Of course, there's also Ice wine. However, the most internationally recognized wine product of Canada no longer holds a significant role in the Pacific province of British Columbia. Nevertheless, in 2022, approximately 330 hectoliters were produced – significantly less than a decade ago (2013: 2,880 hectoliters). Cellars and tasting rooms of wineries have long shifted their focus to other wines.
British Columbia (BC) is the westernmost province of Canada, bordering the Pacific Ocean. Its southernmost vineyards are situated on the 49th parallel, comparable to Reims in Champagne. Consequently, one might presume that grapes thrive in Canada's exceptionally cool maritime climate. This assumption holds true for the 110 out of the province's 4,500 hectares of vineyards located on Vancouver Island. However, 87% of the vineyard area, totaling 3,900 hectares, is found in the Okanagan Valley, located 217 miles further east and characterized by its continental climate. After Ontario, British Columbia stands as Canada's second most important wine-producing province, boasting over 12,600 hectares of vineyards.
The Okanagan Valley extends north to south on either side of the Okanagan River, encompassing several lakes: the elongated Okanagan Lake, Skaha Lake, and Vaseux Lake, reaching up to the US border at Osoyoos Lake. Its resulting temperature shifts and its viticultural possibilities in the roughly 75 miles from Lake Country in the north to Osoyoos in the south are truly spectacular. Its Growing Degree Days (GDD), a crucial indicator for evaluating growth conditions in a wine region, range from 1,135 in the north (slightly lower than Marlborough in New Zealand) to 1,641 in Osoyoos in the south (similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France). From this perspective, it's accurate to compare the Okanagan Valley with Napa Valley; both exhibit significant climate differences over a short distance, leading to immense viticultural potential.
Further parallels are unmistakable: Both valleys are highly developed in terms of tourism, and wineries typically feature state-of-the-art tasting rooms, along with knowledgeable staff. In a 10-hectare winery, a team of three might handle the daily operations. It's not uncommon for a restaurant to be included as well. The breathtaking view of the valley is complimentary; however, tastings for three to five wines average around CA$10-15 (US$7-11).
After Ontario, British Columbia is Canada's second most important wine-producing region.
In Kelowna, there is a well-equipped office for the "Wine Growers British Columbia" (WGBC), which maintains an informative website: Winebc.com also offers maps and access to most winery websites. Local contacts are Kimberly Barnes or Kelly Josephson (email@example.com).
Top shelf wines
In Canada, they have a relatively relaxed approach to pricing. It starts at around US$13 for the simplest Pinot Gris in wineries and can easily exceed US$22 for a less significant Pinot Noir. The 10% alcohol tax alone isn't the sole factor. But apparently, this doesn't bother anyone, as all wines in Canada are sold at higher prices, and the local market absorbs nearly the entire production.
Wine is a lucrative business, as demonstrated not only by the many new, sometimes impressive winery buildings but also by industry growth figures: Since 2004, the province's vineyard area has doubled, and the number of wineries has risen from 102 to 335.
Small businesses dominate
On average, a winery in British Columbia spans about 13.4 hectares of vineyards. However, larger companies like the nationwide Arterra Group manage multiple wineries in British Columbia. Arterra includes the province's largest producer, Jackson-Triggs, with a production volume of around 10m bottles. Several operations also belong to entrepreneur Anthony von Mandl, whose beverage conglomerate Mark Anthony Group owns six additional wineries alongside the well-known and heavily frequented Mission Hill Winery: Road 13, Checkmate, CedarCreek, Liquidity, and Martin’s Lane.
The majority of wineries likely cultivate between 5 and 10 hectares. One could presume that these resemble the traditional family-run establishments of Central Europe. There are indeed examples of this, such as the Moraine Winery owned by the Aristarkhov couple, which specializes in about 10 hectares of Pinot Noir. Or Joel and Linda Chamaschuk, who turned their hobby into a profession and, together with a friend, produce 22,000 bottles of "Chain Reaction" per year. Red Horse Winery, focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, is exceptionally small, producing only 6,000 bottles annually with the labor of a four-person family.
Go big or go home
One of the larger family-run operations is Poplar Grove, owned by the Austrian-born Holler family and led by two brothers and their father. Notably, a considerable two-thirds of the annual production of around 600,000 bottles are marketed through direct sales – the winery's store, an attached restaurant, or their in-house Wine Club, where members receive minor discounts.
Most wineries have such a Wine Club, obliging members to purchase a few bottles annually, driving customer loyalty.
Similar to many larger producers, Poplar Grove owns vineyards in various climate zones within the Okanagan Valley, allowing for a broad spectrum of wine styles, ranging from fresh Riesling to Syrah that has clearly thrived in warmer conditions.
Given the bottle prices – 12 tons of yield for the main grape variety, Pinot Gris, and two-thirds direct sales – profitability is likely not a major concern for most producers. Only land prices of around US$ 40–65 per square meter of viticultural land slightly extend the break-even point.
Besides family-run establishments and larger wineries, a not insignificant group of well-heeled enthusiasts contributes to the overall tourist landscape, showcasing opulence with style. Their money is made elsewhere, and in the Okanagan, it's invested in cutting-edge, architecturally striking wineries where budget is not the main concern.
The 2019-opened Phantom Creek Estate, owned by a wealthy Chinese individual from San Francisco, is just one example among many. Located high above the valley, featuring a stylish restaurant, magnificent views, captivating architecture, and prices ranging from CA$36 to CA$190 per bottle (US$27–140), with nearly 80 hectares of their own vineyards. There's very little that could go wrong here.
The future lies on the island
In comparison to the Okanagan Valley, the other smaller wine-producing regions are almost negligible. The second most significant region, with just 243 hectares, is the Similkameen Valley – a charming side valley of the Okanagan with a hot desert climate, much like the southern area around Osoyoos.
The province's key grape varieties include Merlot (14%), Pinot Noir (12%), Pinot Gris (11%), Chardonnay (10%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (8%). Naturally, these figures are influenced by the dominant Okanagan Valley.
On the coastal side, in Vancouver Island, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Ortega, and Marechal Foch dominate. Pinot Noir enthusiast Andy Johnston, who owns one of the largest wineries, Averill Creek, about 7,5 miles from the coast, explains why he invested here: "Pinot Noir requires climatic balance in the fall. That doesn't exist in the Okanagan. It's too hot there. The future of Pinot Noir in Canada lies on Vancouver Island." This is likely why his finest Pinot Noir costs around US$110. During our visit, it was sold out.