Okanagan wine country: a very Canadian experience
Wanting a unique experience, I decided to do my own research on which wineries to visit in the Okanagan. The process should have been straightforward: look on Winesearcher for popularity, wine publications like Decanter for the latest trends, and then critic sites and award lists for quality, and find the right balance between everything. Simple.
But after hours of browsing, I became increasingly confused about the Okanagan Valley as a wine region.
Vidal, Chardonnay, Bordeaux blends and…Syrah? All grown north of the 49th parallel, on the same latitude as Champagne and England?
Curious and excited, I booked several wineries across the valley. Some of them specialised in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and others were all-rounders, producing Rhone blends and icewine at the same time from estate vineyards. My diary looked full and fun, except I hadn’t realised that some of these wineries were 115km apart from each other...
This is your quintessential Okanagan experience. Sheltered in the rain shadow of the Coastal Ranges, this long narrow region resembles Alsace but with the addition of deep glacier lakes, the most famous of which is the 135 kilometre long Okanagan Lake with many vineyards on both sides.
Commercial grape growing in the Okanagan goes back to the 1940s with experimental hybrids for fruit and juice production. It was not until the late 1980s that European varieties started to capture the orchard farmers’ imagination.
Exponential growth in the Okanagan started in the early 1990s after receiving its own geographical indication in 1990 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) taking effect in 1994.
Today, new wineries constantly pop up in the Okanagan, making it one of the fastest-growing wine regions in the world. The consensus among the local vintners is that there are 300-400 wineries scattered across the 250 kilometre long valley.
Most Okanagan wineries are artisanal in scale, with an annual production level of under 10,000 cases. The exceptions are the bigger brands with an international audience, such as Innisklin, Jackson Triggs and Mission Hills.
“It just doesn’t make business sense to produce more than 12,000 cases a year.” The winemaker Christian Scagnetti told us, on Moon Curser’s VIP tasting balcony that overlooks its vineyards, the town and the Osoyoos lake.
Churning out more cases of wine requires investment in more permanent staff, a larger premise, and more equipment and infrastructure for winemaking, ageing and warehousing. After considering the risks, efforts, and returns, it made more sense for most of the wineries that I visited to stay boutique and continue selling 50-60% of their wines through wine clubs.
Besides the benefits of reliable revenue and brand loyalty, wine clubs enable these young wineries to be innovative and experimental.
Want to try some single varietal Tannat? Or test Canadian maple barrels with your premium Chardonnay? Send your club members a bottle in their annual subscription cases, and your extraverted fellow Canadians will give the feedback the winery needs to take these ideas to the next level.
This open-mindedness extends beyond the producers and their most dedicated consumers; the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) for Okanagan Valley is equally accommodating. Today, more than 60 varieties of wine grapes can be found in the area, ranging from winter hardy Vidal and Riesling in the Lake Country subregion, to sun-loving Sangiovese and Vermentino along the Canada-US border.
Indeed, this region is still in its infantile stage. The terroir there is so diverse and complex that settling for Chardonnay or Syrah does not unlock the Okanagan’s full potential. Being monolithic is not Canadian.
Canada is a country that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. It has two official languages, six time zones and an annual immigration level of approximately 1% of its total population. If the country welcomes and treasures cultures from all corners of the world, why can’t the Okanagan Valley take risks and time to find which grapes and styles best express its nature and momentum?
Whilst leaving Hillside Winery where my friend Jamie currently works as the cellar hand, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic.
Jamie and I did the 2021 harvest together in a winery in England, where he was a superhero with the most efficient ways of doing just about everything. Despite his incredible practical knowledge, Jamie used to refer to himself as the harvest crew that had “the most harvest experience but least wine interest.” In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing him enjoying wine.
After several months of working in the Okanagan, Jamie changed. He joined us at the tasting room and chatted about the port-style fortified red from a solera system that he was bottling earlier while doing a comparative tasting of 2015 and 2016 Mosaic, Hillside’s flagship Bordeaux blend. What’s more, he was an active member of the winery’s staff wine club and eager to share his harvest experiences in England, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.
Perhaps it takes such a young and open-minded region such as the Okanagan to welcome and inspire the younger generations, to make them feel that wine is not pretentious and prohibitive, and to tell them that it is fun to try new things as the producers themselves are doing exactly that.
This candid, tolerant and transparent attitude towards wine is truly Canadian.
Some ideas for your Okanagan wine trip
When to go
Late summer, which is the least busy time of the year for wineries.
Where to stay
Penticton is right in the centre of the valley, but Kelowna is bigger and has more choices.
What to eat
● The Okanagan is big on wine tourism. Many wineries have bistros with perfect local and estate wine pairings. Mission Hills’ terrace restaurant stands out with its Michelin-quality food and spectacular view of the Okanagan Lake.
● Don’t miss the local fruit stands! Okanagan cherries and peaches are divine.
Which wineries to visit
● For chill and great conversations, try Hillside on the Naramata Bench and 8th Generation in Summerland
● Le Vieux Pin and Mission Hills both offer familiar Old World finesse in a New World setting
● If you are looking for in-depth exchanges with passionate vintners, try booking the following guided tasting sessions. It’s not every day that you get a one-on-one guided intro by a Master of Wine or the head winemaker!
○ Day Dreamer with Marcus Ansems MW
○ Moon Curser with winemaker Christian Scagnetti
○ CheckMate at the Grandmaster’s table
Got a question? Email me anytime. One of my missions is to connect people through their shared passion for wine!