It’s natural to want to understand something new in terms of something known, to define A by its similarities to and differences from B. This is often especially true for emerging wine regions, where a direct comparison to a more established area provides a shortcut for consumer comprehension. Prior to my trip to the Okanagan Valley, I marveled at all the marketing materials that compared the region to Napa. In my albeit limited prior experience with the area’s wines, I imagined the Okanagan to be more like the Finger Lakes. As with the Finger Lakes, the Okanagan Valley is centered around glacier-scraped lakes and produces some seriously excellent Riesling and sparkling wines. Plus, this is Canada, so the climate is super cold, right?
Turns out both models were way off base.
One reason I couldn’t easily pinpoint the area’s spiritual sister appellation is that the Okanagan Valley is remarkably diverse. I say this with the full appreciation that almost every wine region claims unparalleled diversity, but in the case of the Okanagan, the assertion is justified. At the south end of the valley, the arid, austere Osoyoos region regularly ripens Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to a degree that would delight any hedonist. Some 60 miles north, the alpine villages of Kelowna and Naramata lend themselves well to the production of chiseled Chardonnay and mid-weight Riesling. And in the areas in between, a broad variety of wines including traditional method sparkling, Loire-leaning Cabernet Franc, ripe and peachy Pinot Gris, and truly outstanding Gamay find places to thrive.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Okanagan’s broad viticultural aptitude seems to act as a kind of license for many producers to employ a “something for everyone” approach to winemaking, largely out of a desire to attract and appease as many of the massive numbers of tourists that descend on the valley each summer as possible. This phenomenon is not at all unique to the Okanagan, and considering that the region’s history with vinifera is barely 30 years old, it might even be expected. That said, though the complicated terrain and lack of leading varieties and wine styles makes the Okanagan and British Columbia challenging to comprehend, there is great reward in getting to know their wines. At their best, they seem to achieve the impossible, or at least the highly unlikely: the marriage of a New World sense of adventure with the grace and gravitas of the Old World.
British Columbia has a winemaking history that stretches back over 100 years. The first vineyard was planted in 1859 by French Catholic missionaries, and the first commercial winery was opened in 1931, both in the Okanagan. Though this was a fairly precocious start for a New World region, Canada’s wine industry remained primitive for decades, only turning to Vitis vinifera in a serious way in the 1990s. After Canada’s Prohibition, which percolated through the various provinces from approximately 1912 to 1922, the industry leaned mostly on native American Vitis labrusca grapes, as well as berries and orchard fruit, to make its wine. French hybrids were introduced in the 1960s and quickly became a popular option for those seeking a step up in quality, as it was considered common knowledge at that time that Vitis vinifera would not thrive in the extreme climates of British Columbia.
Interestingly, the turn toward Vitis vinifera was very much instigated by the government. In the mid-1970s, the government initiated a renaissance in Canadian wine when it imported several thousand vines and one very important man: the Geisenheim Institute’s Helmut Becker. Becker spent five years (1977-1982) conducting numerous trials that determined which vinifera varieties grew best in the Okanagan and which sites were most well suited for such vines. Becker asserted that the making of great wine required not only Vitis vinifera, but low yields, careful farming, and specific site selection. This ran counter to the farming practices of the time, as most Okanagan agriculture was dedicated to fruit trees and native or hybrid vines, which thrived on a range of sites and were typically cropped at high levels for mass production.
In 1984, Canada’s Ministry of Environment published the Atlas of Suitable Grape Growing Locations in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys of British Columbia, a massive book of maps and charts detailing soil and climatic information that was designed to assist farmers in the planting of higher quality vineyards. The next and major push came in 1988, in conjunction with the passing of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Canada. Known as the FTA, this pact would change its name to NAFTA in 1994 upon the inclusion of Mexico. Prior to the passing of this legislature, Canadian wines—whether made from berries, Vitis labrusca, hybrids, or otherwise—enjoyed something of a captive audience in the Canadian people. After its passing, high-quality foreign wines became more prevalent, shining a light on the largely inferior quality of the local products.
