5 Secrets of Okanagan Terroir

January 7, 2018 - By 

Dangerously flirting with the 50th parallel, the Okanagan is a region that quenches many wine fantasies — especially the ones you didn’t even know you craved. The secret distinctions of the Okanagan Valley have been hidden for centuries. Only recently has the region been revealing its deep layers of world class wine and is, undoubtedly, one of the most exciting regions in the world. It all comes down to the recent recognition of its terroir.

Terroir is a common fancy French term that translates to “sense of place”. Indeed, the French term does have a more riveting ring to it, doesn’t it? Basically, terroir is the recognition of unique soil, aspect and climatic factors of a specific grape growing area that entails unique flavours and aromas in the wine created. The Okanagan has a diverse collection of traits that contribute to its terroir, and it is time for them to be revealed.

Terroir Secret 1: tension

The Okanagan’s terroir screams tension. Pushing viticulture limits with extremes in temperature, latitude, soil diversity, and elevation. In fact, diurnal temperatures can fluctuate by 25° in a single 24-hour period. Tension seems to be an unfamiliar experience to the conflict-avoiding Canadian personality; but in the case of the Okanagan, the tension is something Canadians can hang their hat on.

Despite what most people think, vines thrive in stressful conditions. The more fertile the land, the more fruit the vine will produce, but at a cost to quality.  If the vine finds itself in a comfortable setting, it will produce more leaves than grapes. The vine is very happy providing shade upon its stocks basking in the sun. It loves to pump out enormous yields of fruit.   Unfortunately, such harvests lack concentration in the grapes.

On the other hand, unfertile soils in areas with extreme conditions like the Okanagan, force the vines to work hard for each grape. This entails more dedication from the vine to each single grape, and cultivates dense, quality-driven traits which lead to top quality wine.

Terroir Secret 2: flirting with the 50° parallel

The prime spots for viticulture are between 30° and 50° latitudes North and South of the equator. The Okanagan Valley sits between 49° and 50° of latitude, which literally has it sitting right on the edge. The Okanagan, then, is one of the northernmost wine regions in the world; this may mislead one to believe it to be a cold wine growing region. However, much like other frigid weather areas of Canada, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the southern areas of the Okanagan, like Osoyoos and Oliver, where tumbleweed rolls between vineyard rows, temperatures can be utterly scorching. Summer temperatures reach highs of 35° for consecutive days or even weeks.  In addition to astonishingly low annual precipitation, many geologists classify the region as a desert — and a hot one. This has become known as an award–winning area for its fleshy full-bodied warm climate varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Only a short drive North, sub-regions begin to boast a successful spectrum of cool climate varietals such as Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Noir. Due to warming effects from surrounding lakes, even the regions that teeter right on the 50° parallel are able to coddle grapes to ripen fully while attaining electric freshness.

Terroir Secret 3 : here comes the sun

Sunshine is essential to attain the nutrients required for health. Due to the Okanagan’s northern latitude, it sees an astonishing 2,000 hours of sunshine annually. To put this in perspective, this is 2 more hours of sunlight than some of the sun-worshipping wine regions of California.  This is the true advantage of the Okanagan, for it allows grapes to healthfully ripen to fleshy phenolic ideals.

Terroir Secret 4 : The rainshadow effect

The Okanagan Valley is situated in a 240-kilometer-long rain shadow between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges.  The mountains create a barrier that protects the valley from westerly rain and stormy weather. The implied dry, warm and desert conditions proclaim a near “no rainy day” policy. The vines struggle in it, and it means irrigation is essential. This also allows grape growers to control irrigation practices with precision and intention. The vineyard managers give the vines just enough water to make it out alive while promising grapes of premium quality.


Terroir Secret 5 : SOIL IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

No one plants a home herb garden in gravel. She already understands the importance of soil. It’s the same with grapes in that some varietals enjoy well-draining soils, like granite, because it warms quickly and retains heat well. Others are partial to calcareous soils, because it is known to preserve more acidity in the resulting wines.

The Okanagan hosts an wide array of soil types, which allows for the success of various varietals and single-varietal styles. People often say “variety is the spice of life”, but I like to swap that phrase for “soil is the spice of life”.  Indeed, you can literally plant the same varietals (and clones) in the same sub region, but in different soils they will present differently. This is an Okanagan luxury that ensures wine-tasting palates are kept sharp and stimulated with countless styles to choose from.

Terroir cannot be created by human hands. It is a priceless gift bestowed by Mother Nature upon which ever pockets of land she chooses. And, lucky for us— and the Canadian economy — she chooses to bestow an unduplicatable oasis for viticulture to thrive in the Okanagan Valley, making it one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. Let’s drink to that!

Alex Anderson

Alex Anderson

Blogger at Wine with Alex
Alex Anderson is a wine writer, graphic designer, and holds a WSET Advanced certificate with distinction. Alex is a Vancouverite with a passion for wine, communication and design. A sommelier by night, and an international freelance graphic artist and writer by day. You can connect and follow her vibrant and insightful wine endeavours on Instagram @wine.with.alexx
Alex Anderson

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  • Very enjoyable blog! You have inspired me to re-ignite my dream to attain my personal “terroir” (so-to-say) during my retirement years in the wine country as the finest connoisseur! Which is only 5 years from now. Yeahhhhhh!! LOL

    I look forward to your future blogs and will seek out your endeavours via Instagram.

    Have a fantastic day, Alex!

  • I appreciate this discourse on wine growing. This is the first time I have ever read anything like this. Thank you

  • Hey Daryl!
    So glad you enjoyed reading this. Much more to come, and I look forward to connecting with you moreover the blog.

  • Niki!
    I totally love your “retirement-terroir” vision! Haha, what a great way to phrase it. Sounds like 2023 is destined to be a great vintage…. 😉 hehe

    Looking forward to connecting more!


  • My wife and I travel to the Okanagan annually, sometime twice, early June before school ends and September after school starts, why you may ask? less wine lovers, they have to look after their kids lol.
    I enjoyed reading your blog and it further educated me about the region and it’s potential.
    We have our favorites and always drive back to Calgary with cases. But knowing that you could do a lot of the foot work for us would make it easy to plan our next visit(s) but more important finding out about vineyards we did not know much about and the selections, so looking forward to follow your steps into the various vineyards.

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