Sue and I were recently in the Okanagan wine region of British Columbia, Canada, for a winegrowers conference. We had a great time — smart people, exciting discussions, interesting wines. Lots to see, hear, and learn.
If you haven’t visited yet, this region should be on your wine tourism radar. The Okanagan Valley is about 5 hours by car (or a short plane flight) from Seattle or Vancouver. A bit out-of-the-way, but so are Napa and Walla Walla and that hasn’t stopped you.
Reversed New Zealand?
The Okanagan is sort of like an reversed image of New Zealand. New Zealand is a rugged island surrounded by water, oriented north to south, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from one place to another. Endlessly fascinating if you have the time to explore.
The Okanagan, on the other hand, is rugged land that surrounds deep lake waters oriented south to north, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from place to place (and one side of the lake to the other).
Great place for a casual visit, but more serious study is richly rewarded. The Okanagan even has a legendary sea monster — Ogopogo. Not sure if the Kiwis can top that.
Pinot Noir and Riesling are here in the cooler spots, a bit of Sangiovese and lots of Syrah there, Tempranillo and Cabernet around the bend, Pinot Gris in many places. Even Sauvignon Blanc, which is appropriate since some of the winemakers hail from New Zealand.
More Than You Might Think
Many of our friends are surprised that there is wine (and very good wine) in the Okanagan. When they think of British Columbia their thoughts turn to cosmopolitan Vancouver or rugged wild Vancouver Island (which has wineries, by the way). Wine? Do Canadians even make wine?
So they are surprised to learn that wine is not just a thing in Canada, it is an important thing. According to the annual industry review issue of Wine Business Monthly, there were 745 wineries in Canada at the start of 2019. British Columbia tops the table with 317 wineries followed by Ontario (242), and Quebec (130).
Since wine is made in all 50 U.S. states, you won’t be surprised to learn that Canadian wine also comes from Nova Scotia (21 wineries), New Brunswick (15), Saskatchewan (9), Alberta (5), Prince Edward Island (4) and Newfoundland & Labrador (2). Manitoba? No wineries … yet!
Years ago Sue and I were visiting Vancouver and tried to order an Okanagan wine from the list at an upscale restaurant. The waiter refused to take the order on account of his assessment of the wine’s low quality (we ended up with something from France as I recall). I think the wine was made from hybrid grapes, which was the norm for years and probably accounted for the waiter’s negative review.
I cannot imagine having a similar experience today. The best of the wines today are made to a high standard and local chefs are keen to pair them with their farm-to-table menus. Sue and I were fortunate to attend a promotional dinner in Seattle where B.C. chefs (plus Seattle’s iconic Tom Douglas) paired Okanagan wines with local seafood. Terrific.
Tudra Red? Tundra White?
How you see the Canadian and British Columbia wine industries depends on your point of view. If you take the global perspective, for example, you see only Icewine, Canada’s most valuable wine export.
B.C. Icewine is so good that I think it is actually worth its high price, but it inevitably defines Canada as a cold, dark place (the grapes for Icewine are harvested in the dark of night, frozen on their vines). What else could Canada possibly produce? Tundra Red? Tundra White?
This narrow perspective is even true here in the Seattle area, not so far from the Canadian border. The sight of a B.C. wine on a store shelf (apart from Icewine) is rare indeed. We have a distorted view of Okanagan wine because, Icewine aside, production is aimed at the domestic market and exports are limited.
The perspective shifts inside Canada, where Ontario and British Columbia are seen as strong rivals for consumer hearts, minds, and dollars. Or at least that’s the impression I got from a CBC radio interview that my Canadian friend Joel sent me a few years ago. Click here to listen (do it — really — it is hilarious). A discussion of BC vs. Ontario wines quickly degenerates into name-calling and worse. I didn’t realize that it was meant as satire until Joel clued me in.
In fact, however, Ontario and B.C. wineries have bigger enemies than each other. The challenge, in my opinion, is help make the pie larger rather than worrying about how it is divided. The Canadian market is highly regulated, especially at the provincial level, so selling wine can be as difficult as making it. This is changing, but for now the scale of most Okanagan Valley wineries is relatively small, limited to a certain extent by their cellar door and local market demand.
Take a Closer Look
Now zoom in closer to the Okanagan Valley and neighboring wine regions. What you see are confident winemakers working diligently to understand their varied terroir and take their wines and wineries to the next level.
When I first heard that local groups were busy proposing sub-appellations in the Okanagan Valley I scratched my head in puzzlement. Hardly anyone outside of Canada has even heard of the Okanagan. Shouldn’t you be building the big Okanagan Valley brand instead of dividing it into smaller and smaller regions and sub-regions with little apparent economic value?
I am still suspicious of the movement to make every wine region as complicated as a map of Burgundy terroirs, but I appreciate that local wine industry leaders feel they are ready for that next step. It seems a little crazy from my U.S. perspective, but the U.S. market isn’t (yet) extremely relevant to Okanagan producers. That could also change — some of the winemakers at the Seattle dinner were looking for U.S. importers. Fingers crossed they made the connections they were seeking.
Things are changing fast, so perhaps these perspectives will converge. Come back next week for our take on where B.C. wine is today and where it might be heading.