An original copy of the atlas (Photo credit: Scott Brenner)
Though some growers were slow to see the writing on the wall, the government aggressively advocated for progress, offering financial assistance for those willing to rip out their labrusca vines. Donald Triggs, founding partner of Jackson-Triggs Winery, recalls, “A lot of people got out of the industry when they saw the Free Trade Agreement coming. Many predicted that the industry wouldn’t survive. We saw it, however, as a fabulous opportunity.” Christie Mavety of Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars, one of the Okanagan’s historical and qualitative leaders, remembers the transition well. “My father purchased our property in 1971. We started out as an orchard and a vineyard, but with hybrid vines destined for bulk wine production. With the FTA looming, we were faced with the decision to make wine or get out of the business entirely. My dad is a farmer at heart, so we stayed.” In British Columbia alone, around 2,400 acres of labrusca were pulled out in the late 1980s. Since that time, vinifera acreage has grown steadily, rising from roughly 500 to 10,200 acres today.
With the vineyards addressed, the government turned its attention to the wines, establishing the BCWA (British Columbia Wine Authority) in 1990. Functioning as both a members’ alliance and a regulatory body, the BCWA is available for all wineries to join, but only wines that meet certain standards can be labeled and sold with the BC VQA seal of approval. Firstly, all of a given wine’s grapes must hail from British Columbia, with 95% from the stated GI, and 85% from the stated vintage and variety. Second, neither water nor sugar can be added. In addition to that, each wine must pass a blind examination by the association’s tasters. All qualifying wines will enjoy the BC VQA stamp, as well as the added benefit of being sold in the province’s many BC VQA wine stores—no small thing when you consider that the vast majority of Canadian wines are purchased and consumed within Canada.
Undoubtedly, these BC VQA quality checkpoints were an essential service when British Columbian wines were getting on their feet. Today, however, its strategy seems a bit out of step with the growth and direction of the industry. During my recent immersive trip to British Columbia, most of the best wines I tasted were from young producers, many of whom were dabbling with more experimental winemaking for at least part of their portfolio; such producers assume BC VQA rejection is a given and so operate outside of its bounds. “The tasting panel at the BC VQA is trained to look for flaws, not quality,” said Alan Dickinson of Synchromesh, arguing that such an approach promotes mediocrity. For others, the decision to bypass the BC VQA is about freedom in labeling. Matt Sherlock, partner and co-winemaker for Lock & Worth, has eschewed BC VQA membership to promote his wines’ village of origin. “Because Naramata is not a GI or a sub-GI, the BC VQA won’t currently allow it on a label,” he explains.
Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines, a producer of compelling sparkling wines from Gamay and Chardonnay, selectively submits his traditional method wines to the BC VQA because he sees the benefit of membership, but assumes his pét-nats won’t pass. He views the conflict surrounding the BCWA as having more to do with growing pains than divergent agendas, per se. “Our industry has grown so fast. Ten years ago, when I came to the valley, there were less than 100 wineries; now, there are almost 300. And then you add the whole natural wine game, which only exploded here in the last year... Our government is still trying to wrap [its] head around it. It’s a process for them, too.”
During the last decade, the growth of the fine wine industry in British Columbia has been dramatic, with both quantity and quality surging. As the renown of the wines has grown, so has the area’s appeal to foreign investors and wealthy retirees. While this has created a host of jobs for the people of British Columbia, it has also raised real estate prices, and therefore the bar of entry for young people looking to start their own label. Custom-crushing, a common course of action in the United States for those without the means to purchase or build their own winery, is rarely seen and legally complicated in Canada. In fact, the Canadian government requires a brand to own at least four acres of vineyard and a dedicated winemaking facility before it can sell directly to consumers. With the most basic winemaking equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars and vineyard land running regularly over $100,000 an acre, even the most barebones operation requires significant capital.
