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Discovering a little-known gem: Okanagan Valley, the world's northernmost wine region

My first visit to Canada at the beginning of June took me to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, the world’s northernmost wine region and one of its most beautiful, where seven wineries have joined forces in the Okanagan Wine Initiative to showcase this lake-side jewel

Painted Rock Estate on the eastern shore of Skaha Lake, Okanagan Valley, unwilling provider of food for many a bear before it was fenced in

Bear tastes like pork, only greasier, apparently, although it does depend what they’ve been eating – grapes, as it might be in Canada. Wine growing in Canada is different in so many respects. In Okanagan Valley, the main wine growing region of British Columbia, about 250 miles (400km) east of Vancouver, the differences include the vineyard pests, although pest seems a tame word to use for an animal that can weigh up to 850lb, consume up to half its body weight a day in late summer and early autumn, is partial to wine grapes (among a great many other things – deer, elk, fish, grasses, seeds, fungi et al) and can smell food from miles away.

The devastating thing about bears in the vineyards is that they don’t just grab a few bunches. They’ll pull up whole vines several at a time and take them away to eat, roots and all. In 2010 at Painted Rock Estate Winery, John Skinner had 14 bears ranging through his Chardonnay vineyard. He had hoped for 50 tons of fruit (having dropped half in the very cold 2010 growing season), but the final score was Skinner 39 tons, bears 11. Not any more. After that experience Skinner had the entire perimeter of the estate electrified (subtext to bears: don’t mess with John Skinner).

Bears aside, one of the key features of the Okanagan Valley is low disease pressure, thanks to the climate. Which brings us neatly to everyone’s opening gambit when you say you’re going on a wine trip to Canada. “Canada? How can they make wine there? Isn’t it too cold?” Then sometimes there’s a light-bulb moment: “Ah, ice wine,” they say. Well, yes and no. Canada is the world’s largest producer of ice wine – exceptionally sweet wine made from grapes frozen on the vine in winter – and it’s made in all the wine-growing provinces, including British Columbia, the second largest, but about three-quarters comes from the largest, Ontario, especially the Niagara Peninsula 2500 miles (4000km) to the east of the Okanagan Valley.

No ice wine please, we're Canadian

I tasted ice wine at only one of the wineries I visited in the Okanagan, at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where winemaker Eric Von Krosigk said candidly: “We make quite a bit of ice wine. Unfortunately.” We only tasted it there when one of our group requested it, but we were then put through our paces with four, a Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Zweigelt, plus a traditional-method sparkling wine with 20g/l ice wine dosage added to a Pinot Noir base. Four and a bit was plenty, and a relief not to have to taste the complete 14-strong range at this our first tasting of the day. Ice wine is largely made for export, especially to Asia. China is the top market, followed by the US, South Korea, the UK some way behind, then Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. “Canadians don’t drink ice wine,” Canadian wine writer Treve Ring says unequivocally.

So, that’s ice wine dealt with, but not the climate. There’s no question that British Columbia is indeed cold. Below 20ºC is not uncommon in the Okanagan Valley in winter and for three months it generally doesn’t go above -10ºC. Vines sometimes succumb: Syrah, regarded as one of Okanagan’s stars in the making, is one of the most susceptible to winter kill. But, and here’s the thing, the 88-mile (140km) north-south Okanagan Valley is essentially a series of three long, narrow lakes, the in-fills of a glacial trench. The 75-mile (120km) Okanagan Lake, averaging a little over 2 miles (3.5km) wide, is the longest by far.

Most of Okanagan’s vineyards lie on the low hills that flank these lakes with predominantly alluvial soils, although soils are quite varied and include some of volcanic origin in the northwest under the dormant Mount Boucherie. It’s the lakes that determine the valley’s wines, just as the Greek island of Santorini’s volcanic soils define its wines. Okanagan means ‘place of water’ in the Interior Salish dialect.

