Arguably the most note-worthy wine growing region in all of Canada, the Okanagan Valley, BC (British Columbia) not only offers Winetraveler’s a chance to taste wonderfully refined Pinot Noir and Ice Wine — the landscape and drive to the region will leave you in awe.
Looking to travel to Okanagan? You can fly many major airline carriers directly into Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and then drive through beautiful British Columbia. Or, you can fly into Kelowna Airport (YLW) via Sunwing or WestJet airlines within Okanagan itself.
The Okanagan Valley Wine Region
Okanagan is characterized largely as being one of the warmest regions within all of Canada. It’s for this reason in particular that special attention in recent years has been given to wine production. Aside from it being warm, it’s relatively dry and sunny which makes it ideal for growing a variety of grape varieties (more on that later).
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The entire region stretches about 250 kilometers North to South and on the Southern end actually slightly overlaps the U.S. border. It’s a diverse region, with mountains, rivers, lakes and particularly dry, desert like areas.
The Okanagan Valley really does have something for everyone. In the Summertime, you can experience wine tasting, beautiful hikes, lake shore beaches and an assortment of water sports. In the Winter, it’s a great location to go skiing or snowboarding.
The main towns within the region include Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Osoyoos, with Kelowna being the largest.
You can watch a short video summary of the region and get a real sense of its natural beauty in the video below:
Click here to take a Virtual Tour of the Okanagan Valley and see a list of wineries.
Grape Varieties of Okanagan Valley
Even though the Okanagan Valley is the second largest Canadian wine region, it plays host to over 89% of all grape growing in British Columbia, and there are about 173 licensed wineries currently throughout the region.
The extreme Terroir diversity and micro-climates present throughout the entirety of the region offer Vintners the ability to not only grow a wide range of grape varieties, but also to produce them in a variety of styles. Wine styles in Okanagan can range from dry, off-dry, medium, sweet to fortified and also include ice wine — perhaps Canada’s most noteworthy style.
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While over 60 different kinds of grapes currently grow under the Okanagan sun, it may be most well known for its Pinot Noir and aromatic grape growing, in addition to its Ice Wine. Interestingly, vintners are now discovering the potential for certain Italian, German and Spanish grape varieties to thrive. Below, you can find a list of some of the more dominant grape varieties (click through to learn more about each grape).
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Gris
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
Ice Wine in Okanagan
Ice Wine is a unique style of wine that is typically produced from cool-climate loving Riesling grapes (though other varieties are also used). While most of the grape harvesting in the Okanagan Valley occurs in September, some select producers within the region opt to leave grapes on the vine as late as December and January. In doing this, the grapes continue to ripen, increasing their sugar content while the acidity slowly dwindles away. As the climate continues to cool, eventually the water content remaining within the grapes begins to freeze — leaving only the highly-concentrated sugar juice as liquid. Once this occurs, the grapes are crushed while frozen, thus releasing the concentrated grape juice sans the water — ultimately creating complex, very sweet dessert style wines.
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Okanagan Valley Sub Regions
As we mentioned earlier, the Okanagan Valley is incredibly diverse in terms of terroir and its micro-climates. The region has yet to designate official sub-appellations, but currently there are 7 sub-regions that are classified as viticultural areas.
Kelowna & North Okanagan
This region is best known for its cooler climate grape varieties, including refined Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris (Grigio), Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay. The sandy and clay-based surface style of soil set above calcareous (limestone) ensures that the grapes need to work a little harder for their nutriment, thus producing smaller berries with thick skins and complex juice.
This unique region and one of the least well known in Okanagan is special thanks to the volcanic type soil that exists here. This kind of soil helps produced refined, complex wines. Mount Boucherie is relatively easy to access, and is only 20 kilometers or so from downtown Kelowna. Pinot Noir and Riesling are best known here, though some premium producers are also having success with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Summerland is a beautiful region that is under further development. Located directly across from Naramata, you can get a beautiful view of Okanagan Lake here as well as the sandy shores on the East bank near Naramata. Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Rosé are some of the more noteworthy styles of wine and wine styles being produced here.
Naramata is located almost directly across the lake from Summerland, with Penticton located South. Given the ability for vines to grow on rolling slopes here and how close they are to the lake shore, Fall in Naramata and Penticton is a little bit warmer, thus allowing for little to no frost to inhibit ripening. Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Merlot are best known in this area.
The Okanagan Falls region is located even further South than Penticton, along the Southern end of Skaha Lake. Soil here is relatively diverse, and this region is home to some of the more aromatic varieties produced in BC. Some vineyards are located on slopes and are terraced. Grape varieties include but are not limited to — Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir.
Further South and near Oliver and the Golden Mile, wine production here includes Merlot, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, predominantly. Though slightly warmer than the other Northern viticultural areas, the soil here is primarily gravel, clay and sand, which means water drains easily. This ultimately helps yield concentrated and complex wines.
Very close to the U.S. border, Black Sage and Osoyoos offer wine enthusiasts a chance to try Canada’s take on Bordeaux style red wines. Soils are well drained and predominantly sandy. In addition to classic Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec), Chardonnay and Syrah is also produced.
Wine Festivals and Events in the Okanagan Valley
Depending what time of year you plan on visiting the valley, there are a number of wine festivals that can be enjoyed. Festival’s occur throughout the year and tend to be seasonal. Take a look at Okanagan’s lineup of wine and food festivals broken down by season here.
Why Can’t I Find BC Wine in the U.S.?
Despite beautiful wine production in Okanagan, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you told me you’ve never had BC wine. Due to Provincial liquor laws set in place by the Provincial Liquor Control Board in Canada, it’s extremely difficult to get wine into licensed United States liquor stores — even though the border is less than 80 miles away. In fact, wine laws in British Columbia are still surprisingly archaic. Only recently was wine allowed to be sold on grocery store shelves within provincial borders.
Luckily, some producers are breaking free and recognize the early hintings of U.S. consumer wine thirst for this epic wine region. As word begins to leak about the quality of wine coming out of the Okanagan Valley, it’s only a matter of time until these restrictions begin to deteriorate due to high demand.
In the mean time, while it’s still a pain in the ass to find BC wine here (and apparently in Canada too), I highly recommend you head North of the border and discover the region for yourself. Skip the store and go direct to the cellar door.
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Additional sources include Wine BC, BC Wine & Okanagan Valley.