From a qualitative perspective, the wines are getting better because the winemaking is better. It is becoming increasingly common for foreign winemakers—especially, it seems, from France and New Zealand—to make their way to the Okanagan. Local winemakers are also seeking more international experience before returning home. And while each passing vintage brings more wisdom in the cellar, it also brings greater maturity in the vineyard. Most vinifera vineyards in British Columbia are extremely young, and many winemakers have faced a sharp learning curve regarding their care. “When we first started farming here, we aimed for ‘luxury farming,’” confides John Weber of Orofino, a Riesling-focused winery in the Similkameen Valley. “You know, de-leafing, one cluster per shoot, etc. The resulting wines were monsters! Super ripe and concentrated, not what we were going for. Now, we crop our Pinot Noir at four to five tons per acre and are able to get full maturity at lower alcohols—much more balanced and refreshing.” Back in Okanagan, Painted Rock, which focuses on rich Syrah and Bordeaux blends, experienced a different sort of learning curve. Initially, they made only a handful of wines, but as the vineyard aged, their approach shifted. “By the 2013 vintage, we started to notice some interesting nuances in our fruit,” winemaker Gabe Reis explains, “so we began sub-dividing our production to highlight these distinctions.”
Beyond the basic qualitative improvements, contemporary producers are increasingly focused on single vineyard sites and organic or biodynamic farming. And while some are walking the natural wine track, others are looking to the classical winemaking techniques of Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône, and Mosel for cues. That said, not everyone has evolved at the same rate. Though I tried a significant amount of excellent wines, I also tasted a fair shake of pedestrian examples—over-oaked wines made from over-cropped fruit with little to offer beyond a kind of bland quaffable cheer. Drysdale concurs. “Seventy-five percent of the wineries in BC are still chasing consumer fads and consumer wants rather than trying to figure out what their land wants to produce and the best way to get it there. Here, it’s like, ‘I made Merlot because that’s what sold out first last year.’”
In large part, the problem is the same as it was pre-FTA: the lullaby of the captive audience. With over a million tourists, mainly fellow Canadians, making the trek each year, most wineries can sell through their annual production with little effort, so there is scant incentive to change. Synchromesh doesn’t open their tasting room until the first of May and then usually runs out of wine by mid-July—a common occurrence. And while any accountant would call this a triumph (direct-to-consumer sales mean more profit for the winery), it’s self-defeating from a regional perspective. Many producers expressed a desire for the Okanagan to be better recognized internationally, but few seemed willing to forgo their margin in order to campaign on its behalf. And while it’s easy for me to call that a shame—it’s not my dollars on the line—I can’t help but think that a little international competition would be the very Jupiter monolith that ushers in the next evolution of BC wine. After all, it was international competition that initiated the first big jump.
Perhaps I’m just a little too excited by the wines and am anxious to get them on more American shelves. In the meantime, there’s a plethora of amazing British Columbian wines available if you know where to find them. Unfortunately, that tends to be the cellar door.
British Columbia is among the largest of Canada’s 10 provinces and is likely best known for its capital, Vancouver, and the ski resort Whistler. It is located directly on top of Washington State and is bordered to the west by the Pacific Ocean and the lowest reaches of Alaska. Between the stormy coastal islands, the dramatic mountain ranges, and the sparsely populated expanses of hilly forest, British Columbia is a striking, majestic place.
Tucked inside the province are five distinct winemaking areas. Two are coastal (Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island), two are inland (Similkameen Valley, Okanagan Valley), and one is somewhat vestigial (Fraser Valley) in that it exists as a tourist area, but most wineries truck in grapes from the Okanagan. These regions are known as GIs (Geographical Indications), though they are commonly referred to as DVAs (Designated Viticultural Areas) within Canada.
Map credit: BC Wine Institute
Vancouver Island is a large island off the southwest coast of British Columbia. Though the wine industry shows great potential, production is limited, with only 432 acres under vine and a mere handful of wineries in operation. The most widely planted varieties are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, though hybrids such as Maréchal Foch and cold-hardy vinifera crosses such as Ortega are still prevalent. The island is fairly exposed to the elements, and the best vineyards tend to be located on the more sheltered eastern edge. Because of the heavy rain, rot is a major issue. The most successful wines are Riesling, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines.
