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Okanagan Valley

British Columbia's emerging Okanagan Valley has the makings of a serious wine region

The vineyards at Mission Hill Winery look down on Lake Okanagan.
The vineyards at Mission Hill Winery look down on Lake Okanagan.
Okanagan Valley
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Lynn Alley

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 four-hour drive inland over the mountains from Vancouver, or a short flight from Seattle, Vancouver and other nearby Canadian cities to the tiny international airport in Kelowna, "gateway to the Okanagan."

The wineries and towns of the Okanagan are strung out in a series of clusters up and down the length of the 132-mile-long Okanagan Valley. The desertlike Osoyoos 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.

However, the Okanagan has seen its share of development, with an approximate 9,000 acres of vineyards and more than 170 wineries standing elbow to elbow with suburban housing and industrial and high-tech expansion. It has caused 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.

As Ingo Grady, director of wine education 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 three 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."

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, Riesling 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 20 years old, and most of its wineries are still run by the families who started them. 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.

The area does have its limiting factors, though. There is competition from urban growth and a water availability issue, as the region receives just 10 to 12 inches of rain annually. Additionally, the general geography of the area makes growing grapes difficult at times. For instance, vines cannot be planted on the valley floor due to the possibility of frost damage, hence why vines are found on the sloping hillsides and benches of the valley. Winemakers have worked to overcome, or at least work with, these challenges.

With the quality and reputation of Okanagan wines ever on the rise, tourism has also increased, as hotels and restaurants offer wine-centric programs and menus. Dining spots such as Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl Winery serve organic wine-country cuisine paired with Burrowing Owl wines, while the historic Naramata Heritage Inn features a wine bar with a large selection of Okanagan wines.

The best time to visit the Okanagan Valley is from late spring through fall. Wineries and restaurants expect to get most of their visitors during summer and fall months; during the winter, some are closed or only open by appointment.

Kelowna, the valley's largest city, is centrally located and has a small international airport, making it a good base from which to explore the region, although there are bed-and-breakfasts and small hotels and motels scattered throughout the Valley.

For information about seasonal wine festivals, check the official Okanagan festival website, www.thewinefestivals.com. For information on Kelowna, see the city's official tourism website, www.tourismkelowna.com.

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