Yes, it's cold, but it's also hot

The lakes moderate the cold in winter and the heat in summer, and summers are almost as hot as winters are cold. It’s regularly 40ºC. Matt Holler, one of four brothers managing vineyards at their parents’ Poplar Grove Winery, has seen 47ºC in their vineyards in Osoyoos at the southern end of the valley. But then Osoyoos is the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert (a desert that starts 3000 miles south in Mexico). High as the daytime temperatures are in summer, nights are generally cool and that’s a critical factor for quality. It can be 40ºC during the day but drop back to 12–13º at night.

The growing season is relatively short, depending where you are. At Culmina Family Estates, which has some of Okanagan’s highest vineyards at over 600m, they’re not frost-free until the beginning of June. They pick their Cabernets, Franc and Sauvignon, in November. “The limiting factor here, says Sarah Triggs, daughter of founders Don and Elaine Triggs, is not the cold but the length of the growing season.”

That doesn’t mean harvests are necessarily compact. At Okanagan Crush Pad, a custom winemaking facility producing 45,000 cases a year including its own estate labels (Haywire, Freeform and Narrative), the harvest starts in the latter part of August with sparkling wine bases and goes into November, not for ice wine but for Narrative Cabernet Franc, an arresting medium-weight wine with leafy freshness and fruit, floral perfume, silky texture and subtle notes of graphite and spicy coffee bean.

To see where the Okanagan Valley fits into the wine world climatically and to give some context to the temperature highs and lows, it’s worth looking at growing degree days: the north of the Okanagan Valley has 1200 degree days, the south 1495; Beaune in Burgundy falls between the two with 1315 days. To compare latitudes: Beaune is 47º N, while Okanagan Valley runs from 49º on the US border to 50º in the north (just north of Kelowna international airport). Overall the climate is classed as continental and cool, but 1º of latitude, with desert at one end, allows quite a bit of temperature variation. In addition, the west of the lake is cooler because it gets morning sun. The east gets the warmer afternoon sun.

And boy it's dry

Latitude and degree days taken into account, it’s not surprising that Pinot Noir is an important variety in Okanagan, as is Chardonnay, but before we get to grape varieties we need to finish with climate. There’s more to it than extremes of temperature: it’s also very dry. The whole of the valley is in a rain shadow between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges. The average annual rainfall in the north is 16 inches (400mm) and in the far south an even more paltry 9.8 inches (250mm). In comparison, Beaune has 30 inches (762mm). For Okanagan the dryness means low disease pressure, which is more or less where we started, once we’d got past the bears.

Such low rainfall also means irrigation is necessary, but that’s not problematic when there’s little disease other than some powdery mildew, cited as the main issue by Poplar Grove owner Tony Holler in Penticton, on the Naramata Bench in the middle of the valley straddling the Okanagan and Scaha lakes, and leaf hoppers, the main pest cited by Sarah Triggs at Culmina further south, near the town of Oliver on the Golden Mile Bench between the Vaseux and Osoyoos lakes.

On the other hand, the Triggs family is concerned about the amount of water being drawn from the lakes for irrigation and is trying to reduce the estate’s water consumption, including by trialling bush vines on a steep hillside at almost 600m. The 1000 vines, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon on vigorous rootstock planted 2 x 2 metres, had to be irrigated to establish them, but since then have been unirrigated and are now in their sixth growing season. We’ll come back to experimentation but, first, grape varieties.

Rare dry-farmed vines at Culmina in the arid southern Okanagan. Concerns about the environment and water usage led to the Triggs family to plant 1000 vines specifically to try growing them without irrigation. So far so good...

Variety show

The climate and soils mean that a lot of varieties do relatively well (which doesn’t always make it easy to find a focus for marketing and image building). About 80 are grown altogether in British Columbia and production is split more or less equally between white and red wine. The main whites, in descending order, are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling and the main reds are Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, almost all planted in the last 30 years. Before that most of Canada’s vines were hybrids and labrusca. The switch to vinifera began in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s and the varieties planted reflected what people wanted to drink at the time, not what would do best. But that’s what happens in any new or modernising wine region/country.

