With 80 million litres a year, Canada is one of the smaller wine-producing nations; it accounts for 0.3% of global production compared to Italy with 19%. But it has a very strong domestic market, meaning the imperative of selling Canadian wine overseas hasn’t always been a huge concern.
Ice wine bucks this trend, but in 2018 Canada only exported 1.8 million litres of wine, with its biggest markets being China, the US, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
But there’s a bigger world out there, and a few forward-thinking winery owners in Okanagan, in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia, wanted a slice of the action – to promote their region and their wines on the international stage.
The Okanagan Wine Initiative (OWI) was founded in 2018 by 50th Parallel Estate Winery, Haywire Wines, Painted Rock Estate Winery, Poplar Grove Winery and Summerhill Pyramid Winery to showcase the Okanagan Valley as a world-class wine region.
The group shares expertise and resources, working together to improve everything from their viticulture and vinification methods to sales and marketing ventures.
Each year they agree on a collection of member wines, selected to benchmark the Okanagan’s style and diversity, that will be showcased at global tastings and events.
Last year in London, following the annual Canada Trade Tasting in May, this included a dinner and tasting at department store Selfridges, at which a collection of 20 OWI wines was then featured for sale for three months.
Understanding the Okanagan
The Okanagan, likes to think of itself not as part of the New World of wine but the Next World.
It’s the last frontier – the most northerly quality wine region on the planet – whose unique topography and climate plus diverse soil types and grape varieties makes it a complex and fascinating place to discover.
About 400km east of Vancouver, the Okanagan spans one degree of latitude (49°N to 50°N), stretching along a 140km north-south axis, from just north of Kelowna down to the US border.
It’s similar to the distance between the northernmost tip of the Médoc winegrowing region in Bordeaux down to Sauternes, or Chablis to Beaune in Burgundy, or San Francisco Airport to the top of the Napa Valley in Calistoga.
Climate is distinctly continental here, with temperatures ranging from -20°C in very cold winters to more than 40°C in summer. But even during the hot growing season, cool overnight temperatures allow the grapes to retain their natural acidity.
The Okanagan Valley is a narrow glacial trench between two mountain ranges that were formed 35 million to 160 million years ago. Its nestled-in position means the valley has a very low average rainfall of between 400mm a year in the north to less than 250mm in the south – the edge of the Sonora Desert.
Land of lakes
Despite these arid conditions, the defining feature of the valley is its lakes (Okanagan means ‘place of water’ in the Interior Salish dialect), which run the length of the appellation.
The largest is the 135km Okanagan Lake (reportedly home to the Ogopogo, Canada’s own Loch Ness monster), which stretches from Vernon in the north to Penticton. This is right next to the 12km-long Skaha Lake, followed further down by Vaseux Lake then Osoyoos Lake which continues over the border into Washington State.
These bodies of water moderate the valley’s extreme temperatures: cooling vineyards in summer and helping prevent the devastating effects of frost in winters.
Okanagan Lake was carved by glaciers more than 11,000 years ago, which left large deposits of gravel, silt and sand on the bottom and sides of the valley. Over time these were eroded and dispersed into alluvial fans on which are now planted some of the key vineyard areas of Vernon, Kelowna and Penticton. Kelowna also boasts volcanic soils thanks to the dormant Mount Boucherie.
These soils, and varied temperatures, rainfalls and aspects, mean the region is able to successfully grow more than 50 different grape varieties – from cool- climate reds like Pinot Noir and aromatic whites such as Riesling and Pinot Gris in the north, to big structured reds like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the south.
Meet the OWI members
The five member wineries of the Okanagan Wine Initiative and their wines are as complex and fascinating as the valley they all share, with each of them representing a different sub-appellation of the greater Okanagan – offering a unique insight into this Next World wine region.
50th Parallel Estate Winery, Lake Country
Wines available in the UK: Gewürztraminer 2017 (£19.99, Selfridges); Pinot Noir 2015 (£27.99, Selfridges)
Just a 15-minute drive from Kelowna International Airport, 50th Parallel Estate boasts panoramic lake views atop its 25ha property. Oil and gas design engineer Curtis Krouzel had long wanted to create a world-class Pinot Noir winery in Okanagan and in 2004, when he and wife Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel were on one of their many holidays in the region, they saw the site from across the lake, captivated by the slope of the land, lake reflectivity and granite soils. They hand-planted the first 4ha and released 700 cases of their first wines in 2011; now 16,000 cases are produced from a gravity-flow winery in an architecturally stunning complex that also includes a restaurant, tasting room and event hall. ‘The Okanagan Valley is unique place like no other in the world,’ says Curtis. The variety of wines we can grow here is outstanding.’ Winemaker Matthew Fortuna has been with 50th Parallel since 2013 and shares the same passion for Pinot Noir as the owners, having worked for Moorooduc Estate in Australia’s Mornington Peninsula region in Victoria. He also makes Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Kelowna
Seeking UK representation
If the four-storey high, star-aligned, sacred-geometric pyramid wasn’t enough to attract you, then the fact that Summerhill is British Columbia’s largest certified organic and biodynamic winery and one of Canada’s top sparkling producers should seal the deal. The Cipes family bought Summerhill Vineyard in 1986, when current CEO Ezra Cipes was aged just five. After moving back home to his family farm as a young man, Ezra created a permaculture garden that today still provides produce to the winery’s organic restaurant. Dedicated to creating minimal-intervention, terroir- based wine while respecting the environment, by 2007 Summerhill had helped pioneer the criteria for organic wine certification in Canada, and its 21.5ha estate was Demeter certified in 2012 as BC’s first biodynamic vineyard. Michael Alexander, who got a job in the tasting room in 2010, is now Summerhill’s winemaker, working with mainly Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with small plots of Pinot Meunier, Grüner Veltliner and Muscat. ‘When we send our wine out into the world it speaks for itself’, says Ezra. ‘It’s nice to think someone could identify our wines as being from the Okanagan and not from anywhere else.’
