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Okanagan Valley: Canada's Best New Wine Region

Besides being home to a local sea serpent, this dry yet fertile valley in British Columbia is now turning out monster wines.

vineyards and Lake Osoyoos in Okanagan Valley, image
Photo caption
Vineyards lead down to Lake Osoyoos in Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.

The Burrowing Owl Winery overlooks a landscape straight out of Stagecoach, complete with pinto ponies, timber corrals, and sagebrush-dotted hills. But this is no Hollywood back lot. There are scorpions here, and long-legged burrowing owls, which nest in abandoned badger holes. A few years ago, black bears, perhaps sniffing for blueberries, ate seven tons of Burrowing Owl's chardonnay crop. In fact, the winery's award-winning merlot does taste faintly of blueberries.

Bears? Blueberries?

Welcome to wine country, Canadian style.

If you think Canada is too cold and wet to produce terrific wine, you're right—sort of. But 100 miles east of Vancouver, far from the city's cool, cosmopolitan trappings, sits the Okanagan, an arid stretch of landscape that appears somewhat out of place north of the border. Through this warm and lovely valley runs a long, deep lake purportedly inhabited by a serpentine monster called Ogopogo. Families from Vancouver and Calgary have been coming here for countless summers to golf, pick fruit, and float around the lake in inflatable rubber Ogopogos.

But in the last decade, the Okanagan has emerged as something more than a bucolic lake community: It has become one of the world's most vibrant wine regions, a place where vintners are experimenting with many different varietals.

In 1988, there were a dozen or so Okanagan wineries; today there are more than 50, many producing terrific wines that are entirely different in character from what you find in other Western regions. The wineries, too, have a different character. "The Okanagan is like Napa 30 years ago," says John Schreiner, author of The Wineries of British Columbia. "You can still wander into a winery and find the proprietor, rather than his publicist."

And yet, as a vacation spot, the Okanagan—pleasantly affordable, strikingly pretty, and a short flight from most West Coast cities—remains all but unknown outside of Canada. This is one of its greatest charms, and surely a fleeting one.

In 1859 Charles Pandosy, a French-born oblate friar, built a log mission near a body of water called Okanagan (the Salishan word for "lake") in the wilds of British Columbia. The mission's orchard flourished in the exceptionally fertile soil, as did its vineyard.

For most of its history, fabulous fruits—especially apples—were the Okanagan's main claim to fame. The valley's first winery, founded in 1932, produced apple wine. A few years later, it switched to local grapes, hardly a major improvement, as most of the area's grapes were labrusca hybrids. Labrusca grapes, such as the Concord, make a dynamite purple jelly, but not a good dry table wine. For that, you need vinifera grapes—chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, syrah—and the Okanagan had almost none.

In the 1960s and '70s, efforts were made to introduce vinifera grapes to the region, but little changed until 1988, when Canada agreed to drop trade barriers against imports. Since the valley's abysmal wines could never compete with those of France or California, the government paid people to replant their vineyards with vinifera.

In the end, two-thirds of the valley's vineyards were replanted. In the early '90s the number of wineries began to grow, as vintners from Germany, France, California, New Zealand, and even within Canada began discovering what the Okanagan might do as well as other wine regions—and what it might do better. "The innocence and the energy and the sense of exploration here are very attractive," says Bill Dyer, a 28-year veteran of the Napa Valley, who became Burrowing Owl's winemaker in 1997. "It's extremely exciting.

"So far, this much is clear: In the hot, southern portion of the valley, wineries are having surprising luck with reds like merlot and syrah. But the Okanagan's true rising star is pinot gris, a creamy, fruity white varietal also produced in the Alsace region of France.

"Aromatic white wines can't be produced anywhere else in North America like they can here," says Jeff Martin, owner of La Frenz, a small 3-year-old Okanagan winery.

And then there's the valley's most celebrated offering—ice wine. Invented in Germany in 1794, this intense, gorgeous nectar is made by leaving grapes on the vine through a frost, after which they are promptly picked and pressed. Water, in the form of ice granules, stays in the press and what goes into the fermenter is the sweet essence of grape. Optimal weather conditions can never be assured, so true ice wine is a real treat. You'll probably pay more than $50 for a tall, skinny bottle of ice wine; just about every Okanagan winery makes its own signature variety.

Touring the valley's wine country—a hilly patchwork of desert, orchards, vineyards, and lake—is an adventure. Along the occasionally rugged roads, there are dozens of public beaches and countless seasonal farm stands selling fresh cherries, apples, pears, and peaches, as well as pies and preserves.

This amazing bounty is making its way into Okanagan restaurants. A year ago, Rod Butters, the chef at Vancouver Island's posh Wickaninnish Inn, opened his own place in the town of Kelowna. "This is the ultimate chef's playground," Butters says. At Fresco, he now makes soup with organic Okanagan asparagus, stuffs puff pastry with pink rhubarb, and tops grilled brioche with sheep's Brie. Around the corner at de Montreuil, chef Ryan Smid serves local duck, fruits, and vegetables in inventive combinations.

Yet despite the sophisticated dining options, the Okanagan is still a place where many come chiefly to eat baskets of fish-and-chips, boat, and hike. It's still a place for taking pony rides through ponderosa pines, picking your own apricots, and touring the first opal mine in Canada.

"It's fantastic here," says Martin, an Australian who came for a temporary job in 1994 and fell in love with the mountains, the lake, and the dynamic young wine industry. "It's a story waiting to be written."

Photography courtesy of McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.