many parts of the Okanagan Valley but the dominated grapes where French hybrids prior to 1975.
A lot of people still think Canada only produces is Ice Wine; while the success of Ice Wine is important it should not underscore or upstage the dry wines. But before it is Iced wine grapes they were viable for dry wines. Yes, Canada does get hot in the summertime.
Today there are over 120 producers throughout the Okanagan Valley. The Valley is a southerly to northerly region. Some of the anchor points are it’s water features Okanagan Lake–superbly deep 232 meters / 761 feet and covers a large area – approximately 135 kilometers / 80 miles by 5 kilometers / 3.1 miles. Okanagan Lake moderates temperature not just in the summer but in the winter as well. The other water features are smaller such as Skaha and Osoyoos Lake. The climate if I can speak generally is warmer in the southern portion of the valley and getting progressively cooler the north you go.
British Columbia has plantings of over 60 varieties as I have seen published. I counted 51 and I may have missed a few:
- Auxerrois Blanc
- Baco Noir
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Chenin Blanc
- Grüner Veltliner
- Leon Millot
- Maréchal Foch
- Muscat Ottonel
- Petit Verdot
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
- Pinot Meunier
- Pinot Noir
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Touriga Nacional
- Vidal Blanc
I did taste two varieties that I had not tasted before and did not know they were grow in Okanagan Valley: Carménère and Arneis. These were very delicious and remarkable wines. I say it in this manner because I hear or read comments that are truly not showing an experience of Okanagan Valley wines. I hear comparisons to Napa Valley, France, Chile, Australia etc. Let each region express itself and taste like they should—I do not expect Okanagan Valley varieties to taste a certain way or even compare them to another wine region. What I hope to never do is to uplift one region while I throw the other under the proverbial bus. And that goes for variety-to-variety and the comparable goes on and on. One writer said that Okanagan Valley has too many varieties. I didn’t know there should be limits on varieties to a wine region. Many new world regions have quite a number of varieties not think it is a bad thing. I would rather have a wine region plan itself out individually than have a Soviet style of central planning dictate allowable and non-allowable varieties. And I am most glad that one wine writer is not planning wine regions. Ultimately, Okanagan Valley does not produce each variety on an equal portions basis rather 20% of varieties produces 80% of all of the wine grapes in the region. Okanagan Valley does not produce too many varieties it is neither too many or too few—it is what has been individually decided by vineyard producer—and that is a good thing and that is the way it should be.
I do think we need many more blind tastings a la Judgement of Paris to discover and uncover the wonderful wines that Okanagan Valley is producing is needed and will happen someday. Many of Okanagan Valley’s producers are getting better vintage-or-vintage. The beauty grace and elegance of this wine country’s dry white and red wines are showcasing quite nicely.
Okanagan Valley is diverse it is landscape and encapsulates such a diverse terrain and temperature. There is no wine country I know that looks quite like it. I like the uniqueness–I know when I am here I cannot feel like I am anywhere else than Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.
The tasting rooms at each winery have people visiting but are not brimming with people. I know many a wine country where I have to nearly swim to the tasting bar for a splash. Okanagan Valley overall is a wine country that is superbly user friendly. A key word here is tasting room staff are superbly friendly and welcome people of any wine knowledge level. I have been to other regions tasting rooms where it was not only superbly packed but where I had felt like I wasn’t necessarily welcomed or even worse where the staff was indifferent.
Many of Okanagan Valley’s wineries have restaurants serving exceptional fare. Another point of difference is that few wine countries have restaurants on premise in their tasting room facility. I like this concept in that I do not want to leave right after tasting or I want a deeper connection. I look at Napa Valley and I only think of Domaine Chandon with a full service restaurant. I can name quite a number in Okanagan Valley: Liquidity, Gray Monk, Tinhorn Creek, Mission Hill Estate, Hester Creek, Quails Gate, Burrowing Owl and lunch at See Ya Later Ranch and Nk’Mip.
The tasting room fees are very reasonable–in some cases the fees are lower than anything I have seen in the U.S. The combined culture and customer experience is quite exceptional and I think this Valley is readying itself for increased visits. I would like to see Okanagan Valley open for longer periods of the year. I do hope this happens someday.
This wine country is close to me (close in terms of being a 2 ½ flight on United Airlines from SFO to Kelowna International beginning in September 2014). I can easily spend an hour and half going to my near by wine countries (one-way). I would like to see Okanagan Valley wines available in the US at least coastally speaking. I hear two things about availability of Okanagan Valley wines: 1) British Columbia and Alberta consume all of these wines 2) Producers wine pricing is stuck. I do think there is room to export to the US even if small quantities–think of Croatian wines making to the US–many are smaller producers but the bottles do reach the US. In another article (not yet published) that I hope to see in my lifetime a great diversity in the wine list and assortments at wine retailers. I have stated in many of my videos “we live in the best of wine times…. and the best of wine distribution times.” I do see much more improvement can be made–ecumenical (little ‘e’) wine lists are do for an overall in many on premise businesses. I have found Lebanese, English, Moroccan, Republic of Georgia, Peru wines in San Francisco–there are very retailers who do this and the SKUs available can be quite limited. I do hope for a great depth at some point in the future.
When you do visit I would encourage taking at least a dozen bottles home in a shipper box. Obviously a winery is a great place to buy a bottle or two of wine–the VQA stores in Penticton and Kelowna are excellent places to buy almost the entire regions wines. These stores are worth a visit. I would recommend starting in one direction or another (depending on the airport you fly into). My preference is Penticton which will always require a stop in Vancouver but it is closer to many wineries; small and easy to travel through. Kelowna in the height of summer is a busy little town–a bit hard to get through especially if you are in a hurry but this may become my preferred airport as an easy way to get to San Francisco.
When you bring home a case be sure to be aware of the airport you may be connecting through . At Calgary International–you will have to get all of your luggage including wine box and traipse it through US Border Clearance Facility. At Vancouver, you will need to identify your luggage via monitor prior to going through US Border Clearance Facility and this could take a bit of time (just make sure your connecting times are not too tight at either airport). Is it worth bringing home bottles of wine from your visit to Canada—YES! No regrets from me.
Come to Okanagan Valley for a trek through a wondrous wine and food country where you will discover natural beauty–my foot onto Okanagan soil I was pondering and stunned by the mountains surrounding this valley–the feeling is immediate. Come with an open mind and seek the rhythm of this place, it’s people and take a deep breath and envelope the gorgeousness of this unique land.
I can’t wait to visit again!
– James Melendez
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
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