British Columbia Wines & Wineries
British Columbia's wine industry is gaining momentum by the year and garnering global fame at International competitions…but where the Riesling meets the road, there's nothing quite like tasting the goods while taking in the scenery firsthand.
Picture a place with glacier tipped mountains framing crystal clear lakes…grey whales breaching out in the ocean, grizzly bears grazing along a rugged, wave-washed coast…ancient forests thriving alongside vibrant cities…and 700+ vineyards producing over 12 million litres of delicious wine every year. It sounds like the stuff of myths, but this land actually exists. In fact, thousands of tipsy travellers each summer weave bicycles along winding, vine-lined roads through the Okanagan Valley, wander rose flanked vineyards carafe-in-hand, sip Semillon on sunset-bathed terraces overlooking the sea, and relax to the ringing bells at Mission Hill over a glass of Vidal Icewine. The British Columbia wine industry has been gaining steady momentum since the early 1990s, enjoying national popularity as well as recognition in the global wine arena with multiple prestigious awards. With five different regions growing over 60 varieties of grapes, wine touring is a fantastic––and tasty––way to experience the beauty of BC. And it's not just about the Chardonnay (though some may beg to differ), today many of BC's wineries offer gourmet gastronomy and tours; with nearby accommodation it's easy for both the die-hard connoisseur and the casual sightseer to enjoy a fun day trip or a weeklong adventure. See also BC wine quick facts.
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BC Wine Industry
Though most Canadians are familiar with the BC wine industry, some international travellers might be surprised to learn that the province has been producing wine commercially since the 1920s, using indigenous plants like loganberries and labrusca grapes. In the 1970s, vintners in the Okanagan region began importing varietals from Europe such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Ehrenfelser, and production slowly increased. However, it wasn't until the formation of NAFTA in 1988 that the market invited a rapid growth in the industry. In 1990, the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) was formed to ensure production and sensory standards were being upheld. Today, bottles bearing the VQA insignia are guaranteed to be 100% "made in BC", and have passed a taste evaluation.
Then came the awards. In 1994, Mission Hill's 1992 Grand Reserve Chardonnay won "Best Chardonnay Worldwide" at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, officially introducing BC wine to the world's stage. Various BC wineries have since gone on to win international accolades including "Winemaker of the Year", "Shiraz of the Year" (a first for North America), and "World's Top Icewine".
BC Wine Regions
Wine geography in British Columbia is divided into five Designated Viticultural Areas, or DVAs. These regions span across south-central BC to the Vancouver & Gulf Islands. The largest and most well-known region, the Okanagan Valley, is located in southern BC (a few hour's drive inland from Vancouver) and is divided into 5 sub-regions: Kelowna, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Golden Mile, and Black Sage. Hot, dry summers––the region is in a "rain shadow", between the Coastal and Monashee Mountains––and crisp, cold winters are the hallmark of Okanagan climate. Some of the best Okanagan wines include Merlot, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Syrah, and Pinot Blanc. Forest fires are common during the summertime, which have been known to lend a characteristic "smoky" essence to wines produced at vineyards located downwind from the blazes. Within the southern zone of the Okanagan and bordering the US is the Similkameen Valley, a more arid environment prone to hotter summers and colder winters. The Similkameen Valley is a hot-spot––pun intended––for travellers interested in experiencing Canada's only desert, and also those who love Merlot, Cabernet and Gamay Noir (to name a few).
The third wine region in mainland British Columbia is the more temperate Fraser Valley. Located in the Vancouver area, the Fraser Valley wineries make an easy day trip for anyone staying in the city. The rainy, mild, and some might call it "soggy" climate in this area is what makes everything so lush and green, perfect for German white-grape varieties like Riesling, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fourth and fifth of BC's Wine Regions are located on the islands off the southwest coast of the province: Vancouver Island, home to Victoria, BC's capital city; and the Gulf Islands, including Saltspring, Saturna, Pender, Quadra, and Bowen. All of the Islands are accessible by ferry from either Vancouver or Victoria, making them a perfect week-long or weekend island-hop adventure. Some varietals grown on Vancouver island and the Gulf Islands include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Ortega, Gewurtztraminer, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Though there are fewer wineries on the Islands than in the more well-known Okanagan regions, they are exceptionally scenic and worth exploring as part of any BC wine experience.
BC Wine Tasting Tours & Restaurants
Wine touring is a popular attraction for British Columbians as well as travellers hailing from far and wide. Summertime is the busiest time of year; it's a great time to visit as all wineries are stocked up, with tasting rooms operating in full swing. However, there is still plenty of fun to be had year-round. A lot of the bigger Okanagan wineries' tasting rooms are open through the winter, perfect for those non-skiers looking for something to do while everyone else is up on the hill. The wine regions of The Fraser Valley and the Islands have the mild climate advantage; virtually snow-free winters mean anytime is a good time to stroll through a vineyard, although umbrellas may be required.
Many wineries have restaurants (some with reputations that rival their best-selling bottles!) where guests can enjoy a delicious meal with a stunning view––and of course, wine pairings to complement each tasty bite. For vino virtuosos on a budget, a lot of wineries also have gardens and picnic areas where people are welcome to spread a blanket and eat baguette with a bottle of just-bought bubbly. Accommodations are never far away; from campsites and quaint B&Bs to luxuriously appointed hotel suites, there is something for every kind of traveller in virtually every price range. With great variety, exquisite flavours, stunning scenery, and multiple climate zones to explore, this is an attraction no sip-savvy traveller should miss out on. Wine touring doesn't get much more fabulous than here in beautiful BC!
Articles Of Interest
- BC Wine Facts: At a glance
- BC's Great Okanagan: Wine, golf, and sunsets: the ultimate getaway
- A Taste of British Columbia: What defines BC cuisine
- Dining Out: Eating and drinking in BC
Photo credits: Close-up of grapes on the vine at Garry Oaks Vineyard & Winery on Salt Spring Island (Vancouver Island, Victoria and the Gulf Island) courtesy Tourism BC/Andrea Johnso; View of Okanagan Lake and vineyards near Naramata (Thompson Okanagan) courtesy TourismBC/Don Weix; Wine barrels in the cellar at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in Kelowna (Thompson Okanagan) courtesy Tourism BC/JF Bergeron; Dining on the patio at the Old Vines Restaurant with views of Okanagan Lake and the vineyard at Quails' Gate Estate Winery in Kelowna (Thompson Okanagan) courtesy Tourism BC/Quails' Gate Estate Winery; Bottles of wine on a barrel at Cedar Creek Estate Winery in Kelowna (Thompson Okanagan) courtesy Tourism BC/Brian Sprout
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