Canada Finds its Napa

British Columbia's emerging Okanagan Valley has the makings of a serious wine region
Aug 17, 2004

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In late September, the terrace restaurant at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery is filled with suntanned tourists wearing shorts and sunglasses, sipping local wine, eating, enjoying the stunning view.

But this view isn't over the lush vineyards of Napa Valley. The happy visitors are in Canada, looking south over the Okanagan Lake in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.

Although Canada's wine industry was prominent first in Ontario, its British Columbian arm has blossomed in recent years. The most successful wines from this western region come from the Okanagan Valley, a five-hour drive inland over the mountains from Vancouver, or a short flight from Seattle or Vancouver to the tiny international airport in the city of Kelowna, "gateway to the Okanagan."

Unlike the Napa Valley, which has been protected as an agricultural preserve since 1968, the Okanagan has pretty much been fair game for developers. As a result, an approximate 7,000 acres of vineyards and 70-some wineries now jostle elbow to elbow with suburban housing and industrial and high-tech development, causing some to term the Okanagan Valley "Silicon Vineyard." But development can't obscure the region's great natural beauty, including its five extinct volcanoes, expansive lakes and lake-view vineyards.

Randy Picton, winemaker of Nk'Mip Cellars located in Osoyoos Lake Bench in the south of the valley.

The wineries and towns of the Okanagan are strung out in a series of clusters up and down the length of the 124-mile-long Okanagan Valley. The desertlike Osoyoos Lake Bench in the south is home to Nk'Mip Cellars; quirky and independent garagistes such as Poplar Grove Winery and Elephant Island Orchard Winery occupy the Naramata Bench; cooler-climate vineyards in the north include Gray Monk Estate Winery, Cedar Creek Estate Winery, Quails' Gate Estate Winery and Mission Hill. Each region has its unique ambience, terroir and favored grape varieties.

As Ingo Grady, director of wine at Mission Hill, quips, "The valley's just like the Napa Valley, except it's got a 60-mile lake running down its center."

Wine production here started in the 1860s with the French Catholic mission vineyards. By the early 1900s, wines were being made in the region from berries, orchard fruits and table grapes.

In 1963, the father of Ben and Tony Stewart, current owners of Quails' Gate Estate Winery, hired a French immigrant who urged his employer to import French hybrid grapes, arguing that these varieties would produce higher quality wines than the prolific native American table grape varieties. The easy-to-grow hybrids quickly caught on. According to another valley pioneer, Trudy Heiss, co-owner of Gray Monk in Okanagan Centre, "By the 1960s, everyone was growing hybrids and labrusca [native American varieties] with 12 tons to the acre; varieties like Maréchel Foch and Okanagan Riesling."

In 1976, Helmut Becker, a grape breeder and vine researcher from Germany's famed Geisenheim Institute, visited the Okanagan. Heiss recalls, "We are 3 minutes and 19 seconds north of latitude 50, which also runs through Germany's Rhine Valley. People believed vinifera wouldn't grow here, but Dr. Becker said we could grow anything we wanted."

Cedar Creek's vineyards.

At the time, Becker offered to supply the growers of the Okanagan with exact duplicates of his Geisenheim trials. The ensuing Becker Project, in which European varieties were tested in two Okanagan Valley plots, gave the region the Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewürtztraminer varieties that became the backbone of its infant fine-wine industry. These varieties continue to produce some of the best of the Okanagan's vibrant, crisp white wines today.

But the Okanagan industry got its real launch when, in 1988, the Canadian government began paying growers to pull out labrusca and French hybrid vines and replant with the more desirable European (Vitis vinifera) grape varieties. The move was designed to counter the North American Free Trade Agreement's effect on the Canadian wine industry, as superior quality wines from Washington, Oregon and California poured into the country.

The search for more grape varieties that could yield high quality wines in the Okanagan's climate intensified, as aspiring and established winemakers trolled France, Germany and the United States for promising grape types. The wide diversity of growing-environments in the Okanagan means that the region is suited to an unusually varied selection of grape varieties.

Today, most vines in the Okanagan Valley are less than 10 years old, and most of its wineries are small, family-owned-and-run operations. More than one winery makes "old-vine" wines from vines planted just prior to 1990. Though white grape varieties led the industry early on, red grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and lately Syrah have caught up. Valley production today is fairly evenly divided between red wines and white wines.

Views of the 60-mile Okanagan Lake from Naramata Ranch vineyards of Mission Hill Family Estate.

With the quality and reputation of Okanagan wines ever on the rise, it's small wonder that large wine corporations based in Ontario have cast an eye in the direction of the Okanagan.

Harry McWatters, who opened his Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in 1980 on the grounds of the old Sumac Ridge Golf and Country Club in Summerland, is a big wheel in the Okanagan wine industry. Founding chairman of the British Columbia Wine Institute and the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) program in British Columbia, McWatters sold Sumac Ridge to Ontario-based Vincor International, Canada's largest and North America's fourth-largest wine producer, in 2000.

Today, McWatters is Vincor's only vice president in the west, and is a driving force in the company's Okanagan brands. These include Sumac Ridge; Hawthorne Mountain; Jackson-Triggs; Inniskillin Okanagan; Osoyoos Larose, a Vincor joint venture with French Groupe Taillan; and Nk'Mip Cellars, a joint venture between the local Osoyoos Indian Band and Vincor.

David Bond, chairman of the British Columbia Wine Institute and vice president of government relations for Mission Hill, says the limiting factors in Okanagan vineyard development are pretty much the same as they are in California: water availability (the region gets as few as 6 inches of rain a year in its desertlike southern tip, and a still meager 12 inches in its more northern reaches), competition from urban growth and the rate of return on vineyard and winery investment.

Says Bond, "I predict vineyard acreage could go as high as 14,000 acres over the next seven or eight years, but only time and conditions will tell." According to McWatters, over the past three years Ontario has entered twice as many wines in national competitions as has British Columbia, but has won only half as many medals.

"We've been finding our balance here in the last 10 years, and we've created a new foundation for our wine industry to build on," McWatters says. "There's no place to go but up."

Lynn Alley is a freelance writer based in San Diego.