Canada’s wine scene is taking root
Mission Hill, British Columbia’s most famous winery, overlooks Lake Okanagan. (Mission Hill)
Next to California’s sun-dappled Napa and Sonoma Valleys and Oregon’s rain-soaked Willamette Valley, the lakefront Okanagan Valley, just across the US border from Washington, is largely unknown outside of Canada.
There are 196 wineries in British Columbia, ranging from small family-run operations on Vancouver Island to sprawling estates in the Okanagan Valley, and recent International Wine and Spirits Competition awards for local wineries like Mission Hill and Jackson-Triggs have put the area on par with other vino-heavyweights, such as France, South Africa and Argentina.
The area’s recent fame can be attributed to the fact that British Columbia’s wine scene is heating up — literally. Unlike other wine regions around the world that are suffering from climate change, the Okanagan Valley, which is on the same latitude as Germany’s Rhine river valley and France’s Champagne region, is benefiting from the warmer winters that are less likely to damage crops. A recent Stanford study estimates that in the next 30 years the average temperature on North America’s west coast may rise 2 to 4F, which would push British Columbia into a temperature sweet spot, but leave around 50% of the land in Napa unsuitable for wine production.
After the 1994 North American Fair Trade Agreement , the Canadian government encouraged winemakers to rip out cheaper varietals and plant premium grapes for merlot, pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir, to better compete with US wines. Today, there are almost 10,000 acres of grapes planted in British Columbia, up 8.7% from 2008.
“As a cool climate region, [British Columbia] wines hold up great with food,” said Owen Knowlton, the sommelier at West restaurant in Vancouver and a winner of the 2011 Sommelier of the Year award from the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, Canada's biggest wine show. “The wines are not shy or flavourless. There’s a lot of power to them; great aroma and big bouquets.”
“Because of the hot days and cool nights, red and white wines from the area tend to have more balanced acidity than California or Oregon wines,” said British Columbia wine expert John Schreiner, author of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide. “The flavours are bright, the whites will be crisp and refreshing and expressive of fruit. The reds can be fairly rich, and there’s rarely an issue with sugar.”
Most of the wine produced in British Columbia is consumed within the province, so go straight to the source for a taste test. The Okanagan Valley is a four-hour drive from Vancouver, or a quick flight from Seattle or Vancouver to Kelowna International Airport. The valley's southern edge is only three miles north of the US border.
Wineries are clustered along the length of the 132-mile long Okanagan Valley, which has a string of lakes running through its middle and is surrounded by mountains on either side. Summer is peak tourist season, but planning a wine tour in the spring and autumn means avoiding the crowds and observing either the first leaves and shoots or witnessing the harvest, with grapes hanging ripe and heavy on the vine. If you are lucky, winemakers may even let you watch the grape crushing up close.
Where to drink
British Columbia’s most famous winery is also its most striking. Mission Hill burst onto the scene in 1994 when it took home the International Wine and Spirits Competition award for best chardonnay. When the judges found out where the wine was from, they demanded a re-tasting. (It still won.) Mission Hill is one of the few British Columbian labels distributed outside of Canada.
Drive through the fortress-like gates and enter the main grounds by walking through a massive set of curved limestone arches held together by a keystone. In the summer, enjoy a glass of the top-selling juicy pinot grigio while taking in concerts, plays and readings in the outdoor grass amphitheatre overlooking Lake Okanagan.