Wine industry professionals and wine drinkers seem to be obsessed with each and every country or wine region having a particular wine identity. For example, New Zealand is famous for Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina’s signature grape is Malbec. Naturally, Canadians want their own wine identity, too. Across the globe Canada is famous for icewine, but wine consumers and professionals in Canada want a wine identity that is equal to, but separate from, making icewine. It’s a particularly hot topic in British Columbia and specifically the Okanagan Valley. Yet, no one seems to be able to agree on what defines the Okanagan Valley’s wine industry or where it might be heading in the future. Another factor to consider is wine regions that don’t have a single identity, like the Loire Valley in France for example. Are regions without a single signature any less significant in the wine industry just because we are not able to pigeon hole them? Obviously not, but there are certainly advantages and disadvantages when it comes to trying to define a region’s wine identity.
The Pros and Cons of having a signature wine identity
There are two sides to the wine identity debate. Having a signature for the country or region means that consumers will buy the wine that country is famous for before they’ll buy a similar wine from a different country. Argentina Malbec is a great example. The average consumer associates Malbec with Argentina. They may not know a lot about wine, but they “know” that if you want good Malbec, you have to drink one from Argentina. So even when they come across Malbecs from other regions, they’re likely to pass them up in favour of one from Argentina. Advantage Argentina! The same could be said for Napa Valley Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon), German Riesling or Australian Shiraz. These regions are so famous for a particular grape variety or style of wine that they are chosen by default, even if there are other great options from other countries available. This is a significant advantage for those regions and potentially damaging for regions that make great wines outside of those famous regions.
There is another disadvantage to having a signature identity: all of the other great wine that region makes may go unrecognized in the shadow of the signature wine. You may not know that New Zealand makes some pretty amazing Pinot Noir or that Australia has some unreal Grenache blends. So while they may have an advantage when it comes to their so called signature grape, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to other excellent options from the region.
The Okanagan Valley is identified by wines that are high in natural acidity
There have been a few general statements made about what defines Okanagan Valley wine. At the 2018 Fall BC VQA Ambassador training hosted by the BC Wine Institute (BCWI), the discussion led to two main points about the identity of BC wines. The most agreed upon statement was that BC was defined by wines that are naturally high in acidity. The idea is that regardless of the grape variety or style of wine or what sub region the grapes were grown, whether a the wine is a fruit-forward Pinot Noir, an off-dry Gewürztraminer or a Bordeaux-style blend, the unifying factor would always be that backbone of natural acidity.
Speaking to proprietors, winemakers and other industry professionals in the Okanagan Valley, this isn’t necessarily and agreed upon “fact.” For the most part, it’s a great generalization. However, like other regions around the world, acidifying wines is not as uncommon as you may think. If the grapes are harvested too ripe — maybe in an exceptionally hot vintage or in the more southern vineyards in the Okanagan Valley — the wine may have low acidity and need to be balanced by adding acidity or the wine will be flabby. This isn’t to say that acidification is wrong, but if that’s your wine identity, it should be used sparingly, if at all.
Generally speaking, this high acidity assessment of identity may be relatively accurate, but there are certainly enough exceptions to this “signature” that it warrants looking at other options.
The Okanagan Valley’s signature style is cool climate wines.
This may seem like a no-brainer because the Okanagan Valley is classified as a cool climate region. However, if you’ve ever spent time in the the southern part of the Okanagan in the summer, you probably don’t believe that classification! It gets pretty hot there in July and August, but a cool climate region is generally defined by a Growing Season Temperature (GST) that averages somewhere between 13°C to 16°C.
There are certainly areas of the Okanagan Valley where this is true and what are considered cool-climate grape varieties thrive in these sub-regions. Lake Country, north of Kelowna, shows us that Pinot Noir and aromatic white grape varieties have the perfect growing conditions that far north. The wineries in the area around Kelowa, West Kelowna and Lake Country make exceptional cool climate wines from grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chasselas and Pinot Gris. As you move further south toward the centre of the Okanagan Valley, the wine styles made from these grapes tend towards riper fruit flavours and slightly higher alcohol. You’ll also see more plantings of Merlot and Syrah. Once you get to the southern most part of the Okanagan Valley, the game changes almost entirely.
In a cool climate region you shouldn’t really be able to fully ripen certain grape varieties and make quality wine from them. Cabernet Sauvignon is a great example, but look at what’s going on on the Black Sage Bench with their almost Washington-style Merlot and rich, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon. Depending on the vineyard, the grapes there are getting full sunshine all day long allowing the grapes to ripen beautifully. In fact, Tinhorn Creek now counts Cabernet Sauvignon as their best grape variety which is hard to argue considering the quality of their Bordeaux-style blend The Creek. Another great example is Moon Curser Vineyards out of Osoyoos, making full-bodied single varietal wines like Dolcetto and Tannat, both with rich flavour and an abv of over 14%.
Although the cool climate designation may apply to a good portion of the Okanagan Valley, it isn’t entirely accurate for the whole region.
The Okanagan Valley’s Real Signature is Diversity in Wine Styles
Consider this: if you were travel by car from the furthest north part of the Okanagan Valley to the southern tip, it would take you approximately 2 1/2 hours. Now think about Europe. Take the same approximate distance north/south and see how the regional wine identity changes. For example, the wines produced in Beaujolais are vastly different from the Southern Rhone, which is about the same distance as the north and south Okanagan. Even the styles and grapes differ from Northern Rhone to Southern Rhone, a much shorter distance. If you travel from Verona (Veneto wine region) to Florence (Tuscany) you get very different grape varieties and wine styles in each region.
So why try to fit the Okanagan Valley into a neat little box of wines? Perhaps it’s easier to digest (pun intended) if the region was a little more simple with less grape varieties to wrap our brains around. Maybe certain wine industry professionals would like the Valley to become more like Old World wine regions. It is possible that some companies want more regulations to control the quality of wines produced in the region and they believe it would be easier if the Okanagan had a more simplified, recognizable identity. The reasons may vary, but the fact remains, not every area in the Okanagan Valley can — or should — have a single identity.
British Columbia is diverse; in its geography, weather, indigenous plants and animals, its communities and business and so much more. One of the greatest appeals of the Okanagan Valley is how well the region celebrates diversity in everything they do and in who they are. That diversity extends to the wines of the region as well. Each sub-region has something unique to offer and as more official sub-appellations are legally defined within the Okanagan Valley, we will see that diversity celebrated even more. The Okanagan wine region has a lot to offer the global wine industry, particularly its many grape varieties and wide range of wine styles. Now that is a pretty great identity, isn’t it?
Discover more of British Columbia’s wines and wineries…
- Somm Selections: Wonderful Wines of the Okanagan Valley
- Wine & Tourism: A Visitor’s Guide to Okanagan Falls
- Wines of British Columbia: The Best of BC Wine Country Award Winners