What you should know about Wine and Canada

In the lake filled Okanagan Valley, vineyards are part of the scenery

When you think of amazing wine regions, your mind probably jumps to Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, or California. But you don’t have to head to Europe (or California) for a good glass. What if we told you that you should book a trip to Canada?

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It turns out that the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia boasts a must-visit wine country that likely slipped by your radar. And even though it’s up north, it’s not all ice wines. Okanagan Valley’s best wines are actually dry red and white wines. Surprised? The region has a long history in agriculture. Plus, its moderate, dry climate and long summer daylight hours make it possible to ripen grapes.

You might not have heard of or tasted wine from the Okanagan Valley. Canadians, wisely drink pretty much all of it themselves exporting only 5 per cent but it deserves to be more widely enjoyed. More than 80 per cent of British Columbia’s vineyards are in the valley making a visit there every bit as rewarding—and delicious—as a trip to Napa.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canada’s drinks résumé has a few notable beverages on it. Whether it’s the Bloody Caesar, Newfoundland Screech, or good ol’ Molson Canadian, Canuck libations stand out against international counterparts. The Canadian wine industry may be in its infancy but there’s growing global interest in Canadian wine—and reasons a-plenty to add it to the list of acclaimed drinks that hail from this cooler-climate country.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of Canada’s 10 provinces, three have winegrowing regions. Much of the U.S.-Canada border runs along the 49th parallel but vine growth is typically only possible in higher-temperature climates between the 30th and 50th parallels. Despite Canada being as tall as it is wide, this means that all of the country’s grapes grow within approximately 150 miles of this shared border.

Within those 150 miles lie more than 800 wineries. Their offerings include everything from 60-year-old vines and sparkling wines to grapes grown in Canada’s only desert and organic wineries. In short, Canada’s wine industry proves that the Great White North deserves serious wine drinker’s attention.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yes, Canada Makes Ice wine. But that’s Not All

A common misconception is that Canada specializes in ice wine and only ice wine. As ice wine remains Canada’s most known and exported wine product to a large number of markets it is not surprising that this is what most people know about Canadian wine. Most Canadian ice wine is made from the cool-climate-loving Riesling grape which represents a very small portion of grape varieties planted across the country.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canada’s Varied Climates and Varieties

On the West Coast just north of Washington State is the province of British Columbia. It contains nine winegrowing regions that focus on Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer. The Okanagan Valley is the province’s most notable region with summertime highs over 100 degrees.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This sun-soaked valley follows a series of pristine lakes and steep bluffs carved out by retreating glaciers. The Okanagan has the most diverse and complex soil system of any wine region in the world. It’s the only region that was formed by volcanic activity and then overrun by not one but two glacial ages.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The northerly latitude provides certain advantages. During the peak of the growing season, BC vineyards see as much as two hours more sunlight per day than famed regions such as Napa Valley. Because of this the vines are able to produce ripe, intensely flavored fruit. Also the short, hot growing season in the Similkameen Valley—one of the most southerly regions of BC and borders Canada’s only desert—is ideal for producing age-worthy Bordeaux varietals.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further east in Ontario are three continental-climate regions that are the most southerly in the country: Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County, and Lake Erie North Shore. These regions sit along the same latitude as Oregon and Tuscany and are moderated by three of the Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, and Huron—which play an important role in cooling the vineyards during Ontario’s hot summers.

Canada’s coolest region sits in an eastern Maritime province. Nova Scotia is home to only 22 wineries in which traditional-method sparkling wine is becoming a flagship style. Additionally, an appellation blend called Tidal Bay, first released in 2012, is making waves. Its creation was intended to highlight the crisp and aromatic white wines of the region.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Canadian Standard

Regulating wine and ensuring a certain level of quality is the key especially when vying for international attention and buyers. Canada’s standard for quality and promotion of authenticity of origin is maintained by the Vintners Quality Alliance or VQA. The regulatory system which is comparable to AVAs in the U.S., AOC wines in France, or DOC wines in Italy allows for sub-appellation designation and a focus on terroir-driven winemaking.

Wines that are certified VQA are assessed by a panel and must meet criteria of the vintage, varietals, and origin specified on the label. VQA also governs yield sizes, Brix levels (percentage of sugar by weight in a liquid), and the use of regulated additives.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Availability of Canadian Wines

Just over 30 Canadian VQA producers have maneuvered their way through the red tape and regularly export south of their border. Though Canadian wines may not yet be abundantly available to U.S. drinkers, a Wine BC export strategy report states the country’s desire to increase sales to the United States by at least 50 percent over the next two years.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver; NK’mip RV Park and Campground, Osoyoos; Walton’s Lakefront RV Resort, Osoyoos

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden