The evolution of the Okanagan wine industry takes us back over 150 years, to the more humble beginnings of what is now an oasis of wine, cheese, fresh organic fruits and veggies, farms and more. The Okanagan Valley, Canada’s second leading wine producer next to the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, consists of approximately 4,000 hectares of vineyards, and accounts for more than 90% of all wine produced in British Columbia. Buffering the clay cliffs of Okanagan Lake and its adjacent Osoyoos Lake, Skaha Lake and Vaseux Lake, are hundreds of kilometers of vineyards, fashioning an extraordinary world-renown panorama.
The unique location of the Okanagan Valley lends to the sensation of its quality. Situated between the 49th and 50th parallel north, the Valley runs on par with the latitudes of the renowned European wine regions of Champagne and Rheingau. Here, where it is comfortably nestled between two lakes, (that moderate its continental climate), the Valley can boast a distinctive culmination of microclimates that appeal to different vineyard soil types and grapes. Perhaps one of the more exceptional features of our “Napa Valley of the North” however, (as the valley has been nick-named), is the region’s northerly latitude, which allows Okanagan vines to experience longer hours of daylight, a clear advantage over it’s southern counterparts of California.
The Okanagan Valley’s history of wine production humbly began in 1859 with the first vineyard planted at the Oblate Mission in Kelowna by French Catholic priest, Charles Pandosy. With the sole purpose of producing sacramental wine for the celebration of the Eucharist, this small vineyard was simply the flint that sparked the fire. Soon thereafter other small vineyards sprang up, dotting the landscape, and more continued to expand and develop until the start of prohibition, in the first half of 20th century. While the prohibition managed to wipe out most of the Okanagan’s commercial wine industry, wine production was later successfully revived in the 1930s. It is interesting to note that for 40 decades following, until the mid-1970s, the Okanagan wine industry was built entirely on the production of fruit wines made from berries, apples, cherries and even table grapes and those produced from hybrid grapes, rather than the French-American hybrid grapes and vinifera, we have grown accustomed to today. One such winery, Calona Wines, which was founded in 1932, remains one of the oldest continuously running winery in British Columbia, (an true testament to the historical roots of our culture). The very first commercial plantings of vinifera varieties is in fact accredited to the Osoyoos Indian Band with their establishment of Inkameep Vineyards in 1975, now known as Nk’mip Cellars.
Today one can experience a myriad of wine and grape types throughout the Okanagan Valley, while almost every style of wine is produced across a wide spectrum of sweetness levels that include sparkling, still, fortified, dessert and ice wines. There are over 60 grape varieties grown in the Okanagan, which includes Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Marechal Foch and Cabernet Franc. Many German varieties can also be found throughout the Okanagan, including Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Bacchus, Optima, Ehrenfelser, Kerner, and Seigfried Rebe. Likewise, more recently, growers have been planting warmer climate varieties not typically associated with the Canadian wine industry such as Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo, Pinotage, Malbec, Barbera and Zinfandel.
The evolution of the Okanagan wine industry is just as rich and diverse as it is unique and extraordinary. Perhaps one of the more distinctive features of the Okanagan wine industry today is its authenticity – there is a sense that the Okanagan wine industry strives to maintain a sense of integrity, character and personable appeal, which in combination, make for a distinctive experience over the larger, more commercialized and industrialized wine regions throughout the world. Visitors can rejoice in both the personal, intimate experience of the wine region itself, as well as its diversity and unique personality. From the Valley’s modest beginnings with the Mission, to its growth during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, to its struggles and ultimate survival throughout the Prohibition years, the Okanagan Valley wine region is truly a marvel – one to experience, savor and share!