This guide to Okanagan Wine country explores the region’s best wines and where they grow. Plus, for those who visit, a few travel tips for the wine enthusiast.
You’re about to get frustrated.
You’re about to find out about an unbelievable wine region that you can’t taste unless you go there.
Why? Well, Okanagan wines just don’t travel far from British Columbia. That said, it’s well worth the trip.
(and shockingly affordable too.)
Most wine aficionados think of Canadian wine country as ice wine country. For the most part, they’re right. About two thirds of the world’s ice wine production happens in Canada.
Thus, Okanagan has reputation for being “another ice wine region of Canada.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you love Syrah, GSM Blends, right bank Bordeaux (i.e. Merlot blends), the Okanagan Valley will surprise you. On the world scale, Okanagan is a mecca for Chardonnay, Riesling, sparkling wines, and Pinot Gris. (And yes, they make some ice wine too!)
Making wine here is no small feat. Okanagan wine country lies at the outer limits of viticulture. It sits right below the 50th parallel (that’s the same as Champagne, btw). Yet unlike Champagne, Okanagan is dry, sunny, and hot.
Still, the growing season is quite short. So, how do they ripen red grapes?
For one, there are long daylight hours in summer months. (It’s light out well after 9pm!) Additionally, the 83-mile long (134 km) Lake Okanagan moderates temperature extremes in the summer and winter.
The best part is that the region has a long history in agriculture. Before this area was known for wine, it was famous for peaches, cherries, and apples. This is important because it means there is a solid agricultural foundation which has evolved over time.
The Wines of Okanagan
This was a surprise for us. Syrah is known to grow in warm, sunny climates like South Australia, South Africa, and the Northern Rhône Valley. In Okanagan, you’ll find most of the best wines grow in the South around Oliver and Osoyoos (“oh-soy-yoos”). One notable area for wine production is on the east side of Oliver, on Black Sage bench.
Okanagan Syrah tastes much closer to what you’ll find in cooler parts of the Northern Rhône. The best examples exhibit flavors of red cherry, dried cranberry, sage, and white pepper. Wines have medium-plus tannins, moderate acidity, and a sweet cherry finish. This is not your typical big, bold Syrah. It’s elegant and often smells a bit meaty.
More surprises come from the Bordeaux blends made with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. While Cabernet Sauvignon seems to have trouble here, Merlot and Cabernet Franc do just fine on the eastern benches of the lakes.
The Merlot is reminiscent of what you might find in Bordeaux, but slightly leaner and a little fruitier. Flavors include sweet cherry fruit, black currant, cocoa powder, tobacco and schistous wet gravel.
Lovers of the Loire will appreciate Okanagan Cabernet Franc for its flavors of dried pepper flakes, cherry sauce, cocoa powder, and moderate acidity. Though, the wines taste riper and sweeter here with more robust, suede-like tannins.
At the moment, the region is heavily invested in Bordeaux-style red blends. This is no doubt from high demand. That said, the future may tell a different story.
Who would think Pinot Noir could grow here? In the North, in East Kelowna, there is a fair amount of powdery, chalk-like soil. The soil is so powdery in fact, that it’s unlikely phylloxera will survive here. The Pinot Noir wines from this area will appeal to those who love pure, elegant, fruity reds. Well-made examples offer sweet raspberry, cranberry, and pomegranate notes with high acidity and crunchy, green tannins (from whole cluster fermentation).
The areas with granite and volcanic sandy soils in the South and eastern sides of the lake produce red wines with high aromatics. These spots might actually be well-suited for GSM-blends (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) or multi-faceted CMS blends (Cabernet-Merlot-Syrah) like you might find in Priorat or Eastern Washington.
Chardonnay is where Okanagan is starting to take world-class strides. It’s a lot like Chablis, but with the kiss of oak.
In the South, the best plantings are on the west side of the valley to avoid the afternoon sun. These wines offer up aromas of passion fruit, yellow apple, and apricot, with toasty notes of creme brûlée and lemon curd. Most notably, they have remarkable, mouth-watering acidity and rarely taste thick.
In the North, Chardonnay does wonders in East Kelowna’s chalk-like soil. Wines are often quite lean, with aromas of green apple, white blossoms, gun flint, and pine needle. Expect sky-high acidity balanced with subtle lanolin and hazelnut notes from aging in neutral oak puncheons.
