BC Wine Country - Industry Review

If this is your first visit to B.C. Wine Country, the remarkable transformation the province's industry has undergone in the past 25 years might not be apparent to you.

B.C.'s wineries and expanse of vineyards with their eclectic architecture and winemaking styles seem so well rooted and evoke such a sense of maturity that it seems they've always been part of the landscape. It's hard to imagine that less than a quarter of a century ago, more than 90 per cent of the industry didn't exist.

As of May 2014, there were 235 grape wineries in the province, 18 more than in 2013 and 133 more than when this guide was first produced 11 years ago!

Vintners and growers have managed to accomplish this incredible growth while maintaining the careful balance of diverse urban, agriculture and natural landscapes that makes British Columbia so unique and desirable. Many embrace stewardship programs in support of the province's delicate ecosystems and follow "green" practises to limit their own carbon footprints. At the same time, they make use of every bit of research and technology available to them to produce top quality wines.

In short, the province's winemaking pioneers are innovative, resourceful, circumspect, diversified and conscientious.

The B.C. industry has become so impressive that acclaimed New York-based travel writer William Travis named the Okanagan Valley as the number one wine destination in the world - ahead even of Bordeaux, France and Napa Valley, California.

"Okanagan wines are truly exceptional," he wrote. In an interview with the Osoyoos Times, Travis - who wrote the article for a widely-read blog called Viator - said he chose the Okanagan to lead the list in his Top 10 Wine Destinations Around the World, "not only of the quality of the wines, but also the amazing fruit and food scene that is coming out of the valley,"

"It's an intimate destination, filled with knowledgeable and personable wine makers who have an intimate knowledge of their terroir. The people in the region are amazing as well - friendly, earthy and sophisticated without being snobby. The wines often burst with personality and complement the culinary scene that has become such a way of life in B.C.," Travis said. "It's a must visit for everyone who loves wine."

Meanwhile, Europe's leading alcohol trade publication, The Drinks Business, described the Okanagan wine growing industry as diversified, unconventional and "an emerging region of note."

"The overall quality of the wines is very high, there are winemakers who are becoming old hands at their craft and there are newer producers who are doing exciting work," wrote columnist Rupert Millar.

The magazine took a keen interest in the B.C. valley following an interview with one of the world's top winemakers, Neil McGuigan, CEO of Australia's third biggest wine producers, made a surprising call out to the little known "niche" industry about it's potential for making top quality Chardonnay.

"Chardonnay must be refreshing. One region that has impressed me is the Okanagan Valley in British Colombia, Canada," said McGuigan. "The cool climate characters and palate length from this region are very inviting and I find most of the wines very refreshing."

This sentiment was shared by Gina Gallo, chief winemaker of E&J Gallo fame, who also told The Drink Business that "the wine culture is really evolving" in British Columbia.

And while the industry has evolved, so too has the regulatory attitude toward it. The laws governing the sale and distribution of liquor in B.C. were once a complicated mess.  There was little about the system that made it consumer friendly and it presented considerable obstacles for vintners. At one time, visitors to B.C. wineries couldn't even enjoy a glass or bottle of wine on site and producers were barred from serving food.

Slowly the antiquated barriers have come down and in the past year, the B.C. government announced its most forward-thinking liquor law changes yet.

B.C. Liquor Laws at a Glance - New for 2014

  • Sales of B.C. wine and other alcoholic beverages permitted in grocery stores.
  • Producers able to sample and sell their made-in-B.C. wine and other craft alcoholic beverages at venues such as farmers' markets, festivals and off-site tasting rooms.
  • On-site tasting venues at wineries expanded, allowing for consumption in vineyards, picnic areas, etc.
  • No more cordoned-off "beer gardens" at festivals, giving tipplers more freedom to roam.
  • Visitors permitted to carry alcoholic beverages - such as a glass of wine from the lobby or hotel bar - to their room.
  • Room service hours for liquor sales extended at hotels.
  • The return of "Happy Hour" in B.C. - permitting discounted alcohol sales during a specific time period at licensed establishments.
  • Children permitted to dine with their families in pubs.

Previous Changes

  • Consumers permitted to bring their own bottle of wine to a restaurant to enjoy with their meal. Restaurant participation is voluntary and a corkage fee applies.
  • Patrons may take home unfinished bottles of wine from a bar or restaurant.
  • Movie and live-event theatres can apply for a license to serve alcohol.
  • Breweries and distilleries are permitted to have on-site lounges or tasting rooms.
  • Pilot project launched for walk-in beer and wine refrigerated coolers in several British Columbia government liquor stores.
  • Law revoked restricting wineries from shipping products to consumers in other provinces.
  • Law revoked forbidding consumers from bringing alcohol across interprovincial borders.
  • Wineries permitted to open on-site restaurants and sell wine by the glass.
  • Licenses granted for Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) shops selling 100 per cent B.C. wine.

    B.C. wines are also getting a leg up when it comes to their international exposure. In December 2013, a partnership was formed between the British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI) and Good Company Wines making homegrown wines more accessible to United States consumers.

    A month earlier, the BCWI also signed a deal with Cuvées, a wine supplier in Hong Kong, in the hope of expanding its Asian market.

    And a $2 million investment by the Canadian federal government announced in April 2014 is going in part to help local wines compete in domestic and international markets and meet evolving consumer demands and tastes.

    The money will also be used for research into pest and disease control, minimize water use and increasing grape yields.

    And speaking of life in the vineyard, B.C. vintners are rejoicing following two stellar growing seasons in the province. Travellers to the region will be spoiled for choice and quality as the 2013 whites and 2012 reds roll out in the coming year. Add to that an incredible destination experience, there's never been a better time to visit British Columbia Wine Country.

    Harvest 2013 a Return to Abundance

    Mother Nature is a fickle creature and grape growers are eternally at her mercy. The province's vintners showed what they were made of in 2010 and 2011 in particular when sunshine was scant and temperatures were cool even in B.C.'s desert belt.

    There considerable improvement in 2012, but it was the growing season of 2013 when B.C.'s vineyards truly sprang to life.  It was hot, it was sunny, and as close to perfect as any vintner could hope for.

    Reports were positive from all corners of the province. Spring bud break was ahead or on schedule depending on the region. April and May were milder and sunnier than usual which accelerated early development.

    July and August delivered their customary sunshine and steady warmth needed for ripeness and flavour development, moderated by cooler nighttime mountain temperatures that give B.C. wines their signature freshness. There were few heat spikes that can cause vines to shutdown and cease ripening.

    The season was so good it triggered the earliest start to the B.C. grape harvest on record. The first grapes were picked by Jackson-Triggs on August 27, more than a week ahead of the 2012 vintage.

    That's not to say that 2013 was not without its challenges. Vintners battled rain in the fall and wasps were particularly troublesome this year as they can poke holes in the fruit and cause rot. Other nuisances were deer, birds and bears drawn to the ripe, sweet berries.

    Overall, vintners managed to dodge those natural bullets and pulled in a bumper crop in 2013 that will mean more wine for consumers and potentially lower prices.

    The standout varietals for the year include Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.