The Gulf Islands are the northern extension of Washington State’s San Juan Islands. This cluster of tiny islands is located in the Georgia Strait in between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The area enjoys a kindred climate to Vancouver Island, and as such is planted to a similar breakdown of varieties, though on a much smaller scale; as of January 2017, only 94 acres were under vine.
Gulf Islands (Photo credit: BC Wine Institute)
As mentioned previously, Fraser Valley functions more as a tourist attraction for the greater Vancouver area, situated about 60 miles from the city. Its 200 vineyard acres are dedicated mostly to hybrids—any serious vinifera grapes are generally sourced from the Okanagan Valley.
Taken together, the Similkameen and Okanagan Valleys account for over 90% of all wine grapes grown in British Columbia. The regions are a four-hour drive from Vancouver, and every eastward inch takes on a deeper Bavarian hue. What you are crossing during this trek, and the secret to the Okanagan sauce, is the Cascade Range, whose rain shadow falls upon the Okanagan to same effect as it does eastern Washington’s farmland. Similkameen and most of the Okanagan is categorized as desert with the driest area—Osoyoos, in the south—averaging an annual 12 inches of precipitation. This number swells to 16 inches in the considerably cooler Kelowna, 60 or so miles to the north.
As of August 2014, British Columbia can boast of over 10,200 acres of vines. The top 10 varieties in descending order are Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, with an almost even split between white and red varieties. Hybrids represent only 3% of the planted area, and are mostly concentrated in colder, wetter coastal areas such as Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and the Gulf Islands.
The Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys are warmer than the regions’ latitudes might imply, with the Okanagan sitting at roughly the same level as Champagne and parts of Germany. Summers are hot and winters are long and cold, with killing freezes an annual threat to vines. This makes for a truncated growing season, but the brevity is balanced by additional sunshine, which is more abundant at this latitude. The diurnal swing is also dramatic, with summer temperatures that drop by 50 degrees or more at night. These extremes, both of summer and winter, are mitigated by the lakes. As such, vineyards tend to surround the water, with the exception of areas like Oliver and Similkameen, which boast only rivers. Planting on slopes is another way to minimize frost damage, so truly flat patches tend to be reserved for other, non-vinifera crops.
The Okanagan Valley runs roughly 120 miles along a north-south axis, following the course of a series of lakes and connecting rivers. The largest lake, Okanagan, is in the north, with the growing areas of Summerland, Naramata, Kelowna, and Wine Country located on either side of its banks, and Penticton just to its south. Skaha and Vaseux are the next lakes southward, with the Okanagan Falls region occupying their eastern flank. The broad growing area of Oliver comes next, home to most of the Okanagan’s vineyards. Oliver boasts no lake, but still enjoys some of the moderating effects of Vaseux to the north and Osoyoos to the south. The Osoyoos Lake straddles the Canada-US border, and its accompanying wine region is located to both the east and the west of this sizable body of water. The Similkameen Valley is situated over the mountains just to the west of Osoyoos, and runs perpendicular to the Okanagan Valley.
The Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys are quite high in elevation, starting at 1,000 and 1,300 feet, respectively. Vineyards extend several hundred feet from there, but the sharply rising slopes get forbidding fast. These steep valleys accelerate the wind, which whips rapidly through both GIs daily. Coupled with the dry climate, these winds make ideal conditions for organic farming, and indeed the Similkameen is considered the organic farming capital of Canada. The deep cut of the valleys also sharply divides the east side, which basks in the warm afternoon sun, from the west, which enjoys the gentler morning light.
