Okanagan Falls gears up
One of the most anticipated tastings on BC’s wine calendar is the Okanagan Falls Wineries Association’s Spring Release. The mood is always upbeat, as maybe a few too many bodies pack into Vancouver’s The Loft at Earls Yaletown, the usual venue.
Such association tastings have become the norm. Yet, what sets Okanagan Falls wines apart — beyond the consistency of quality — is the high percentage poured whose grapes actually originate from the area that defines its membership.
The 15 wineries that make up the association farm more than 185 hectares of vines and produce nearly 1.3 million bottles annually. That accounts for 11 percent of all true BC-grown wine in the province — and results in almost $30 million in retail sales.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that Okanagan Falls is gearing up to become the province’s second or third sub-GI (Geographic Indicator) region, after Golden Mile Bench, which was declared in mid-2015. (Neighbouring Skaha Bench is also under application by Painted Rock, Blasted Church and Pentage, along with numerous vineyards.)
While — at least in part — there was some kind of historical recognition for Golden Mile (it was actually named for its ability to ripen cantaloupes), that isn’t the case for Okanagan Falls.
In fact, with not a little irony, it’s worth noting that the now firmly established wine region actually didn’t exist as any formal kind of separate entity until 2011.
Around that time, wine tourism was just kicking into high gear. Several communities across BC were gearing up to take advantage of various government programs in order to help bolster their wine identities. Arguably the best and most successful example to date was Naramata, whose Naramata Bench commercial brand was well out ahead.
Even if such associations weren’t entirely terroir-driven (several Naramata wineries bring in grapes from elsewhere), the commercial success of “The Bench” has rung true with consumers — and confirmed, indeed, that there’s value to be found in in such delineations.
Now, however, even more so since agreement was reached on Golden Mile Bench, there’s renewed impetus to define more precise regions across the province — though based very much on terroir, in the form of sub-GIs.
defining the divide
Up until 2011, the wineries situated in and around Okanagan Falls were part of the South Okanagan Wineries Association, which included a large number stretching from south of Penticton all the way to the US border. Similarly, on the east side of the lake system, its membership stretched from just south of Naramata Bench, from the lofty Skaha Bluffs to the border.
Since its very inception, and over several decades, the Okanagan wine industry was centred in and around Kelowna, having initially sprung up in that city’s Mission District. In more recent years, the number of wineries has climbed “down south,” thanks to outside investment, improvements in viticulture and with no small an assist from climate change. Much of that expansion has taken place around Oliver and Osoyoos.
Some felt the moniker SOWA (South Okanagan Wineries Association) might be too close to WOSA (Wines of South Africa). And that, truly, it was time to come up with a new image.
In the absence of any legal definition at the time, some wineries — including pace-setting Tinhorn Creek — had started to use the term “South Okanagan” on their labels. Not surprisingly, a discussion ensued as to just what might what constitute “South.”
Historically, vintners have often referred to the massive McIntyre Bluff as the natural divide between north and south. The steep ridge of rock (now known also by its Sylix name as Ny-lin-tn) is located south of Okanagan Falls, overlooking Vaseaux Lake. Harvest times can vary considerably between these distinct parts of the valley. Traditionally, Bordeaux varieties were planted only in the south, while the “North” leaned towards Burgundy. In fact, at one time, say 50 years ago, common wisdom suggested it was not possible to ripen red grapes of any kind north of McIntyre Bluff.
Ultimately, the southern wineries chose to form their own group, the Oliver Osoyoos Wineries Association. They used the landmark as the dividing point to define where the South Okanagan began — and, in the process, cut loose a significant number of wineries in and around Okanagan Falls, as well as those on the east and west benches of Skaha Lake.
As a result, those cut loose went the obvious route of forming the Okanagan Falls Wineries Association. It has proven to be one of the more dynamic entities, placing the small town and its surrounding landscape firmly on the wine-touring map.
Once a “blink and you’ll miss it” stop between Penticton and Oliver, OK Falls is coming into its own. The town itself, a sleepy little burg (population 2,167), is one of the oldest European-settled communities in the Okanagan Valley. A few buildings in a two-block stretch retain their original facades. A prime attraction, Tickleberry’s ice cream emporium, draws hundreds daily for its mind-blowing selection of flavours and gift shop bric-a-brac.
Prior to the coming of the railway and steamships, the area was known by its Interior Salish name kwah-ne-ta — meaning “little falls.” However, the actual falls (once a prime fishing spot favoured by First Nations) have all but vanished under the spillway that controls the water flow to the southern Okanagan. Built in part to provide work for returning troops after World War I, the ambitious irrigation project transformed the arid south into a vibrant farming region where peach orchards (and now vineyards) flourish.
In a way, the disappearance of much of those scrubby lands has helped mask the geological differences between Okanagan Falls and its southern neighbours. In reality, OK Falls marks the boundary between the upper Sonoran Desert, which ends at this point, and the Transition environmental zones.
Much of the geology was formed by intense volcanic eruptions 50 to 60 million years ago. Southeast of the falls is the Okanagan Valley Fault, which travels down the centre of the Okanagan and the east side of Skaha Lake. Of note are the differing rock and soil types on either side of the lake, with the majority of Okanagan Falls wineries and a total of 32 vineyards located on the east side of the fault.
“I lived on the Rhine and wine was cheaper than beer. And we drank predominantly Riesling, so that’s what we planted.”
In 1961, high above Okanagan Falls, on the west side, Major Hugh Fraser planted hybrid and labrusca varieties. Eventually the vineyard sold to Albert LeComte, who opened his LeComte Estate Winery in 1986. He made a viable red blend. But it was his high-elevation Gewürztraminer that proved most successful, prompting Sumac Ridge’s Harry McWatters to purchase the Hawthorne Mountain property (now See Ya Later Ranch) in 1995.