Riesling could definitely be better known from the Okanagan. The style is much drier than most, giving Riesling an opportunity to sit alongside other more popular dry white wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Some of the best sites for this grape are in East Kelowna or in the South, from sheltered vineyards on the west side.
Think kiwis, limes, and leesy richness in your glass of Okanagan Riesling. If seeking a comparison, look to Grosse Gewaches (dry German Riesling) from the Rheingau. Or, maybe even a Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace, France.
Pinot Gris is a standby in Okanagan. It’s hard to do wrong with this grape. The best examples are some of the most aromatically expressive Pinot Gris out there. Flavors are rich with honeysuckle, orange blossom, and peach, with sky high acidity, and a lean, tingly finish.
Even though most enthusiasts opt for red wines, Okanagan should be known for its outstanding white and sparkling wines. The region consistently hits all the marks including high acidity, fruitiness, and floral aromatics.
Given the growing season is so short, many growers pick grapes with low pH (high acidity) and produce sparkling wines. The sparkling wines from Okanagan have amazing potential, with the ability to age 15+ years (when well-made) and develop subtle hazelnut-cream notes.
Another bombshell. The best examples tend to be from vineyards protected from the afternoon sun. Wines have bold aromas of passion fruit and pasilla pepper, with high acidity and a long tingly finish.
Where Viognier from Paso Robles and the Northern Rhône is oily and rich with flavors of tangerine and vanilla, Okanagan Viognier is lean and minerally. Imagine flavors of key lime, honeysuckle, honeydew melon, and crushed rocks, supported by sour-patch acidity.
They may not be popular, but aromatic whites, including Muscat and Gewürztraminer, are perfectly at home in the Okanagan. If someone figures out how to make a great, semi-bubbly Moscato here, it will blow up!
When You Go to Okanagan Wine Country
What’s surprising about Okanagan is that not only is it stunningly beautiful, it’s also shockingly affordable. As a wine country destination, Okanagan is still very much undiscovered. Here are some things to expect when you go.
- Wine tastings run on average around $5–$10 Canadian ($4–$8 USD!) and everyone waives the fee if you buy a bottle.
- The majority of Okanagan’s 11,000 vineyard acres are right across the US border around Osoyoos and Oliver.
- The area is very seasonal. It’s snowy in the winter with very little tourist traffic, and jam-packed (and hot-as-hell) in the summer.
- Late spring and early fall are the ideal times to visit for a wine enthusiast (best way to avoid other seasonal traffic).
- Many of the wineries also have bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, and onsite restaurants.
- Beyond wine, the region has amazing hiking, backpacking, cycling, skiing, water sports, and camping.
- In terms of quality, some wineries are outstanding, while many are just average. Be sure to do your research.
- Whatever you do, make sure you bring something to keep your bottles cool.
- It’s windy at night and there are lots of mosquitos by the lake, so be prepared!
For those who like to talk dirt….
The Okanagan Valley was once a huge glacier. The soils are mostly sandy with white clay-silt on top of gravelly glacial sands with limestone, granite and other gravels of ancient volcanic origin.
What does that actually mean? Well, if you were to sum them up, wines produced on these soils generally have high aromatic intensity, minerality, and more subtle tannins.
The region’s location just under the 50th parallel means it has a short growing season. Grapes rapidly develop sweetness during the day but it’s cold at night. This is a classic example of diurnal shift and is one of the reasons why Okanagan wines have mouth-zapping acidity.
Of course, ripeness levels can still get out of hand; we noticed volatile acidity in some winery programs.
As far as winemaking and viticulture goes, the Okanagan is still being figured out. Fortunately, Canada has a history of welcoming winemakers from all over, including places like New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and France. The outside talent brings perspective and wine quality improves with each vintage.
For those moving towards organic and biodynamic wines, this area has good potential. The high winds, lack of phylloxera, and extreme seasons deter a lot of pests.
One clever technique commonly employed in Okanagan wine country is picking grapes at multiple points throughout harvest. Then, they’re blended together to create a single, more balanced wine. Wines made with this method display both ripe flavors and high natural acidity.
Another common practice here is the use of larger oak puncheons in the Okanagan Valley. This might be a traditional choice (based on economics) or due to the fact that the wines tend to be more elegant and do not need as much oak. Many producers also enlist the use of American oak for their red wines.
One last quirk about the area is that it is near impossible to guesstimate the age of a vineyard. Severe winters periodically kill the vines all the way down to the root. The vines usually survive, but must grow a new trunk. Thus, you won’t see too many gnarly vines (even if they truly are old).