The Grape White North: Getting to Know British Columbia’s Burgeoning Wine Country

Courtesy Okanagan Falls

The Okanagan Valley may be small but it packs a punch when it comes to varietals.

From the pastoral expanses of Virginia, Texas, and Idaho to England’s manicured hedges, riverfront Spanish vistas, and Hungary’s sun-kissed hillsides, under-the-radar wine regions have been quietly winning over the hearts and palates of dedicated Francophiles and Napa Valley diehards for decades. And today, thanks to a rich, fertile landscape, increased production and distribution, and swelling acclaim, the wineries of Canada’s most westerly province have boldly entered the running.

“Both British Columbia and Ontario have small plantings over 50 years old, but the bulk of the vineyards were planted in the 90s and 2000s and the number of wineries in Canada reflect this growth, with less than 30 pre-1990 and well over 500 now,” says Darryl Brooker, president of Mission Hill Family Estate in BC’s thriving Okanagan Valley. An seasoned expert in all things viticulture and winemaking, the Australian native has seen the industry literally blossom before his eyes over the last ten years.

And if you’re thinking it’s all ice wine and sweet Rieslings, think again. The province’s official winemaking region spans nearly 10,500 acres and includes nine geographical indications, each with its own distinct ecological layout and crisply defined terroir. About 80% of the region’s wineries call the Okanagan Valley home, an appellation celebrated by growers and adventuring wine-lovers alike for its temperate climate, fertile soils, and above-average sunlight levels during the summer months. Between long dry days and cool nights, an abundance of fresh water, and heterogeneous terrain, Okanagan provides ideal growing conditions for a vast array of grapes loaded with bold acidity and high intensity.  

Related: The Best Red Wines to Drink Right Now

“We are a region formed by volcanic and glacial activity and the range in soil is incredibly diverse—sand, silt, clay, loam, river stone,” says Brooker, delving into his adopted home’s unique geological makeup. “Elevation is another large influence on the region's terroir. Starting at lake level and elevating quickly away has a massive impact on style. The average size of a single vineyard in the Okanagan Valley is approximately five acres because the soil and elevation change so rapidly. This is tiny vineyard winemaking.”

From a winemaker’s perspective, the agricultural possibilities this type of topography creates are practically limitless.

“The Okanagan is broadly split into two regions, northern and southern, and they are very different microclimates,” he continues. “The northern end of the Valley is predominantly pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer, and there’s a reasonable amount of sparkling wine there, as well. In the warmer southern end, it’s merlot, cabernet franc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, and pinot blanc. The diversity is what really excites people—no two wineries are the same.” 

The picturesque appellation has become both a local tourist attraction and a surging source of professional pride with area vintages picking up more than 1,000 medals at national and international competitions in 2019 alone. Add an average of 1,000,000 annual visitors to the equation and, according to the British Columbia’s Vintners Quality Alliance, the industry currently contributes a yearly sum of $2.8 billion to the province’s economy. Despite the current state of the world, it appears BC’s relatively modest wine business continues to boom while traditional giants that depend on foreign travel and widespread restaurant sales are coping with steep pandemic-related declines. That’s uplifting news for the hardworking folks behind the scenes.

“I started winemaking in Australia, moved to New Zealand, and now I’m in the Okanagan Valley,” reflects Brooker. “This is the most exciting wine region I’ve ever worked in or visited. The quality of the grapes, the quality of the wines—it’s all truly exciting and we’ve definitely not yet reached our ceiling. We’re part of something special that the world is only just starting to discover. You don’t get that opportunity in Napa or Europe.”

Care to taste? While exports are on the rise, strict Canadian liquor laws coupled with the US’s notoriously complicated import system make tracking down BC-born bottles a bit of an odyssey. Thankfully, the following wineries have been known to ship their stellar wares south of the border, so keep your eyes peeled and your palates primed.

Mission Hill Family Estate


Courtesy Mission Hill Family Estate 

 

The apple of Brooks’s proverbial eye, this gorgeous Okanagan Valley estate winery has been turning heads with both its beauty and its bounty since the early 1990s. Try an expertly-crafted chardonnay (named Best Chardonnay Worldwide at the 1994 International Wine & Spirit Competition, the 1992 vintage was region’s first breakout hit), an exquisitely food-friendly pinot noir, or the Terroir Collection’s refreshingly crisp and complex 2019 Jagged Rock Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend.

Painted Rock Estate Winery 


Jon Adrian/Courtesy Painted Rock Estate Winery 

This modern Okanagan estate specializes in delictibly meaty Bordeaux-style reds like the chocolate-laced cab franc rich with ripe stone fruit and the standout Red Icon, a five-grape blend aged for 18 months in 30% new French oak and imbued with an intoxicatingly spicy nose, sultry acidity, and velvety finish. 

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery


Courtesy Burrowing Owl Estate Winery 

 

This Oliver, BC-based winery has been churning out some of Okanogan Valley’s top chardonnays, cabs, pinots, sauvignon blanc, and beautifully-balanced red blends since the late-1990s. Of particular interest is coruja, a silky-smooth and bewitchingly fragrant port-style wine ideal for after dinner autumnal sipping.

Backyard Vineyards

Fun and approachable, this 11-year-old Fraser Valley original offers an enticing lineup of easy-drinking porch pounders (think: a fruit-forward pinot gris, a keenly-balanced moscato, a jammy red blend dubbed “Nosey Neighbour”) alongside more serious, contemplative reserve releases and sparkling crowd-pleasers like the Blanc de Noir Brut and 100% pinot noir rosé.

Quails’ Gate Winery 


Courtesy Quails Gate Winery 

Founded in 1989 on family land stretching back to the turn-of-the-century, the folks behind this Okanagan labor of love have never let their deep roots impede the continued quest for innovation. Case and point: The reserve Clone 220 Chenin Blanc, aged partially in a concrete egg for an explosion of fresh, floral aromas and surprisingly substantial body. The gewürztraminer, an almost savory take on the style teeming with grapefruit peel, tropical fruit, and a touch of white pepper, is a picnic’s best friend.

Le Vieux Pin

This Okanagan Valley darling has long been a favorite among discerning Canadian sommeliers. The flagship 2016 Equinoxe Syrah, a finely structured mix of bold pepper and delicate violet petals, perfectly captures the appellation’s southern terroir as well as the award-winning winery’s vast capabilities. On the lighter end, the 2019 Petit Blanc masterfully combines sauvignon blanc, muscat, and pinot gris with nose-tickling marsanne and roussanne for a beautifully perfumed and lushly tropical experience.

Black Hills Estate Winery

A cluster of western-facing hillside vinyards in the middle of Canada’s only official desert give this 14-year-old winery’s fleet its signature bold intensity. Addendum, a finely-tuned blend of 86% merlot and 14% cab franc, is handsomely herbaceous and bursting with tempting red fruit, while Alibi’s Sémillon and sauvignon blanc split evokes mouthwatering layers of sharp citrus and invigorating green apple. 

Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars

43-year-old vines contribute to this 100% estate grown and family-owned southern Okanagan Valley destination’s brilliant portfolio. Aside from a wonderfully acidic and spice-laden gamay noir, they’re highly praised for their sparkling collection—especially the lemon-kissed Blanc de Blancs and subtly oaky Brut Reserve—uniformly produced in the Méthode Traditionnelle style.