One of the first to recognize Okanagan Falls’ vinifera potential was Blue Mountain’s Ian Mavety, who purchased property in 1971. Initially he grew hybrids but soon realized the need to grow high-quality vinifera. After a visit to Europe, the Mavetys came home convinced that Burgundian varieties, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, would work — and started pulling their hybrids many years before a 1988 government-sponsored program encouraging the same. As a result, when Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars released its first wines in 1991, many were taken by surprise. Blue Mountain proved it was possible to make good Pinot in the Okanagan. And, not only that, but to ripen red vinifera north of the bluff.
In 1983, just down the road from Blue Mountain, the late Adolf Kruger had purchased four hectares, clearing thousands of rocks by hand and planting Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Seven years later, Kruger opened Wild Goose Vineyards, the province’s 17th (but first farm gate) winery. As for deciding to plant those varieties, “I lived on the Rhine and wine was cheaper than beer. And we drank predominantly Riesling, so that’s what we planted.”
Blue Mountain’s Mavety has always pointed to the beneficial climate of warm days and contrasting cool nights. The resulting diurnals more than deliver the region’s unique acidity, which emphasizes fruit flavours and aromatics.
Those early visionaries did more than prove you could grow vinifera successfully in OK Falls. They also helped considerably by sharing their newly found knowledge. Those experiences contributed to the first official overview, published in 1984 by Agriculture Canada and the Association of British Columbia Grape Growers, which detailed the prime vineyard properties, soil types and more — and very much helped fuel the explosion of plantings over the last three decades.
Information from that publication forms the foundation for today’s suggested Terroir Boundaries maps used to draw up possible sub-GI boundaries.
a multiplicity of soils
The terroir map for Okanagan Falls defines the soils as “Kettled Outwash and Fans” — and identifies an area that encompasses the town from the falls south, as well as an area to the south east, the shores of Vaseaux Lake, with a portion reaching up the westside mountain slopes.
The soils shift considerable, from boulder gravel, volcanic and glacial deposits, clay and sandy loam and many other types. However, the region also breaks down into myriad smaller parcels that change in a matter of metres. At Synchromesh, owner-winemaker Alan Dickinson suggests one of the downsides of the OK Falls sup-app is that nothing is the same.
“There’s no continuity of terroir and there are microclimate challenges, even between immediate neighbours,” says Dickinson, who cites the variations between his site and Meyer Family Vineyards, across the road, as an example. Generally speaking, the soils vary based on their elevation and relationship to glacial activity and the spillway.
Even within the proposed boundaries, he sees a number of smaller groups of wineries, all significantly contrasting. That said, Dickinson supports the idea of an Okanagan Falls GI, even if less in the sense of a traditional sub-appellation.
“I personally feel that we have more quality producers in OK Falls than any other proposed sub-GI. We have some very high-quality wines coming out of the area — but none of them are really the same.
“I like the idea of the sub-appellation to help consumers find things. But while elsewhere a sub-app might dictate how a wine might taste — because of climate and soil conditions — here, I’m not quite sure what it will say … If you’re looking at what ‘sub-app’ means to the rest of the world and how that relates to this region, it doesn’t,” suggests Dickinson.
At the time of writing, information meetings are underway to explore both the Okanagan Falls sub-GI as well as Skaha Bluffs.
The latter is identified as SE Side Lacustrine Bench that runs north from Okanagan Falls along the east side of Skaha Lake and above the east side of Penticton where it meets NE Side Lacustrine Bench — which coincides with the area promoted as Naramata Bench.
A sign of how quickly BC’s industry is maturing, a spirit of cooperation is helping to move the Okanagan Falls GI forward.
“When you look at any area, there are huge variations. But the point this time is to at least create a big-picture GI,” says Stag’s Hollow president Larry Gerelus.
“We know how well we work as a marketing organization, so it’s important to take a reasonable approach, especially where there’s scientific justification. It’s a great evolution for the Okanagan Valley to recognize that we have very unique areas that need to be treated distinctly for the types of wines they produce,” says Gerelus.
Noble Ridge owner Jim D’Andrea says: “Overall, everyone is supportive of another way to highlight our area. We’re not proposing to break up the Okanagan Falls Winery Association. It still works. We get along. We like each other’s wines, and we’ve worked hard to bring people to the area. Even though we may not all fall under the same GI, we still plan to work together.”
“Although most of us grow our own grapes, some do buy from elsewhere. But we’ll emphasize the percentage we grow,” says D’Andrea, who says the plan is to submit the application “as quickly as possible.”
“We have very unique areas that need to be treated distinctly for the types of wines they produce.”
One winery that does work with several vineyards outside of the proposed GI is Wild Goose, which has blossomed from a tiny farm-gate winery to 20,000 cases a year.
For us it’s very exploratory,” says General Manager Roland Kruger. “I really like the idea but have so much to learn.”
Wild Goose uses fruit from Penticton, Summerland and Kelowna, as well as from their own Mystic River and Seacrest vineyards, which lie just to the south but outside the proposed boundary. But they also make about 50 percent of their wine from their Okanagan Falls Vineyards.
“There are a lot of consumers out there who want to know where the grapes come from, which means the GI process offers huge value,” says Kruger.
Even though differences exist as to how specific the sub-GI should or should not be, it’s apparent that Okanagan Falls is quickly moving forward to further establish its own identity.
Or, as Larry Gerelus suggests: “We’re just following in the footsteps of what the rest of the wine world is doing.”