Today the focus is much more on quality potential. The best white varieties overall are considered to be Chardonnay and Riesling and, while I wouldn’t disagree, there are several others with real potential. Among the others that impressed me at the seven Okanagan Valley wineries I visited were Sauvignon Blanc (Haywire and Freeform), Pinot Blanc (Narrative), Pinot Gris (Poplar Grove, 50th Parallel Estate, Haywire), Grüner Veltliner (Culmina) and Gewürztraminer (50th Parallel Estate). Viognier also shows potential (Liquidity Wines and Poplar Grove). Others I tasted were Semillon (Lock & Worth), Ortega (Sea Star, from the tiny Pender Island between the mainland and Vancouver Island), Albariño (Stag’s Hollow) and an Albariño/Verdejo blend (Terravista Vineyards). This was the only white blend I tasted, other than Summerhill Pyramid's traditional method Cipes sparkling wines, so blending is a potentially rich experimentation seam to mine. Chenin Blanc is a white that Treve Ring would like to see more of and it’s one Haywire has in this years's planting schedule at Haywire’s new Garnet Valley Ranch (an exciting vineyard development, of which more later).

Haywire and Narrative wines

Rising stars

Among red grape varieties, after the big three are the rising stars, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, together with Gamay which, although only 3% of red plantings (70ha), is on the up. I tasted seamless Gamay reds from Haywire and Orofino Winery, the latter in the Similkameen Valley, which is a very distant second in output to Okanagan Valley (6 per cent of BC’s total, against Okanagan’s 84%). Haywire’s winemaker, New Zealander Matt Dumayne, had never made Gamay before he started at Okanagan Crushpad in 2012. In fact, he’s not sure he’d even tasted it, but he’s unqualified in his enthusiasm now: “We love Gamay.” He also makes a very good Gamay rosé (Haywire label), as does Blue Grouse Wines on Vancouver Island, in a blend with 32% Pinot Noir under its Quill label. Another impressive red was a Grenache from Stag’s Hollow (like the Albariño above) and Malbec clearly has a future, including at Culmina, and especially TH Wines, both of whom are on Golden Mile Bench, which was Okanagan Valley’s only official sub-appellation (or Sub-GI) until 27 July when Okanagan Falls on Vaseux Lake to the north of Golden Mile Bench was confirmed as the second (three more sub-appellations are in the pipeline).

For Syrah the search is on for clones and rootstocks that are hardier in the face of the winter cold, but there’s no question that it’s a variety otherwise at home in the Okanagan, producing wines with deep, expressive fruit and Syrah’s signature cracked-pepper freshness, often white pepper, sometimes black. I particularly liked a Syrah from Nichol Vineyard – no coincidence, I’m sure, that it’s made from Canada’s oldest Syrah vines, planted in 1989. It augurs well for the future of all varieties as the vines get older.

Alcohol levels can be a mite eye watering: 15.3% in Painted Rock’s 2015 Syrah, but 2015 was a very warm year. I also saw a little more oak on some Syrah than I would like, as on some other reds, including Pinot Noir, and on some Chardonnays.

Pinot Noir is a work in progress (as in so many regions) but one with real potential. Haywire’s Pinots are already very accomplished: winemaker Matt Dumayne worked for the renowned Pinot Noir winemake, Grant Taylor in Central Otago for eight years and did vintages in Oregon at the same time before settling in BC in 2011). 50th Parallel Estate is promising, too. Certainly, no expense is being spared in the spectacular winery and there’s no shortage of ambition. Curtis Krouzel, co-owner with his wife Sheri-Lee, is “trying to make the best Pinot Noir in the world. We travelled the world looking at top Pinot Noir wineries.”

Eggs, chimneys, amphorae...