The Okanagan Valley Fault roughly traces the path of the lakes and rivers and marks where the eastern plate once slid beneath the western plate. Growers note that the eastern end of the valley tends to be sandier in character, while the west side contains more loam. Such a statement, however, is a gross simplification, as soil types twist and overlap all throughout the Okanagan and Similkameen, ranging from volcanic material, to glacial till, to gravellier alluvial material, silt, and chalk. If anything, this emphasizes the importance of single vineyards, and of further sub-dividing the GIs, a process that began in 2015 with the delineation of the Golden Mile Sub-GI in east Oliver.
So far, the remote location of the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys and the high levels of sand in the soil has kept phylloxera at bay. As a result, a surprising amount (though still a minority) of vines are still planted on their own roots. This same sand content, however, forces most producers to irrigate. Irrigation is often considered an inescapable reality of farming in the Okanagan, but a handful of hopefuls are experimenting with dry-farming. Both Jay Drysdale of Bella and Matt Sherlock of Nichol have had luck dry-farming vines with over 15 years of age. Donald Triggs, who retired from Jackson-Triggs and recently founded the much smaller Culmina, is making dry-farming a priority of his new venture. “I think of dry-farming as essential to the next generation of my family,” Triggs explains. “With water shortages all over the world, it’s time to dry-farm, or at least see how far we can get. Even if we can lower our water usage to 50% less than current Okanagan standards, that’s a victory.”
Irrigation in the Southern Okanagan (Photo credit: BC Wine Institute)
Though physically very close to the Okanagan Valley, the Similkameen is a world, and an appellation, unto itself. This valley runs roughly east to west, and the extreme steepness of its walls results in a faster wind than is seen in the Okanagan. The absence of a moderating lake influence makes the climate more extreme as well, with higher highs, lower lows, and more dramatic diurnal swings. The soils are a complex mix of gravelly alluvial fans, river deposits, and a good amount of chalk and calcareous material. At current count, there are 19 wineries and 691 acres under vine, predominately Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay, although I tried some exceptional Riesling and Gamay as well. All vineyards are located between 1,300 and 1,600 feet in elevation and organic farming is common.
Steep slopes in the Similkameen Valley (Photo credit: BC Wine Institute)
These are sub-regions, both official and unofficial, of the Okanagan Valley, moving from north to south.
Located on the eastern bench of the Okanagan lake, this is one of the most northerly and colder sub-regions of the Okanagan. Over 900 acres of vines are planted, predominately to Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. Sparkling wines also do well here.
Across the Okanagan Lake from Naramata, along the western shore and slopes, the area that boasts the towns of Peachland and Summerland has seen only limited viticultural development. Its 355 acres under vine are dedicated largely to Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
The township of Naramata is located on the eastern shores of Lake Okanagan, just south of Kelowna. An insular community, Naramata is one of only a handful of “slow cities” in North America, a designation awarded by Italy’s Cittaslow, an organization inspired by the slow food movement, that recognizes organic-leaning, agricultural towns that foreswear chain businesses and prioritize local communities. Naramata possesses numerous wineries, and its natural beauty makes it an appealing stop for tourists. Penticton is the larger, more industrial town to its immediate south that occupies the space between the Okanagan and Skaha lakes. Taken together, these two regions count nearly 900 acres of vines, with the most widely planted grapes being Merlot, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Though not as prevalent, Riesling, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc also thrive here.
Okanagan Falls is a small region with serious potential. It is located on both the eastern edge of Skaha Lake and the space between that lake and the Vaseux Lake. Here, the terrain is far more rolling, and the soils are quite variegated. The Skaha Bench, which sits several hundred feet above the lake, is one of the area’s best known viticultural hotspots. Okanagan Fall’s 539 acres are focused on Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris. The Chardonnay is especially excellent, as were the handful of Riesling and Cabernet Franc examples that I tried.
Because of its concentration of vines, Oliver is considered by many to be the heart of the Okanagan. This broad area occupies the sandy span between the Vaseux and Osoyoos lakes. It is also home to the first sub-GI, Golden Mile Bench, which was carved from its lower, western flank. Opposite the Golden Mile Bench, but still technically a part of Oliver, is an area known as the Black Sage Bench, which is rumored to be the next sub-GI likely to be declared. Though not as hot as the Osoyoos region to the south, Oliver is far more desert-like in appearance than the Okanagan Falls area to its north. Its 3,543 acres are host to a range of varieties, but Merlot, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon represent the largest plantings.
