“Forget their stories, let’s write our own”
Defining the Okanagan wine scene.
Harvest is in the air and Okanagan vineyards are quickly transforming.
Lush green leaves change into a multi-colored dance of crisp, bright colors. The hustle and bustle of tourists are replaced with busy vineyard staff. Tractors putter by, carting freshly picked grapes. Faces hide underneath wide brimmed sun hats; looking down, focused, and snipping away with their sheers. Pick, press, crush, ferment, rack, age, finish. Tanks, tubes, barrels, foudres, amphora.
Let the games begin.
Autumn can be a nostalgic time, and the start of the season has me taking a step back to explore the short but fascinating history of the Okanagan. A wine region so young, fresh and dynamic, it’s got the rest of the world starting to take notice.
The Okanagan is a 200km long, 20km wide valley set between the Columbia and Cascade mountain ranges. The name was given by the Interior Salish people, meaning ‘place of water’, and the title couldn’t be more fitting. Lakes pocket and fill the valley; not only contributing to the Okanagan’s overall beauty, but the successful cultivation of grapes.
The wine scene is young, but so is its population and geography. Glacial water retreated from the valley around 11,000 years ago leaving behind the semi-desert setting we inhabit today. First contact between the present-day Okanagan Indian Band ancestors and the European Fur traders took place in the early 1800’s. Missionaries settled and established themselves in the Okanagan in 1840 and planted the region’s first known grape vines. These grapes were grown to produce wine strictly for sacrament. It wasn’t until 1975, when the first commercial vinifera was planted at the present-day location of Nk’mip winery.
This technically makes the Okanagan wine industry less than 50 years old.
And we’ve certainly been busy.
In that short time, the number of wineries in the Okanagan have jumped from seven to over 340.
So, why’s everyone so quick to jump on board?
Long hours of daylight (3.5 hours more than California) create long growing days over a short growing season. This combination creates grapes with high acidity, distinct flavors, and a light, fresh nature. Surrounding bodies of water moderate temperature in the valley, while the two mountain ranges on either side create a rain shadow with light breezes flowing through. There are various micro-climates and soils in the 200km stretch of the Okanagan, allowing single vineyards to express distinct character with their wines. Global warming is also showing some benefit for the Okanagan wine region. As the planet’s mean temperature increases, wine producers from around the world are setting their sights North for more plausible places to plant vines and produce wine.
Today, what we’re experiencing is a young, collaborative (and sometimes) wild industry; with an appealing sense of freedom attached. Newcomers to the Okanagan are left feeling like they’ve struck gold, realizing they’ve just discovered one of the world’s best kept wine secrets. And this secret is not by choice; production volumes are so small that wineries often sell out before their bottles make it beyond the provincial border. Generally, those who want exposure to Okanagan wine need to make a holiday out of it and come experience the magic for themselves (or just sign up with the Okanagan Wine Club!).
So, as harvest commences on vineyards up and down the Okanagan Valley, and winemakers prepare to participate in the region’s next vintage; don’t forget to remind yourself that you, the consumer are an integral part to the success of Okanagan wine. Consumers, and those working in wine are all modern-day pioneers, taking part and growing a budding boutique wine industry that’s going to need a lot of support and passion.
On that note, let’s raise our glasses filled with something local, and count ourselves lucky to be witnessing and taking part in the blooming success of the unique Okanagan wine scene.
Cheers for now,