British Columbia’s Wine Geography
British Columbia is perhaps the most impressive, yet least appreciated by Americans, wine country in North America. Its charms and sophistication are among the best kept secrets in the Pacific Northwest—at least to those who don’t live in British Columbia!
Those who do know the truth: that BC wines and wine countries are equal in quality and charm to any “south of the border.”
There are two reasons BC wines aren’t better known elsewhere in the Northwest (and the rest of America). First, precious little of BC’s wine production (roughly equal in size to Oregon) makes it across the border to the US. In fact, almost all of BC;s wines are bought within the province: there is little economic incentive, or need, to export their wines into the US. This is, however, beginning to change with a few top producers, like Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate beginning to place wines in the US market.
Secondly, most people assume that BC is too far north and therefore—in the unfortunate words of one local wine writer—”too cold and wet to grow quality wine.” As we will see in a moment, this is mostly untrue.
Much like Washington, the vast majority of BC’s vinifera wines are grown approximately 300 miles to the east of the main population center, in this case Vancouver, BC. The Okanagan Valley DVA is the most important grape growing region in the province, responsible for more than 90% of BC’s total wine output. And contrary to what many think, the Okanagan Valley is primarily a warm-climate growing region.
The Okanagan Valley is a narrow trough of glacially formed lakes roughly 124 miles long. It is part of the Columbia River drainage, one of the key geographic factors in Northwest viticulture. The valley lies in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains and the Cascade Range, so much of the appellation (officially known as a DVA, or Designated Viticultural Area) is semiarid, requiring access to water for irrigation.
The Okanagan Valley as a whole is developing sub-regions that are displaying distinctive wine styles. Though not officially declared as DVAs, wineries are increasingly identifying themselves as part of these sub-regions.
At the highest level of abstraction, the Okanagan Valley can be divided into two portions with differing climate conditions, and therefore grape growing emphasis. The north Okanagan, generally from Penticton in the south to Vernon in the north, is a moderately cool-climate area with summer temperatures averaging in the mid 70s°F and growing degree days from around 2100 to 2200. Most vineyards are located in the Kelowna area, with groups of wineries to the north and south of the city, as well as across the Lake in the Mount Boucherie area.Here sloping vine rows—often tucked amidst housing and resort developments—benefit from sunlight reflected of off the lake. Pinot noir, riesling, pinot gris and other cool climate grapes predominate.
The southern Okanagan Valley , generally from Penticton south to Osoyoos, is considerably warmer and drier. Vineyards here are located on lower elevation gravel benches and can experience sustained periods of over 95°F with growing degree days from 2700 to 2800, and higher in some places. This is “big red” territory, with a strong reputation for syrah, cabernet sauvignon and franc, and merlot grapes, though nearly all the key vinifera varities are grown as well.
Besides these broad stroke divisions, other distinct subregions include: Kelowna, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, Golden Mile, Black Sage Road, and Osoyoos. In particular, the Naramata Bench, on the west side of the lake north of Penticton has developed a devoted following for the wines made form this region.
The Similkameen Valley DVA parallels the southern part of the Okanagan Valley and reaches west following the course of the Similkameen River. The growing number of small vineyards and wineries here are clustered around the towns of Keremeos and Cawston.
This high-elevation, semiarid land is similar in geologic makeup to the Okanagan Valley, with the notable difference that there is no large body of water to moderate temperatures. Air movement is high in the valley, but so is extra warmth, which can sometimes become trapped and not dissipate at night, leading to warmer overall growing temperatures, including above 100°F. Growing degree days average around 2500, making it amenable for nearly all vinifera grapes, and many Okanagan Valley wineries source fruit here.
VANCOUVER ISLAND & GULF ISLANDS
300 miles to the west of the desert0like Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys is another important, but etiurely different BC wine region. Vancouver Island is the largest island on the west coast of North America, but only a small portion of land is suitable for viticulture. In the center of the Island the Vancouver Island Ranges rise 7,000-ft. providing a rain barrier to Pacific storms and creating a Mediterranean climate—one of the mildest in Canada—for the eastern side of the island and the neighboring Gulf Islands.
For grapes, the climate is distinctly cool, with growing degree days ranging from 1600 to 1900, but the combination of northerly latitude and a frost-free season ranging from 170 to 200 makes the area practicable for growing pinot noir, riesling, and a number of cool-adapted hybrid varieties. Many of the island’s wineries hedge their bets by purchasing fruit from the Okanagan Valley to supplement their island-grown grapes.
The Fraser Valley is a vast floodplain formed by the emptying of the Fraser River as it descends from interior mountains. The valley runs from Hope at its eastern end, generally southwesterly to Abbotsford, forming a large delta that also includes the metropolitan area of Vancouver. This region is a rich agricultural area with moderately warm summer temperatures and growing degree days around 24500-2500.
Grapes have only been grown here since the 1980s, and vinifera plantings have been relatively small. However, the proximity to Vancouver has made the area popular for winery tasting rooms, and many of the DVA’s wineries employ grapes from the Okanagan Valley, sometimes exclusively, and sometimes in addition to Fraser-Valley grown grapes.