In 2015, the Golden Mile Bench was declared as Okanagan’s first sub-GI. This region is a slightly elevated shelf of vineyards, planted on a gravel-rich, sandy loam with a high concentration of calcium carbonate. Located on the southwest side of the Oliver region, it enjoys cooler morning light and is largely protected from the hot afternoon sun. Its 791 acres are planted primarily to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer.
Osoyoos sits along the US border and is both the warmest (an average of four degrees hotter than Kelowna) and the driest of the Okanagan sub-regions. Here the desert classification is undeniable, and the soils are dominated by sand over granitic bedrock. Though not as widely planted as Oliver, it still contains a significant number of vines, mostly red grapes, specifically Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.
The desert of the Osoyoos sub-region (Photo via Adobe Stock)
One of the most exciting wineries in the Okanagan is Bella, a tiny sparkling house that works exclusively with Chardonnay and Gamay. Established by former sommelier Jay Drysdale and his wife Wendy in 2011, Bella produces three tiers of wine: traditional method sparkling, pét-nat, and reserve sparkling. Every wine is vineyard-designated, fermented via native yeasts, hand-riddled, and hand-disgorged. Most recently they produced 2,000 cases of wine, spread across 13 different bottlings. They own an estate vineyard in Naramata, where they have incorporated several biodynamic practices, and control the farming for many of the sites from which they source. In truth, the Bella wines I tried were excellent without exception—all were light, lifted, intricate, and full of character. I especially enjoyed the golden-hued 2016 Hillside Cellars Founder’s Block Sparkling Gamay Noir, which was made from 34-year-old vines in Naramata—some of the oldest in British Columbia.
Blue Mountain is one of the founding wineries of the modern era of Okanagan wines. It was also the inspiration for this article: a bottle of their reserve sparkling wine tasted several years ago was my first glimpse into the quality potential of British Columbia. The Mavety family first purchased their slice of the Okanagan Falls in 1971 and transitioned to vinifera vines shortly after the passing of the FTA. To select the right vines for their property, they hired two American consultants who independently recommended sparkling production. Since their first vintage in 1991, they have relied exclusively on their 80 acres of estate fruit and produce a range of both still and sparkling wines. The sparkling wines are superb, produced in the traditional method, with the Blanc de Blancs and Reserve as the standouts. Among the still wines, the Pinot Noir is charming if light and the Gamay is regularly excellent.
The Blue Mountain property (Photo credit: Scott Brenner)
Coolshanagh is a vineyard in northern Naramata, and the wines are made at the Okanagan Crush Pad per the specifications of the vineyard owners, Skip and Judy Stothert. I only tried the Chardonnay (they also make a Pinot Noir), and it was great—a bit more modern and oak-tinged than most of what I tried from the Okanagan, but extremely well made, not unlike a high-quality wine from the Mâcon.
Foxtrot was established by Swedish transplant Gustav Allander and his parents, Torsten and Kicki, in 2004. He and his parents were living in Vancouver when they purchased a summer home in Naramata in 2001. The property came with an existing vineyard planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which remains the focus of the brand. Pinot Noir is the star of the portfolio, and accounts for 70% of Foxtrot’s 2,500 case production. The 2014 estate Pinot Noir was especially fine: floral and middle-weighted with an earthy tinge and admirable lift. The vines were planted in 1994 on their own roots.
Haywire is the home brand of Summerland’s Okanagan Crush Pad, one of the few custom-crush operations in the valley. Though they purchase a few oak barrels for their clients, the wines of Haywire spend all their lives in either stainless steel, concrete, or amphora. The winemaking is edgy and natural leaning, with the portfolio split between more classic wines like their notable Pinot Gris and Gamay, and experimental wines such as a pét-nat and a skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay blend. My favorite wine of the lineup was their traditional method sparkling called “The Bub,” which is made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, all from their Summerland estate vineyard, that spent 18 months on its lees. Pale salmon in hue, it was dry and bracing with a pleasantly fruity mid-palate and a subtle toasty quality to the finish. Haywire’s fruit is farmed organically, and their wines are fermented via native yeast without exception.
