Even more surprising than the sheer variety of wine grapes that flourish in British Columbia is the fact that they grow at all. The 49th parallel defines the U.S.-Canadian boundary, a line that borders chilly American states such as North Dakota and Minnesota, and, on the other side of the globe, crosses Europe’s coolest wine regions.
But climate plays out differently here. East of the moisture-stripping Cascade and Coast Mountains, the land is parched. The province’s southern region is home to the farthest reach of the Sonoran Desert, which extends all the way into Mexico.
The Okanagan Valley is home to nearly 200 wineries and more than 8,600 planted acres, accounting for 84% of the total throughout the province. The valley runs north/south for 150 miles, following a chain of lakes bordered by low hills and stepped benches. The last ice age glaciers deposited a mix of gravel, silt and sand; subsequent erosion has created large alluvial fans on which crops are grown.
Principal cities of the Okanagan are Vernon, Kelowna and Penticton. Long before wine-grape growing became a significant contributor to Okanagan agriculture, the region was already famous for its apples, peaches and other orchard fruits. Today, however, culture surrounding wine production has developed so much so as to establish two official subappellations, the Golden Mile Bench and Okanagan Falls; and several unofficial subregions, including Black Sage Bench/Osoyoos, Naramata/Penticton and Kelowna/Lake County.
Prohibition enforcement in British Columbia was brief and largely ineffective, and the first post-Prohibition Okanagan vineyards went into the ground in Kelowna around 1927.
Calona Vineyards, which opened in 1932, was the first post-Prohibition winery, but the real start of the modern wine era was initiated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the province’s adoption of Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards in 1990.
The B.C. VQA introduced specific regulations for labeling of the region’s wines, along with quality standards certified by formal tastings. In addition, the government helped with the cost of removing old vines and replacing them with European vinifera grapes. Most Okanagan wines now earn the VQA designation, which verifies the grape, vintage and region shown on the label, and guarantees that they have met strict quality standards.
Even familiar varieties grown in the Okanagan present unique flavor profiles. Production of red and white wines splits almost exactly down the middle, and, across the board, they are intense the whites with vivid acidity, the reds often with tongue-lashing tannins. The region’s short, hot growing season concentrates acids, tannins and overall flavors. And the Okanagan’s two extra hours of sunlight daily (compared with the Napa Valley) compensate for the late bud break and shortened harvest.
B.C.’s warmest vineyards are clustered just north of the Washington border. Rainfall is scarce and the soils are sandy. The resulting thickly tannic wines favor Syrah, Merlot and other Bordeaux reds, along with hot-climate whites such as Viognier.
Farther north, the benchland vineyards rise almost 2,300 feet. In them, red grapes grow alongside cooler-climate varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. These wines show elegant flavors, favoring refinement over sheer intensity, with delicate aromatics and mineral-drenched acidity. And at the northernmost vineyards, the soils turn to bedrock and silt, and Riesling and its cohorts take center stage. Ice wines are often made as well, and the annual Winter Festival of Wine celebrates their unique character.
Understanding B.C. Wine Standards
Areas of Geographic Indication (GI) are how the broadest viticultural regions are defined in British Columbia. To be certified as coming entirely from within the region, wines must also adhere to VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) standards. The original GIs included Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley, the Similkameen Valley and the Okanagan Valley, along with the all inclusive British Columbia designation, which indicates grapes come from outside sources or are a blend of grapes from more than one region. Four new GIs became official in July 2018: Lillooet, Thompson Valley and Shuswap north of the Okanagan, and Kootenays farther east.
Best B.C. Imports
Due to rather arcane regulations, stiff tariffs and the fact that B.C. wineries can sell all their inventory to a single buyer—the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch—only a handful export to the U.S. Among those that do, here are some top drops.
- Black Hills Estate Winery: Famous for its Nota Bene blend of Bordeaux varieties, this winery also does a spicy Sémillon-Sauvignon combo called Alibi.
- Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: One of the first Okanagan producers to achieve international acclaim, it offers a superb lineup of Chardonnays, Cabernets, Pinots and Bordeaux-style blends.
- CheckMate Artisanal Winery: Anthony von Mandl’s prestige project features whiskey-style bottles, a chess theme and a focus on ageworthy, terroir-specific Chardonnays and Merlots.
- Church & State Wines: Try Coup D’Etat, a Bordeaux-style blend, or the Coyote Bowl Series reds.
- Culmina: Imported by the Maritime Wine Trading Collective, the winery’s Hypothesis is a complex, ageworthy Bordeaux-style blend sourced from the Golden Mile Bench.
- Foxtrot Vineyards: A Naramata Bench property with fine estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Laughing Stock Vineyards: Portfolio, a blend of Bordeaux grapes, is Wine Enthusiast’s highest-rated Okanagan wine in the past two years.
- Le Vieux Pin:A favorite of Vancouver somms, this winery makes especially good Syrahs and Rhône-style white blends.
- Meyer Family Vineyards: Vineyard-designated Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are the go-to wines at this estate.
- Mission Hill Family Estate: This impressive estate winery is packed with fine art and offers a full range of wines sourced from throughout the entire valley.
- Painted Rock Estate Winery: Red Icon, the winery’s five-grape Bordeaux-style blend, is the top wine; Syrahs here are also excellent.
- Tantalus Vineyards: Notable for exceptional Rieslings, packaged in elegant, tall hock bottles. Seek out the Old Vines cuvée.
- Tinhorn Creek: The Oldfield Series Merlot is a standout, as is the Pinot Gris.
- Township 7: On the desirable Naramata Bench, this expansive property does best with its white wines such as Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Vineyards by the Sea
Vancouver Island is home to more than 30 wineries, while the Gulf Islands hold about a dozen. These terroirs cling to the chilliest edge of viticultural survival. Though the growing season is short, it’s energized by long hours of sunlight in summer. And since the islands don’t get frost in autumn, grapes enjoy long hang time.
Grape varieties bred for the cooler climes of northern and alpine Europe flourish best. Successful whites include Siegerrebe (a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer) and Ortega (a cross of Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe). The most widely planted red grape in Austria, Zweigelt also thrives on the coastal islands as does another hardy red, Maréchal Foch. Rosés and sparkling wines shine, since grapes for these bottlings can be harvested at lower sugar levels.
Painstaking viticulture helps growers succeed with classic varieties like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Averill Creek Vineyard on Vancouver Island swathes vines with plastic film in spring, forming impromptu greenhouses. “[It promotes] early bud break for the Pinot Noir and Merlot,” explains Andy Johnston, owner and general manager. The island-grown grapes often have a fairly pronounced aromatic quality, according to David Goudge, owner of Sea Star Vineyards (Pender Island) and Saturna Winery. “Because it doesn’t get superhot, we don’t have to irrigate so our grapes are smaller but packed with flavor,” he adds.
Few of these coastal bottlings are exported to the United States, so wine lovers will have to journey to B.C. to discover their fresh, vibrant flavors. —Risa Wyatt
Last Updated: May 4, 2023