Green vineyards, dry hills and pines

Steve Delaney
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Continued exploring in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley

Adega Estate Winery in Osoyoos, in the south of B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. — Photo by Steve Delaney/Special to The Telegram

Grape varieties are often associated with specific regions or countries based on traditional production, and the local dominance of the variety. Examples would include tempranillo for Spain and sangiovese for Italy. Many new world producers have so-called signature wines such as carmenere for Chile and malbec for Argentina.

Does the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia have a signature wine variety? My impression following a short but intense four-day visit is that the answer is no.

This is not necessarily a problem for marketing of the Valley’s wines. Instead, it is an indication of the wide array of growing conditions and the diversity of wines that can be produced.

The Valley is a narrow gap which runs north-south between two mountain ranges. The western mountains catch the prevailing winds and storms and most of their rain falls before it reaches the Valley. The narrow width of the Valley means that west facing slopes don’t get sun until later in the morning, although it lasts into the evening. For east facing slopes, the situation is reversed with morning sun and shadowed evenings.

The Okanagan was carved by glacial action. In some places the soil is shallow over bedrock. In other areas silts, sands, and gravels have been left behind to considerable depth. The valley floor is a series of large lakes connected by a river. The lakes provide moderating influences on the heat of summer and cold of winter, and there is sufficient water available for irrigation.

Irrigation is necessary for vines and the other crops of the valley as rainfall is limited by the mountains, as already mentioned. Most agriculture is on the valley floor, and higher up on the slopes the natural vegetation of sage and pine dominates, especially in the south. The affect is like a mini Nile River with a band of brilliant green hugging both banks on the valley bottom, transforming into near-desert beyond.

While the summers are hot, winters in the mountains are cold — cold enough that vines are at risk of freezing. Careful site and varietal selection is required to ensure vine survival. The Okanagan growing region is perhaps best described as a hot, intense, and short summer with cooler springs and falls. Cooler fall weather, as well as hot days and cool nights, can help slow the maturation process so that all parts of the grape are ripe at the same time while sufficient acidity is retained.

There is a risk from frost, however, as growers wait as long as possible before picking.

The better growers also practice a lot of “green harvest” in which the number of bunches carried by each vine is reduced, simply by cutting off the excess bunches in mid-summer. The vines can then put more energy into ripening the remaining bunches.

With mountainous borders on the east and west, inhospitable growing conditions to the north, and a sandy desert region in the south, the Okanagan is much like an island of agriculture.

Chile has similar conditions on a larger scale which has allowed it to develop a wine industry free of phylloxera infestation. Like Chile and unlike most of the rest of the world, more than a few Valley wineries are using vinifera rootstock rather than grafting their vines to non-vinifera roots.

The combination of all this geography results in a host of varied meso-climates. Combined with the passions of the individual growers and winemakers, you are able to find excellent expression of many varietals, and there does not seem to be any dominant, or signature grape. In my next instalment I will reflect on the highlights of the wineries I visited and their wines.

Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society.  Email him at Twitter: @delaneystephen

Organizations: Opimian Society

Geographic location: Okanagan Valley, Chile, B.C. Spain Italy British Columbia The Valley Nile River

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