Introduction to British Columbia Wines

Overview and Brief History
Wine Growing Regions
The Wines
The Market
The Future

Overview and Brief History

British Columbia is Canada's westernmost province, bounded by the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Much like its wine-growing neighbours to the south, Washington State and Oregon, BC's climate is heavily influenced by coastal and inland mountain ranges that run north-south. Moist, moderate conditions prevail near the coast, while the interior has an arid, continental climate with hot summers and cold winters.

One of these interior regions, the Okanagan Valley, gave grape growing its start in the late 19th century and continues to be the main focus of BC's wine industry. Father Pandosy, a missionary who settled by Okanagan Lake in the 1860s near what is now Kelowna, planted grapes there for eating and to make sacramental wine. This early effort would be the only grape growing of note for quite a long time, however. Not until 1926 was the first commercial vineyard established by J. W. Hughes, also near Kelowna. After that, grape acreage grew slowly until a serious interest in quality wine-grapes appeared around 1970.

The establishment in 1978 of BC's first "estate winery" (a winery growing its own grapes), helped trigger an industry-wide effort to plant high quality grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, among others) and to bring the region's winemaking up to international standards. German grape growing expert Helmut Becker also had a large influence on this phase of the industry's development.

Since then, a number of milestones have passed including the establishment of the BC Wine Institute in 1990 and the adoption of the Vintner's Quality Alliance (VQA) set of rules governing designated viticultural areas and wine production and labelling standards shortly thereafter. The number of wineries has ballooned from a dozen in 1983 to over 50 in 1999. Most importantly, the quality of the wines has reached a level where BC's best offerings have been winning top international acclaim for a number of years.

Wine Growing Regions

  • The Okanagan Valley encompasses over 90% of the grape acreage and a large majority of the wineries. Its microclimate is characterized by low rainfall, intense summers and the moderating effect of Okanagan Lake, summer and winter.
  • Just to the west lies the smaller Similkameen Valley, which is very similar to its neighbour in growing conditions.
  • Near Vancouver on the west coast, you will find the temperate Fraser Valley. Once a more important grape growing area, now home to two wineries.
  • Vancouver Island and the adjacent Gulf Islands are home to an exciting winegrowing region where a number of very small wineries are making a name for themselves. Cooler summers, milder winters and higher rainfall than the interior characterize the climate there.

The Wines

The strength of the BC wine portfolio has so far been in its whites. Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon and less well known German varietals like Ehrenfelser and Kerner are among them. Recently, though, releases of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc from the Okanagan Valley have proven that BC is capable of producing high quality reds as well.

The most well known of British Columbia's dessert wines is probably the Icewine (made from grapes that are frozen when picked). Walter Hainle made British Columbia's (and Canada's) first Icewine in 1978, but it was not until the early 1990s that a number of other producers jumped into the game and made it a main feature of this wine industry. Other dessert wines include Late Harvests and Select Late Harvests.

Champagne style sparkling wines are also important to this region. As a cool climate grape growing area, BC is ideally suited to producing the fresh, crisp white wines that are the starting point for high quality bottle fermented sparkling wine.

The Market

Not surprisingly, the most loyal following for British Columbia vintages has been at home. The wine industry is very much smaller than areas like California, Australia or even Ontario and not much product can be found outside of western Canada. Nevertheless, export markets have developed, most notably in the UK and in the Far East.

The Future

British Columbia grape acreage is expanding, consumer acceptance and demand are climbing and the level of quality is keeping pace. Wineries are struggling to keep up with the demands of the global marketplace. Agri-tourism is playing an ever increasing role as travel to BC Wine Country becomes more popular. The number of small wineries is likely to keep growing rapidly over the next few years and so will competition in the quality wine sector.

created 1999-11-16, last modified 2003-02-26

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