Haywire Wines, Summerland
Wines available via UK importer Graft Wine Co: Free Form Pinot Noir 2015 (£54); Canyon View Pinot Noir 2014 (£44); Free Form Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (£44); The Bub 2015 (£40); Waters & Banks Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (£36); White Label Pinot Noir 2016 (£31); White Label Gamay 2016 (£31)
One of the most high-profile Canadian wine brands in the UK is Haywire, part of Okanagan Crush Pad (OCP), Canada’s first purpose-built custom-crush facility. This is due to the quality of the pure, lively concrete egg-made wines made by New Zealand-born winemaker Matt Dumayne, who joined in 2013 and lives on OCP’s 130ha certified organic Garnet Valley Ranch (Canada’s highest-altitude vineyard at 680m). But it is also thanks to dynamic owner Christine Coletta, a former founding executive director of the BC Wine Institute and Wines of Canada. ‘The next 10 years are going to be incredible for the Okanagan,’ says Christine. ‘Canada seems to be on everyone’s radar in the UK which is really exciting.’ In 2006 she and husband Steve Lornie planted Switchback, a 4ha site in Summerland that produced 168 cases – Haywire was born. Then in 2010 consultants Alberto Antonini (winemaking) and Pedro Parra (viticulture) were brought in to help achieve their aims of precision viticulture, organic farming and minimal-intervention winemaking. In 2011 they expanded their venture and opened OCP, a state-of-the- art 45,000-case winery to give Haywire (and their Narrative and Free Form labels) a home, working with mainly Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc from 33ha of cool-climate, organic estate vineyards across three sites, plus organic contract fruit.
Poplar Grove Winery, Naramata Bench
Wines available in the UK: Pinot Gris 2018 (£21.50)
Tony Holler is one of the lucky few who turned his love of wine from a hobby into a business. Okanagan born and bred, the avid wine collector trained in medicine and biochemistry, working in both fields for more than 35 years before making the change so many winelovers dream of, buying Poplar Grove in 2007. ‘I believe the wines produced in the Okanagan can be world champions – and they have been,’ says Tony. The estate, founded in 1993, was one of the five original wineries on the Naramata Bench. From just 1ha planted by the original owner, there are now 42ha of Holler Estate Vineyards planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah across Naramata, Penticton and Osoyoos, made by winemaker Stefan Arnason. The winery is a family affair, with Tony’s wife Barbara along with their four sons Chris, Andrew, Matthew and Eric managing vineyard operations. In addition to the varietal wines, Poplar Grove is known for its signature red blend The Legacy, along with several small-lot and single-vineyard wines only available at The Restaurant at Poplar Grove.
Painted Rock Estate Winery, Skaha Bench
Wines available via UK importer The Wine Treasury: Icon 2016 (£54); Malbec 2016 (£50); Chardonnay 2017 (£49); Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (£48); Merlot 2012 & 2014 (£40-£48); Syrah 2013 & 2015 (£40-£47); Cabernet Franc 2013 (£40)
Painted Rock has one of the highest profiles of any Canadian wine in the UK market thanks to the perfectionist approach by owner John Skinner. The former investment banker’s unrelenting commitment to quality meant it took him more than three years of searching the Okanagan to find the ultimate property. In 2004 he and wife Trish bought Black Hawk, once the largest apricot orchard in the Commonwealth – a uniquely sloping 23ha single-vineyard bench surrounded by an amphitheatre of rock. They renamed it Painted Rock for the 500-year-old native pictographs discovered there. Now having the perfect site (including an architecturally distinctive winery and tasting room overlooking the vineyards and Skaha Lake), the Skinners needed the ultra- premium, internationally renowned, terroir-driven wines to go with it. So after detailed advice on the planting of Chardonnay, Syrah and the five Bordeaux varieties, acclaimed Bordeaux consultant Alain Sutre was engaged in 2006 to oversee blending and winemaking alongside winemaker Gabriel Reis. ‘The Okanagan went from a point where it wasn’t understood or known by anyone to being the new kid on the block,’ says John. ‘The level of excitement around what we are offering to the international community continues to grow.’