Richard Kanazawa spent several years working in the cellars of Australia before returning home to Canada. Back on his native soil, he led the winemaking at several British Columbian wineries before launching his own venture in 2010. Most of his fruit comes from Naramata and Oliver, and his brand’s emphasis is on lower-alcohol wines. His production (just under 3,000 cases a year) is currently divided across eight wines, the most interesting of which were a Bordeaux blend called Ronin and an unusual aromatic white concoction named Nomu, which combines Viognier, Sémillon, and Muscat to great effect.
LaStella and Le Vieux Pin are sister wineries, established by the same Vancouver-based couple in 2006 and 2005, respectively. While both in warm Osoyoos, each has its own model of operation. LaStella draws its inspiration from the Maremma and produces a range of modern, concentrated Merlots. Le Vieux Pin, on the other hand, has centered its production around the Rhône staples of Syrah and Viognier. Both brands enjoy the same winemaker, a Montpellier-trained woman named Severine Pinte, who has produced two distinct ranges of wines that manage to be polished yet characterful. Among the highlights were a lifted, aromatic blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne called Ava (Le Vieux Pin), a powerful, meaty Syrah called Equinoxe (Le Vieux Pin), their flagship Merlot Maestoso (LaStella), and a playful, lightly sweet Moscato d’Osoyoos (LaStella).
In the Similkameen Valley, Master of Wine Rhys Pender and his wife Alishan Driediger focus their limited production on Riesling and Chardonnay. The fruit is culled from their estate vineyard Mulberry Tree, and both wines display admirable brightness and finesse.
Meyer Family Vineyards is widely regarded as one of the finest wineries in British Columbia, and is also one of the few that at least intermittently exports. Located in the Okanagan Falls area, the estate focuses its efforts on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine. What started out as a hobby for Jak Meyer in 2006 has grown to almost 8,000 cases. Their winemaker, Chris Carson, who trained in New Zealand, Burgundy, and at Calera in California, has impressive talent that is on display with his 2015 McLean Creek Road Chardonnay (by far the best still Chardonnay I tried from British Columbia), the 2015 Reimer Pinot Noir, and the 2015 McLean Creek Pinot Noir. The house style is inarguably Burgundian, and all wines feature good acidity, transparency, and a light hand regarding new oak.
Moraine is a small winery located in Naramata. While I did not visit, I tried their 2014 Pinot Noir in Vancouver and it was excellent, boasting concentrated red cherry fruit, a perfectly sculpting amount of acidity, and just a touch of proper Pinot funk.
Nichol Vineyard and Lock & Worth may be two separate brands, but both are a collaborative effort between winemakers Ross Hackworth and Matthew Sherlock. Ross Hackworth established Nichol in 1992 and quickly developed a following for his range of high quality and distinctive wines. Matt Sherlock was a wine buyer in Vancouver and a big supporter of Nichol. The two struck up a friendship and later a partnership, launching Lock & Worth together in 2011; Sherlock also assists Hackworth on the Nichol wines. While Nichol’s production is centered on its own-rooted estate vineyard in Naramata, Lock & Worth sources fruit from all over the Okanagan, and designates it all as single vineyard wines. For both labels, the winemakers rely on a more hands-off approach, which includes native yeast whenever possible, gentle extraction, and neutral oak. I tried a broad selection from both portfolios and the wines are among some of the very best being made in British Columbia today. Of special note are the Nichol Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, which all displayed thrilling varietal typicity and complexity, as well as the Lock & Worth Sémillon, Naramata Vineyard Cabernet Franc, and picture perfect Cabernet Franc rosé. International readers will be pleased to hear that both brands actively export.