If oak is prominent in some places, it’s not squeezing out trials with, and conversion to, other materials and vessels. At Culmina, in addition to oak barrels they have 5-ton stainless steel tronconics (beehive shape), a concrete egg and a concrete amphora (both unlined, 170 and 120 litres respectively). French winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon says the egg gives fuller body, more texture and less fruit to the wine, while the amphora adds more secondary tropical fruit flavours. He blends them, together with a third component from stainless steel barrels (280 and 200 litres) that he uses to “give focus and acidity” to Chardonnay, Viognier and saignée rosé. And he does bâtonnage with them: “I manage the lees like a barrel.” This from a man who, until he came to Culmina in 2016 had never made a white wine before. That’s right, had never made white wine until 2016. He made five that year: two Grüner Veltliners (one of them wild ferment), two Chardonnays and a Viognier. Working with Grüner has been a revelation. “It’s like a sprinter,” he says. “It tastes exactly as it’s going to straight out of the blocks.”

Spot the oak barrel. Concrete has replaced almost all the oak at Haywire since 2012, and amphorae have been recruited too

At Haywire, oak is almost a thing of the past. In the last six years they’ve gone from 660 barrels to 10, replaced by concrete chimneys from Italy and eggs from Sonoma and a few clay amphorae. Concrete, says winemaker Dumayne, is “texturally superior. It breathes like a barrel but with half the porosity and without the flavours. It gives the wines better flavour profiles, better freshness and better textures… Concrete has its own yeast strains.” The wines speak for themselves – marked by fine, silky textures, clarity and precision of flavour. (Several Okanagan wineries are working with wild yeasts and contributing to the University of British Columbia’s research into DNA genotype testing of wild yeasts, but that’s a subject for another time.)

There’s experimentation in the vineyards too (Culmina’s bush vines being just one example), but you would hope for that in so young a (vinifera) wine industry. Only one of the seven wineries in the Okanagan Wine Initiative, Summerhill Pyramid, is more than ten years old. As Tony Holler at Poplar Grove puts it: ”We’re still babies. We’re only ten years into the programme.” That’s why the Hollers have no hesitation in using consultants: “Our philosophy is that if someone knows something, let’s ask them, not have to learn it ourselves.” And they’re not alone. Among other prominent consultants, are Bordelais Alain Sutre at Painted Rock and Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini and Chilean terroir expert Pedro Parras, both at Haywire.

Virgin territory

It was Pedro Parras who urged Christine Coletta, owner of Haywire/Okanagan Crush Pad, to add to her existing 25 hectares in 2012 by buying a large, neglected ranch, high up and off the beaten track. Parras, the soil pit king, wanted virgin territory. The 130-ha Garnet Valley Ranch, lying at 600–660 metres on the original Gold Rush Trail, was never farmed because it was assumed to be too far from the mitigating influence of the lakes, but it’s in an amphitheatre that protects it from the cold. They dug 100 eight-foot soil pits for Parras before starting to plant. They now have about 12ha planted of what is likely to be a total of around 25ha, all certified organic. So far, it’s mainly Pinot Noir with some Viognier, Chardonnay and Riesling, and Chenin Blanc and Gamay coming next. There’s a variety of Pinot Noir clones, planted in parcels, 4000 vines per hectare, and some of it on its own roots. Risky? Yes, it’s a gamble, but there’s no phylloxera nearby.

Tracts of cultivable land on the scale of Haywire's organic Garnet Valley Ranch are rare in the Okanagan Valley because returning war veterans were given 4-ha plots (10 acres). Garnet Valley remained intact simply because of its distance from the all-important lakes

Land is not only scarce it’s expensive. Inevitably so – supply and demand – but we’re talking very expensive here. It’s some of the most expensive vineyard land in the world, comparable to Napa Valley. Tony Holler says that prime land goes for $120,000 per ha ($300,000 per acre), up from about £28,000 ($70,000) 12 years ago. Marginal land, if you can make a go of it, can be dramatically cheaper. Sarah Triggs gives a figure of less than £8000 per ha ($20,000 per acre) for steep, marginal land with little access to a canal.

Living the dream

Who can afford these sorts of prices? “Some very wealthy Chinese buyers are starting to come in,” says Tony Holler, but, those aside, the answer is often Canadians who have had successful careers in other industries, but always longed to have a vineyard and have made their dreams come true. Among the Okanagan Wine Initiative seven, Ian Macdonald, president of Liquidity Wines, created a company that makes uniforms worn at the Olympics. Curtis Krouzel (50th Parallel Estate), for all that he looks like the lead in a rock band, created businesses in Calgary, including a gas and oil design engineering company that he says was “similar but very different to building a vineyard”; Sheri-Lee, his wife, is a successful entrepreneur in media, marketing and fitness. John Skinner (Painted Rock) was an investment banker. Tony Holler (Poplar Grove) was an emergency room physician before founding a leading vaccine products company. And while Christine Coletta (Haywire) was an insider – the founding executive of BC Wine Institute and Wines of Canada then a consultant for many global brands – her husband Steve Lornie is a construction and development expert, which has come in very useful: he designed and built the Okanagan Crush Pad winery that Matt Dumayne says is the best he’s ever worked in.

Okanagan Valley's hands-on winery owners (clockwise from top left) Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel and Curtis Krouzel of 50th Parallel Estate, exponents of what they call "glamour farming"; John Skinner of Painted Rock welcomng visitors in person in the tasting room ; Tony Holler of Poplar Grove holding a treasured magnum of Château Pichon Lalande 2009 that he served alongside Poplar Grove The Legacy 2014 to the benefit of both; Christine Coletta of Haywire/Okanagan Crush Pad with the short-legged Old English Baby Doll sheep that keep the weeds down but (mostly) can't reach the grapes in the organic Garnet Valley Ranch vineyards

Left to right: One of the art installations at Liquidity Wines; Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where all wines are "pyramid aged" (aged in a pyramid for reasons that seem somewhat opaque, except that in blind tastings people apparently prefer them to the same wines not aged in the pyramid); 50th Parallel's striking winery made of four elements – steel, concrete, glass, wood

Apart from the financial wherewithal and the determination that sets the tone in the seven wineries in the Okanagan Wine Initiative, there’s a vision and openmindedness that comes from having seen the wine industry from outside. Part of the vision includes creating functional but stunning wineries (50th Parallel), tasting rooms (Painted Rock), restaurants (50th Parallel, Liquidity, Poplar Grove and Summerhill Pyramid) and an art gallery (Liquidity) in a landscape, the beauty of which deserves them. And if, ultimately, it’s their wines on which they'll be judged by consumers, commentators and critics, it’s the family ownership and hands-on involvement of the wineries that makes the Okanagan Valley such a persuasive new entrant in the wine world.

Old English Baby Doll sheep

On the back of the Okanagan Wine Initiative brochure it says: “One visit will captivate you forever.” It did me. The only thing missing was a live bear, but I did see two marmots and the Old English Baby Doll sheep, and there’s always next time for the bears. Whether or not you make it to BC and the Okanagan Valley, do try the wines.

The Okanagan Wine Initiative

The seven founding members are 50th Parallel Estate Winery, Culmina Family Vineyards, Haywire Wines, Liquidity Wines, Painted Rock Estate Winery, Poplar Grove Winery and Summerhill Pyramid Winery. Their mandate is “to work together to improve all areas of viticulture, winemaking and winery operations, market development and sales, by sharing resources and expertise, and to go to market as a group under the joint banner. Or to put it in Christine Coletta’s words: “We came together in a group so we could challenge each other to up our games in all aspects of the business… basically to call bullshit on each other. Being headstrong was probably one of the criteria.”

Say it right!

Canadians are the last people to get uptight about things like pronunciation but, for the record, the stress on Okanagan is on the third syllable, i.e. the middle 'a'.

Photographs by Joanna Simon

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