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Profile: Okanagan Valley

The Okanagan Valley

The Okanagan Valley is by far the biggest and most important wine region in British Columbia. At 8,619 acres (3,488 hectares), the Okanagan Valley contains 84% of B.C.’s total vineyard area, and its 133 wineries comprise almost half of B.C.’s total of 273.

Extending 250 kilometers north of the US border from Osoyoos, the Okanagan is large enough to contain significantly differing microclimatic zones. For comparison, famous regions such as Napa and Burgundy’s Côte d’Or - both of which are much larger in terms of number of wineries and total production – are far more compact. From San Pablo Bay in the south to Calistoga in the north, Napa is just 64 kilometers long; the Côte d’Or stretches just 57 kilometers from Marsannay to Santenay.  Napa contains 16 distinct AVAs and the Côte d’Or has 32 grands crus as well as hundreds of lesser appellations, all with clearly defined characteristics. There is no question that the Okanagan’s vast potential for diversity will emerge more and more over time, as we drill down to the level that both Burgundy and Napa have. The Okanagan's future is profoundly exciting.

Much like all other B.C. wine regions, viticulture in the Okanagan is governed by a set of interdependent geographical, geological, and climatic factors that, when taken together, allow grapes to ripen where they normally would not.

Our extreme northern latitude - at the very edge for grape-growing – provides a paradoxical benefit. While it gives us a growing season much shorter than more southern regions, it also gives us significantly more hours of daylight in the summer (three hours more per day than Napa, for example), allowing the plants to thrive with a shorter, but more intense, growing cycle.

The Okanagan’s geography is also critically important. Parallel mountain ranges create a rain shadow effect, providing the aridity grapevines love. The shrub-steppe ecosystem’s Ponderosa pines, sagebush, and Antelope brush landscape demonstrates that the Southern Okanagan is ecologically more closely related to the Sonoran desert of Northern Mexico and Arizona than Coastal British Columbia.

These desert-like conditions are borne out by very sparse rainfall in the growing season. The north Okanagan receives 15 inches of rain a year (380 millimetres) while the southern end gets a paltry 10 inches (250 millimetres). To put this into context, vines need at least 20 inches (500 millimeters) of water during the growing season; so in the Okanagan, vineyards require supplemental irrigation. In comparison, the coastal city of Vancouver (Canada’s third wettest city), which is 400 kilometers away, rainfall is 45 inches per year (1,153 millimeters).

The Okanagan Valley’s famous lakes are equally influential, profoundly modifying the temperatures in the valley. This is especially important in the winter, when the vines would freeze without the warming influence of such large bodies of water. In the summer, the lakes stimulate airflow that moderates the extreme daytime temperatures (frequently 35-40° Celsius mid-summer) while creating cool night temperatures that are essential for preserving the fresh natural acidity that is an Okanagan hallmark. Lake Okanagan reaches depths of 232 meters (761 feet) and Skaha Lake is comparatively shallow at roughly 55 meters (177 feet). Vineyards carpet the lakeside benchlands wherever possible, benefiting from the tempering effect.

Geologically, the Okanagan combines very old bedrock of volcanic origin and extremely young soils deposited by cataclysmic flooding at the end of the Ice Age, just 10,000 years ago. The South Okanagan has famously sandy soils, in some places 100 meters deep. The North Okanagan is typified by clay and gravel soils. Throughout the Okanagan there is a high frequency of calcium carbonate, which has an important influence on the acid balance of the wines. Ancient schist, granite and gneiss appear also, creating a rich soil tapestry for vineyards.

The Okanagan Valley is a very young and dynamic region still in the throes of experimentation: one aspect of this is a baffling array of grape varieties and styles. Key findings so far include remarkable results with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Semillon, all of which present unique wines adapted by the Okanagan environment, tasting completely unlike their European antecedents in the same way that Argentinean Malbec is so unlike French Malbec.

It may be early to tell (by a century or two), but it is expected that the North Okanagan will specialize in cooler climate varieties, especially Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling, while the South Okanagan will specialize in Rhone (Syrah, Grenache) and Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot) reds.

Sub-regions are beginning to emerge. Along with the Golden Mile Bench (the Okanagan’s first official sub-appellation), Black Sage Bench, Black Sage Gravel Bar, Okanagan Falls, East Kelowna, and Naramata are obvious candidates for sub-regional recognition – among others, with many more to come. It’s the next big step for this remarkable valley.

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