Visiting the Okanagan Valley, Canada
Part 1 of a series on this remarkable wine region in British Columbia, Canada

The Okanagan Valley, In British Columbia, is one of Canadaís two main wine regions (the other is Ontario). Itís visually very pretty, arranged around two interconnecting lakes (Okanagan, the main one, and Skaha), with hills rising on each side. The 3300 hectares of vineyards arenít wall to wall, unlike the situation in many of the other famous wine regions of the world. Except for in the south of the appellation, the vineyards tend to be dotted around in pockets on either side of the lakes, which makes for quite a range of microclimates.

The Okanagan is the biggest of the BC wine regions, with 131 of the provinceís 215 wineries and 86% of its vineyard area. Other BC regions include the Similkameen Valley (which abuts the Okanagan at its southernmost end) and Vancouver Island.

I arrived in the Okanagan by road, driven by my travelling companion and tour guide David Scholefield. Itís a lovely four-hour drive through some spectacular scenery. Although thereís the possibility of flying from Vancouver to Penticton or Kelowna, the two main towns at the south and north of the lake, respectively, the drive is worth it for the views. On the way I got to see my first ever wild moose, and also a peregrine falcon. No bears, though.

Lake Okanagan is long. The region itself stretches 160 km, although the lake itself isnít that long. The climate at the north end of the lake is totally different from that of the south. Add in the difference between the east and west banks of the lake (one gets afternoon sun, the other morning), plus the soil differences, and it soon becomes difficult to generalize even about the Okanagan as a wine region. You can grow a lot of varieties here successfully, depending on where you are.

As with Ontarioís regions, the Okanagan is a young region, in that Vitis vinifera varieties havenít been grown here all that long. It has a cool climate, if you look at the heat summation data, but in reality itís a cool-ish and even warm (in the peak of summer) climate with a compressed growing season, hemmed in at either end by frosts. The continental climate is moderated by the presence of the deep lake. Good natural acidity is a feature of the wines here.

This is a dry region, with around 250 mm rain a year in the driest parts, and 400 mm in the wettest: itís located in the rain shadow of the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges. Itís practically a desert. Thatís not enough to grow wine grapes, so irrigation is essential, with the exception of just a few spots where the ground water reserves can take a vine all the way through the season.

So what about the wines? Diversity is the message. This is a region that can grow Pinot Noir (which thrives in the cooler parts) alongside Cabernet Sauvignon (which can ripen quite happily in the warmer bits). Syrah does well here in places, and Merlot can be very good. For the whites, I tasted excellent Pinot Gris and Chardonnay and superb Riesling. And there are good sparkling wines here, too. The lack of a single signature variety is problematic in terms of marketing the Okanagan, but this just reflects the diversity of vineyard sites there are here.  

Mission Hill
TH Wines
Cedar Creek
Blue Mountain
Painted Rock
50th Parallel
Okanagan Crush Pad

See also:

Visiting Ontario's wine regions, Canada (series)

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