Do those names mean anything to you? If you’re a wine lover living in the U.S., probably not. But if you’re a wine lover living in Canada, those names ring loud. Sadly, most American wine drinkers don’t have a clue about what’s happening in the British Columbia wine world, but if they did, they’d hop in the car and drive north to get in on one of the most vibrant wine countries on the continent.
No kidding! The fact is, no other wine region in North America has come so far as fast as has British Columbia (the link is to the British Columbia Wine Institute).
I am moved to post this after reviewing my chapter on British Columbia in my book manuscript (still a few weeks away from being delivered to my publisher . . . I’m sweating it out!!).
Doubt my enthusiasm for B.C. wine country? Hop a flight to Kelowna, rent a car, and take a long weekend to tour some of the most spectacularly architected wineries you’ve ever seen (there is nothing like 3 or 4 of them anywhere else in the Northwest—or even Napa), and taste premium wines that I guarantee will turn your head. (The first photo here is of demonstration vines at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.)
And, no, I am not being paid by any visitors bureau, winery association, winery, or tourism commission to say this. It is just part of my ongoing mission to acquaint people with the imbibing culture of the Pacific Northwest.
Most Americans barely appreciate that fine wine is grown in B.C.—too cold, they think, too snowy, to . . . northerly. It is true that some of B.C.’s wineries straddle the 50th parallel . . . but that puts them at the same general latitude as parts of Germany, so there is precedence for quality wines that far north, though admittedly at the extreme edge of viable viticulture.
Just outside of Kelowna are a series of excellent wineries and vineyards. Just south of Kelowna CedarCreek makes some of the best wines in the province from local grapes as well as fruit sourced from the warmer south. Summerhill Pyramid winery is eccentric, but their sparkling wines are excellent. Tantalus Vineyard (they don’t have a tasting room) makes excellent pinot noir, but their Old Vines Riesling is one of the finest I’ve ever tasted.
Just across the lake from Kelowna, Mission Hill Estate Family Winery may be the most gorgeous winery in North America. With awesome architecture and views to die for, you could be forgiven for not caring if the wine was any good—but it is superb. All their wines are good, but their S.L.C. and Legacy products are world-class. Nearby Quails’ Gate is a top-quality producer whose wines could easily compete with any comparable wines made in the U.S.—yes, Napa/Sonoma included. Try their pinot noir and riesling to see what I mean.
I know I sound overly enthusiastic, but Americans don’t generally know about B.C. wines because they almost never make it across the border. They don’t need to: B.C. wineries easily sell all their wine production to B.C. wine drinkers—which is too bad for us! When you get the best wines from B.C. you'll be amazed at their quality. (The second picture is of recently pruned Naramata Bench vines.)
What isn’t appreciated in America is that B.C.’s prime wine growing region, the Okanagan Valley, gets heat units comparable to (and in places in excess of) Napa Valley, along with the added benefits of longer sunlight days and aridity that naturally prevents disease and pests. In fact, the southern part of the valley, near the U.S.-Canadian border, is a true desert—Canada’s only.
Yes Virginia, there is warm-climate viticulture in British Columbia!
Penticton is a burgeoning town at the southern end of Okanagan Lake (everything in the Okanagan is burgeoning, from the major city of Kelowna to the number of new vineyard plantings) that kind of marks a halfway point in the wine country. It is within part of the valley that is relatively cool (growing degree days roughly between 2200 and 2400). South of here it starts getting much warmer—GDD of 2500-2700.
North of Penticton, lining the eastern benches of Okanagan Lake, is the Naramata Bench. This is a spectacularly beautiful territory that rises steeply from the lake shore, then evens out to form rolling hills and slopes that have wonderful exposure to the western sun, great air drainage from the eastern mountains, and well-drained glacial till soils that vinifera love. (The third picture was taken in a small vineyard on the Naramata bench.)
Naramata wineries do a great job with . . . wait for it . . . pinot noir! Yes, Oregon, there is another wine country in the Northwest that can slowly ripen wonderfully balanced pinot noir. Also grown here is pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and in some places warmer grapes like merlot, cabernet franc, and even syrah.
The bench offers visitors a variety of wine and tasting room styles, from beautifully designed and landscaped wineries offering well-made commercial wines, to true boutique wineries that craft excellent, small-batch wines. While like any place the wine styles vary, overall quality is very high—some producers are absolutely superb.
Here are a few names whose wines I think are particularly good: Poplar Grove (a cultish winery, by the way, who make superb pinot noir—among other wines), La Frenz, Therapy Vineyards, Kettle Valley, Lake Breeze. But you should try as many as you can . . . there are some new wineries whose products I haven’t yet had a chance to taste, and you’re likely to find something of interest at almost any tasting room you visit.
OK, I’ll stop here for he moment and pick up the warmer southern region of Osoyoos in my next post.
But one more thing before I go: This is a very cursory description of one small part of the Okanagan Valley, which is only one growing region (albeit the most important) in B.C., so take it as a starting point only.