Orofino is a Similkameen Valley winery that specializes in Riesling and Gamay. Founded by husband-and-wife team John and Virginia Weber in 2003, Orofino is very much a part of the natural wine movement that is sweeping British Columbia. Most of their wines are fermented via native yeast, typically in either cement or amphora, and tend to be bottled only a few months after harvest. Their 5,000-case production contains a wide range of wines, including a slew of single vineyard Riesling wines. While their bottlings of Gamay are truly excellent, redolent of a meaty-style Beaujolais, the Syrah is more funky and wild. Their Riesling is generally fermented almost to dryness, with the Hendsbee Vineyard bottling standing out for its lime skin essence and zippy vitality.
Painted Rock sits high over the Skaha Lake on a bluff of the same name. Though this neighborhood of the Okanagan is better known for its light reds and white wines, this specific site was selected for its exposure, which is capable of ripening Syrah and red Bordeaux varieties to high brix. The wines are extracted and dark, but well-made, with the standouts being their Merlot and Bordeaux blend named Red Icon.
Boasting the only Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyard in British Columbia, Summerhill Pyramid is a sizable operation (35,000 to 40,000 cases per year) that specializes in sparkling wine and Bordeaux reds. Though they experiment with some eyebrow-raising creations such as sparkling Blanc de Cabernet Franc, the best wine by far is their basic Blanc de Blancs.
Synchromesh Wines, with its range of thoughtfully crafted, single-vineyard Riesling, was a highlight of my trip. Like Matt Sherlock of Lock & Worth, Alan Dickinson worked in the wine industry in Vancouver before setting up shop in the Okanagan. His love of Riesling guided his real estate search, and he ultimately settled on the Storm Haven Vineyard in the Okanagan Falls area. Dickinson started small, but has grown steadily since his first vintage in 2010, and now either owns or leases 21.5 acres of vines, all of which he personally farms with his family. He ferments his Riesling in stainless steel via indigenous yeast, and the bottles run the gamut of residual sugar levels. Last year, he produced 4,000 cases of wine, two-thirds of it Riesling (nine different bottlings), with a balance of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. In truth, all of the wines were of a very high quality, but the Riesling was superb, especially from the Bob Hancock and Thorny Vines vineyards in Naramata, and the Storm Haven “black label” Riesling from the home property. A funky, copper-colored, savory rosé of Cabernet Franc is also recommended for those with more adventurous palates.
Tantalus, located up north in Kelowna, is the original Riesling-focused producer of note in the Okanagan, having debuted in 2005. In fact, their property boasts some of the oldest vinifera vines around, a patch of 1978 Riesling vines. In addition to charming, straightforward, and cheerful Pinot Noir, the best wines of their impressive lineup are their Old Vine Riesling Brut, their slightly off-dry basic Riesling, and their bright and vibrant Old Vine Riesling (non-sparkling). Stylistically, these wines all run bone dry, but going forward they plan to play around with a bit more residual sugar. Production relies exclusively on estate fruit, and hovers around 8,500 cases.
An interesting exception to the government-mandated estate model, Tyler Harlton started his label without buying land by opting for a commercial license. His small operation is based in an industrial pocket of Summerland and was established in 2011. He makes small quantities of a range of wines, the best of which are a peppy, petrol-tinged Riesling, a floral, bright Viognier, and a simple but charming Pinot Noir.
A small estate in the Oliver region of Okanagan, vinAmité is truly family run. Labor is divided between a set of parents and their two daughters, one of whom assists her father in the cellar, while the other manages the vineyard. The wines are easy-drinking and very enjoyable, with a lightweight Pinot Gris, a bouncy Gamay, and a grippy but clearly cool climate “claret” called Compass as the standouts. Their first vintage was 2013, and they produce around 2,000 cases per year.
Anyone traveling to Vancouver that wants to visit the Okanagan, please reach out. I'd be happy to help set you all up at specialized visits. You'll be amazed at what the area has to offer.