The wines of British Columbia

The wines of British Columbia

by Nikki Bayley 16 December 2016

Nikki Bayley tells us to leave the city behind and explore one of the world’s most diverse wine regions in the heart of British Columbia.

Nikki Bayley is an award-winning food, drink and travel writer based in Vancouver, B.C.

Nikki Bayley is an award-winning food, drink and travel writer whose work is published around the world in titles such as the Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, the Difford’s Guide and the Globe and Mail. Originally from the UK, but now based in Vancouver, B.C., Nikki can be found enthusiastically embracing life as a new immigrant mastering all those essential Canadian skills from learning to love poutine to developing a taste for bacon-topped Bloody Caasars first thing in the morning.

I can vividly remember the first time I was offered British Columbian (B.C.) wine. It was a Riesling from Gray Monk and like an idiot, I turned my nose up and said, ‘No thanks. I don’t like Riesling.’ Happily, the sommelier pressed me to try and with a little ‘I-won’t-like-it’ eye-rolling I took a sip. Of course, it was nothing like the sweet German juice bombs I’d sneaked from my parents’ drinks cabinet as a teenager. Instead, here was something thrillingly different: all peach, citrus and green apples with a fresh minerality. And just like that, I was hooked on B.C. wine.

British Columbia’s Okanagan is a fifty-minute flight from Vancouver to Kelowna or a four-hour drive past lush flat farmlands before winding high through soaring mountains. The Okanagan wine region stretches from Kelowna down to Osoyoos and contains some of the world’s most diverse meso-climates from Canada’s only desert (which helps grow bold, punchy Cabernet Franc) through to cooler lakeside areas (where Pinot Noir and varietals such as Gewurztraminer flourish). Thanks to glaciers moving through the region centuries ago the area has wonderful mineral-rich soil – which lends those wines their great character.

I’d pored over photos of the Okanagan and longed to visit, enchanted by the scrubby hills of Osoyoos dotted with Ponderosa pines and the serene lakeside beauty of Penticton with its family-friendly beaches. And for once, the reality far exceeded the hype. Take it from me: spending a few days in B.C.’s wine country is likely to lead to furtively scouring estate agent websites and having endless ‘what if I just moved here…’ conversations.

Visitors have the chance to pedal their way through the vines, cycling through beautiful B.C.
Determined Ponderosa Pines cling tenaciously to the sandy-coloured bluffs towering over the vines.

Just as Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, so too the B.C. wine industry is still very young with its first commercial vineyard in B.C. – Calona – only established in 1932. While they may be using techniques mastered over the centuries they’re unencumbered with the associated weight of tradition. More scrappy young upstart than venerable sage, B.C. wineries have an irreverence that you’d never see in more established regions.

Perhaps it’s being steeped in the long-held traditions of European wines, but I’ll admit when I first saw some of the kooky labels and quirky names of B.C. wineries – such as the Lost Inhibitions line from Church & State who carry labels such as ‘I’d Shave My Legs For You’ and ‘Kiss My Ass’ – I assumed there was nothing serious in the bottle. Big mistake! These terrific red and white blends have both scored serious props at the All-Canadian Wine Championships and the New World International Wine Competition.

B.C. wines can hold their own on the world stage, too, with wineries such as Mission Hill, who hosted Prince William and Kate on their recent Canadian trip, winning a World’s Best for their Pinot Noir at the prestigious Decanter awards. Aboriginal owned-Nk’Mip and See Ya Later Ranch also scored gold for their Merlot and Shiraz Viognier respectively.

For wine geeks it’s the diversity of terroir which makes B.C. such a draw. Thanks to the mountains and lakes, you can have radically different growing conditions in a relatively short amount of space. This means you’ll be able to enjoy anything from terrific organic sparkling wines from Summerhill where the bottles are aged in a pyramid modeled after the Great Pyramid of Egypt, to a peppery Syrah full of spice and dark fruit from Laughing Stock winery on the Naramata Bench, whose bottles are decorated with stock market ticker tape, as its wife and husband founders were both involved in the financial industry.

Concrete tanks
Concrete tanks are used to ferment and age wines at the Okanagan Crush Pad
From the scrub-covered bluffs to the manicured vines and the lake, just make sure you bring a camera.

Exploring the region last summer while researching a guide book, I pulled in frequently at the side of the road to stare dreamily at the neat rows of vines set against the sandy-coloured bluffs. Thanks to most of the wineries here springing up over the past two decades, the tasting rooms are bright and modern, looking out over those manicured vines with breathtaking views of the lake and mountains. Many of the wineries have superb restaurants too, focusing on the local and seasonal ingredients which come from this most delicious part of the world. Some, like Joie Farm on the Naramata Bench, have wood-fired pizza ovens on their patio where you can order up a tasty snack made with ingredients sourced from the local Farmers’ Market in Penticton.

Out on the shaded patio of the sun-drenched Sonora Room at the Burrowing Owl winery in Oliver, over an ambrosial lunch I tried their Meritage – pronounced like ‘heritage’ it’s a portmanteau word of ‘merit and heritage’ which Californian wine makers conjured up to denote New World wines made from Old World Bordeaux grape varietals. This particular one made me groan with delight, all black fruit and spice on the nose and a wonderful plummy savoury velvetiness on the palate. Swirl, sniff, swirl again, sip and swoon!

I navigated the serpentine road high above the lake to visit the Okanagan Crush Pad, a custom winemaking facility that’s also home to Haywire and Narrative Wines. Here they use gloriously space age-like domed concrete tanks to ferment and age their wines (an old technique that got mostly abandoned with the discovery of stainless steel) which thanks to the neutral character of the material doesn’t add or remove anything from the wine. As they say themselves, ‘It lets the fruit shine through to be a true statement of the place it was grown.’ I’ve become a fan of one of Haywire’s most popular wines, The Bub, a cool crisp toasty sparkler which tastes of fresh green apples and good times on a sunny patio.

Thanks to the relatively small amounts of B.C. wine that gets exported to the UK, your best chance of trying these exciting wines is heading to Canada to taste for yourself. And in-between discovering your new favourite Riesling and Syrah, you can cycle the picturesque Kettle Valley Railway Trail, take to the water on a kayak, or just enjoy a lazy swim and snooze by the beach. But with some 200 wineries dotted along the lakeside and in the hills of the Okanagan, there’s at least 200 great reasons to come and find out more.