The Similkameen Valley: The new frontier

Small wineries are capitalizing on unique microclimates in B.C., making complex, interesting wines distinct from the Okanagan
Rhys Pender
Photograph by John Cullen
Photograph by John Cullen

As the 2014 Wine in Canada guide makes its debut, Maclean’s dips into the archives to publish some of the best of the 2013 edition online.

As the sun shines on the Okanagan, so has attention been soaked up by the wine region that calls 80 per cent of the province’s vineyards and most of its wine production home. But microclimates also abound, and some of the smaller regions are starting to steal the limelight.

The largest of the four designated viticultural areas (DVAs) is the Similkameen Valley just west of Osoyoos, which accounts for seven per cent of B.C.’s vineyards. With a long history of grape growing, the region once supplied neighbouring Okanagan wineries with many of its finest grapes. Now a dozen Similkameen wineries are making complex and interesting wines distinct from those found just a 30-minute drive away.

The Similkameen climate is very similar to the south Okanagan: hot, dry and sunny. But the hills and mountains are a little steeper and more severe, and a piercing wind can howl through the rugged valley. You can actually see the terroir in the eroding rock of the mountainsides and ancient gravel riverbeds. Couple this with the complex deposit of soils from glacial action, and you can imagine the complexity of the earth that nourishes Similkameen vines.

Typically, the wines have a more mineral backbone, are less fruit-forward and often boast more complexity, elegance and subtlety than those from the Okanagan, while the tannins in the reds are typically gentler. Greatly varying conditions in an area that winds from Keremeos through Cawston to the U.S. border mean a large range of wines. The vineyards along the river near Keremeos are shaded early in the day and are much cooler compared to the sun-drenched terraces around Cawston. The best white varieties are riesling and chardonnay and the best reds, gamay, pinot noir, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc. White rhône blends are also showing potential.

The Similkameen is full of small producers who often farm their own land, resulting in an increasing number of single-vineyard wines that properly reflect the terroir. Visiting the winery shops, it is not uncommon to find the owners behind the tasting bar.

The other three DVAs amount to just eight per cent of B.C.’s acreage. The climate in these coastal regions is significantly different from the extreme hot and cold in the Interior. The strong maritime influence means mild and moderate temperatures, cool summers and warm winters. There is only enough summer heat and sun to successfully grow varieties that ripen early in the season. Heavy rainfall at harvest is a risk. The Fraser Valley DVA is close to the Vancouver market, so wineries often supplement their small local plantings with grapes trucked in from the Okanagan or Similkameen to meet the demand of wine-loving city-dwellers.

Vancouver Island DVA has a longer history of grape production, with nearly 30 wineries growing grapes and making small amounts of wine that sell mostly to the local population. The best area is the Cowichan Valley. Well shielded from the harshest Pacific storms, it can produce good-quality pinot noir and other early- to mid-season-ripening grape varieties such as gamay and pinot gris. The tiny B.C. Gulf Islands DVA experiences a similar climate.

In recent years, a number of new vineyards have been planted in other parts of the province. Vineyards near Spallmucheen/Shuswap, Kamloops, Lillooet, Lytton, Creston, Trail, Castlegar and Grand Forks have had some success and now make up three per cent of the acreage, many with the potential for quality wine. The expanding range of interesting B.C. terroir ensures we will have plenty of diverse wine to taste well into the future. The Wild West has a few more wine tales to tell.