This Canadian Wine Region May Be the Wine World's Best Kept Secret
Not only does British Columbia's industry thrive, it is excelling at warm-weather grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, along with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
You see, the wine country in British Columbia is actually a desert. For real. In fact, this little pocket of desert includes the northernmost stretch of the Sonoran Desert — the same desert that includes Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona! You won't find saguaros in BC's wine country, but you'll come across the occasional lizard, the odd bevy of desert quail.
It's a very good climate for growing wine grapes. In eastern British Columbia, mountains block the advance of rainy weather being pushed in from the Pacific Ocean. The result is full-on arid conditions in the eastern side of the mountains, which translates into days that are long, sunny, and warm (during the growing season, anyway) and nights that are crisp and cool — ideal conditions for achieving wines balanced between ripe fruit and refreshing acidity.
The first grapes grown in BC were planted in the Okanagan Valley, and the valley remains the province's largest wine producer. The Okanagan Valley runs in a thin band for 100 miles; the vineyards are planted mainly on sun-soaking slopes along long, narrow lakes that help moderate temperatures and (this being the desert with fewer than 6 inches of annual rainfall) provide irrigation.
The main grapes grown here are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Gris. These grapes thrive in the poor soils, which range from the chewed-up earth left behind during glacial retreats to limestone, clay, and fine-grained sand. It's worth noting that wine vines want neither too much water nor soils that are too fertile. Their ascetic, self-sacrificing nature explains why grapes are so often grown on poor soils in places where growers can control the amount of water the vineyard receives through irrigation: a drip here, a drop there, as needed. This "stress" encourages the vines to dig deep for nutrients and encourages concentrated fruit flavors to develop in the grapes.
In British Columbia, you'll also find the Similkameen Valley wine region, which enjoys the same bone-dry climate and "stressed" conditions as the Okanagan Valley. The poor soils here (gravel and stone and silty glacial remnants) are grape-friendly, and the vineyards lie at a steep elevation along the Similkameen River. Historically, the Similkameen Valley was the Wild West portion of British Columbia, where gold mining and horse ranching were more to the locals' taste than fancy winemaking. But times have changed. Merlot is the most planted grape here, followed by Chardonnay; other important grapes are Gamay Noir, Pinots Noir and Blanc and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc.
Bottom line, keep your eyes out for British Columbia wines! And as climate change continues to affect the wine industry, pushing quality production ever northward, this wine area is well situated for success! With time, it's favorable position will likely only improve.
What to Pair with the Wines of British Columbia? Check out our favorite wines to pair with British Columbia's Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir; Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.