The Okanagan Valley is a roughly 155-mile-long valley that stretches from Osoyoos on the Canadian border with Washington State to roughly Vernon, British Columbia.
It’s located approximately 240-miles east of Vancouver, BC, between the 49th and 50th parallel. That puts it on the same latitude as Champagne in France and the Rheingau in Germany.
The region has a continental climate, but its extremes are moderated by the presence of a series of deep, interconnected lakes—Okanagan Lake, Skaha Lake, Vaseux Lake, and Osoyoos Lake.
This is a largely desert region which averages less than 12 inches of rainfall a year. The valley gets progressively drier from north to south with roughly 16 inches of rain at its northern end around Kelowna to less than 10 inches a year around Osoyoos.
Winters can be cold here with temperatures falling to below 10 degrees Fahrenheit but they are generally short. Summers can be exceptionally hot. Average summer temperatures in July and August are 85 degrees with temperatures over 100 degrees are common.
Its northern latitude also means that the region’s vineyards experience more daylight during the summer growing period—roughly 14 hours of direct sunlight. Compared to Napa Valley, for example, the Okanagan receives about two hours more sunlight a day and has markedly hotter temperatures.
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The northern latitude, however, also means that the onset of cool autumn weather can often come quickly reducing the amount of hang time that grapes can receive.
The steeply sided slopes and surface geography create a range of aspects and produce varied microclimates across the valley. The resulting wines vary from Mosel style Rieslings to concentrated Bordeaux inspired red blends.
The region experiences a pronounced diurnal cycle (a pattern that recurs every 24 hours) especially during the harvest season with warm days and cool nights combining to promote acidity as well as maximize hang time. The result is new world style, concentrated fruit forward wines that retain a notable, vibrant acidity.
There are over 60 different varieties of wine grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley. These are vinified in a variety of styles ranging from sparkling to still to ice wines.
The geology of the Okanagan Valley is particularly complex; presenting an array of rock types (basaltic lava flows, carbonaceous sedimentary beds, intrusive granites, and metamorphic rocks) which have been shaped by complex processes of mountain building, volcanic eruptions, glaciations, and erosion.
The result is a series of ancient soils composed of glacial till and eroded bedrock. It’s not uncommon for a small 10-acre vineyard to exhibit a half dozen or more different soil types.
The valley has approximately 9,000 acres of vineyards. It represents roughly 85 percent of British Columbia’s wine production spread out over 185 wineries.
The valley is in turn organized into eight wine producing areas, four of which are official sub-regions or appellations that present distinct soil and climate conditions. From north to south these eight wine producing areas are:
Grapes were first planted in this region in 1859. It also boasts the oldest continually operating winery—Calona Vineyards, established in 1932. The region hosts some of the valley’s best-known wineries including Gray Monk Estate, Summerville Pyramid Winery, Cedar Creek, and Quail’s Gate Winery. There are about 900 acres of vineyards across 44 wineries.
Soils here tend to be heavier, consisting of a mix of sandy loam, clay, and limestone. Grape varietals cultivated include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
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This region overlooks Okanagan Lake and sits across from the Naramata Bench on the east side of the lake. Soils here are a mix of volcanic soils and very fertile ice age clays.
Principal grape varieties include Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Among the better-known wineries here is Sumac Ridge which was established in 1980. The region has about 355 acres of vineyards across 23 wineries.
Naramata Bench consists of the bench lands overlooking Okanagan Lake situated between Penticton Creek and Okanagan Mountain Park. Okanagan Lake and the pronounced aspect of the terrain exert a powerful moderating influence resulting in a long, frost-free period compared to other regions of the Okanagan Valley.
The soils here consist of nutrient rich topsoil formed by the deposition of silt loam in glacial lake sediments. At lower elevations soils are remarkably stone free but these give way to gravelly soils, mostly the result of deposits of glacial till that occurred when the ice sheets of the last ice age began to recede some 15 thousand years ago.
There is a total of 618 acres of vineyards spreads across 39 different wineries. The principal grape varieties cultivated are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. The first winery established here was Lang Vineyards in 1990.
On May 13, 2019, wineries in the Skaha Bench joined the Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, and Golden Mile Bench, near Oliver, as wineries that meet the requirements of the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation.
With Okanagan Falls at its heart, vineyards stretch northwards along the East Bench of Skaha Lake and across the water to Kaleden and then south over rolling hills above Vaseux Lake.
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Wineries in Skaha Bench include Blasted Church, Black Dog, Painted Rock, Pentage, and Crescent Hill. Principal grape varietals are Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.
Okanagan Falls is, along with the Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, and the Golden Mile Bench, a sub-geographical indication (a sub-appellation) of the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan Falls sub-appellation runs from the shores of Skaha Lake to the tip of Vaseux Lake.
The region averages around 1,407 growing degree days which puts it on par with France’s Bordeaux or Italy’s Piedmont. Soils here are extremely heterogeneous with vineyards planted on both the valley bottoms and terraced slopes. Principal grape varietals are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir.
There is a total of 539 acres of vineyards spread out over 12 wineries. See Ya Later Ranch, originally founded as Hawthorne Mountain Winery, dates back to 1986.
Oliver, called the Wine Capital of Canada, hosts 40 wineries and, with 3,543 acres of vineyards, represents roughly half of British Columbia’s grapevines. The region runs from the Golden Mile Bench in the west to the Black Sage Bench in the east.
The principal grape varietals in the area include Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (mostly planted on the west side) to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc (mostly planted in the east). Notable wineries include Black Hills, Burrowing Owl, Phantom Creek, and Church and State.
Golden Mile Bench
Golden Mile Bench was the first sub-appellation created in the Okanagan Valley. It dates to 2015. It’s located on the western slope of the Okanagan Valley, south of Oliver and across from the Black Sage Bench.
The bench’s southerly aspect provides a warm climate. Its position on the west side, however, means that it gets morning rather than afternoon sun, and is cooler than the Black Sage Bench.
Soils consist of well-drained fluvial fans, consisting of a mix of stony gravels and sandy loams. Principal grape varieties here are Chardonnay, Gewürztraminerm, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. There is a total of 791 acres in vineyards across nine wineries. Wineries of note include Tinhorn Creek, Hester Creek, Gehringer Brothers, and Road 13.
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Osoyoos lies at the southernmost tip of the Okanagan Valley, across from the US-Canadian border. This is Canada’s hottest spot and BC’s principal red wine producing region. It’s also one of the youngest. The first winery, NK’Mip Cellars, wasn’t established until 2002.
Currently, there are 1,510 acres of vineyards across nine wineries. In addition to being a major wine producing area, the region also exports red grapes to other producers in the Okanagan Valley and elsewhere in BC.
Soils consist of glaciofluvial residues overlying the granite bedrock. Grape varietals include Chardonnay along with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah/Shiraz.
If you are not familiar with the wines of the Okanagan, they are certainly worth exploring and often represent exceptional values.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.
―David Hyde Pierce