The British Columbia Wine Region

If you think Canada is all about beer and hockey, think again. More than 130 wineries call the western province of British Columbia home, with most of them clustered in the Okanagan Valley on hillsides overlooking the deep blue waters of Okanagan Lake. Tourists from all over the world come to enjoy hot sunny days, cool nights, spectacular vistas and excellent wines. An Okanagan Valley wine vacation will prove unforgettable.

History of British Columbia Wine

In the 1860s French Catholic missionaries brought wine production to British Columbia. Over the next century small amounts of wine were made from local grape varieties as well as fruits and berries. In the 1960s French hybrids were introduced and became quite popular but it wasn’t until 1975 that a German grape researcher convinced growers that the Okanagan was capable of growing vinifera (fine wine grapes).

In 1988 the Canadian government began a program to encourage replacing the old French hybrids and local grapes with the higher quality European vinifera. The replanting program came in response to the adoption of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which brought a flood of high-quality US wine into the Canadian market.

Since the establishment of a formal regulatory system called the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) in 1990, the industry has grown rapidly. Today, most vines in the Okanagan are less than fifteen years old but consumer demand has grown so quickly that only about 5% of Okanagan wines ever reach the export market.

Okanagan vs. Ontario

Although Canada’s oldest and largest wine producing region is Ontario, wines from British Columbia typically receive higher critical acclaim. Ontario is noted for icewine, a sweet late-harvest dessert wine made from frozen grapes. Icewine is also produced in the Okanagan but the region also offers excellent dry whites and many fine reds.

British Columbia Wine Production

Over 13 million liters of wine are produced in British Columbia with annual sales exceeding $155 million dollars. The ratio of red to white wines is split about evenly with over sixty varietals grown. Since the year 2000 production in the province has roughly doubled and continues to grow. Top varietals for whites include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Top reds include Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

The Okanagan Valley is 124 miles long and contains five sub-regions: Kelowna, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Golden Mile, and Black Sage/Osoyoos. Micro-climates range from near desert-like conditions in the south with only six inches of rain per year, to cooler and wetter regions in the north.