February 8th, 2019/ BY Tim Pawsey

Sub GIs are changing BC’s wine map

The ‘new and improved’ BC wine map is rapidly taking shape, as the pace of identifying and formalizing the province’s producing regions more specifically picks up. The BC Wine Authority has expanded the list of formal BC Wine Regions, adding Thompson Valley, Shuswap, Lillooet, and the Kootenays to existing Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands, Fraser Valley, Similkameen Valley, Okanagan Valley and the all encompassing ‘British Columbia’ designation).

Perhaps more significant, over the last two years, three areas within those larger regions have been delineated and approved as ‘Sub GIs’—or Sub Geographic Indications, namely: Golden Mile Bench (south of Oliver), Okanagan Falls and, most recently, the Naramata Bench. Still in process at time of writing but widely expected to be confirmed is Skaha Bluffs, a total area of 365 hectares with just 75 ha of vineyards a few hundred metres south of Penticton.

Less apparent to the casual observer is the exhaustive, fact finding process that must be undergone to successfully identify and ultimately establish these areas. It’s an exercise which, most agree, is critical to the continued evolution and ongoing elevation of the BC wine industry.

A key player, consultant and soil specialist Scott Smith has been diligently documenting and analyzing soils throughout BC, though mainly with emphasis on the Okanagan Valley. His reports form the backbone of the recommendations that inform those affected who vote on the proposals.

Hailed as a leading authority on the Okanagan, Smith says it’s important to understand the elements of terroir within the valley and elsewhere, especially in relation to what he refers to as the ‘glacial landscape,’ which is comprised of transported sediments. Along with the climate and specifics surrounding the growing season, it’s this that drives the fundamentals of any given terroir—or the basis for a Sub Geographic Indication.

Like others, Smith identifies the Okanagan’s alluvial fans as critical to viticulture, not only for their soil and rock composition but also for the air movement they create. However, he notes also that crucial to a successful process in establishing Sub GIs is ‘an element of pragmatism.’

While there have been a few voices of dissent, the voting results so far have shown, in every instance, that the overwhelming majority of wineries and vineyard owners in the given areas were in favour. In fact, a sub GI initiative must pass by at least a two thirds majority in order for it to go forward for government approval.

Usually (though not always) objections have revolved around the specifics of proposed boundaries. In the case of Golden Mile Bench there were exclusions based on elevation, both at higher and lower levels. However, in that instance there were clear distinctions between soil types on the bench-lands surrounding the alluvial fans, which underpinned the location of the perimeter, and those below.

The Okanagan Falls Sub GI extends south from the village of Okanagan Falls to the northern shore of Vaseux Lake. It includes “predominantly undulating glaciofluvial sands and gravels along the east side of the Okanagan Valley.” The western boundary is mainly consistent with the route taken by Highway 97, which also marks the limit of suitable vineyard lands, as a flood plain lies to the west side.

On Naramata Bench there were a few objections raised in regards to perceptions of more ‘red tape’ and regulating the use of the geographic term. That control, however, is very much intended to protect it from misuse, including by anyone from outside the area. While the lead up to the Naramata vote saw some spirited opposition, in the final tally the initiative still passed by a healthy margin of over 80 percent.

As to why the ongoing development of sub GI’s has the industry fired up, part of the answer lies in what the process can ultimately establish. The reports and proposals are detail driven and in depth; and add up to a truly thorough evaluation that’s much more than a snapshot. They focus not only on all aspects of terroir and viticulture but also present a detailed summary of the status quo, including acreages under vine and the preponderance of varieties being farmed.

“Even though it still feels like the early stages, in the international market – just a few years ago – we were the new kid that no one wanted to talk to. And now we’re the new kid that everyone wants to talk to.” John Skinner



It’s taken generations to identify the best wine growing regions everywhere else in the world. So it should come as no surprise that BC’s is an arduous and time consuming process. However, the string of Sub GI initiatives has unquestionably injected new energy into the industry, in ways that were not on most peoples’ radar ten or 20 years ago. And the confirmation of this initial group seems likely to generate impetus for still more Sub GI applications to be brought forward.

Some possibilities are fairly obvious. Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley is one. And it’s already well under development, spearheaded by  Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Wiliamson. Even though he doesn’t anticipate  any opposition, Williamson says it’s still important to reach out to people throughout Vancouver Island, in order to build consensus.

Here again, soil guru Scott smith has been busy helping develop a proposal ready for year end 2018.

“When we started looking at the boundaries we wanted to draw them as broad as we could,” says Williamson. “We wanted to make sure that where there is agricultural land suitable but as yet not under vine we would draw the boundaries around it. Scott’s research amounts to equal parts geology, equal parts climate. The two combined will be the determining factor of where the boundary is drawn.”

He sees nothing but the positive in establishing a Cowichan Valley Sub GI, which he hopes will encourage more people in the region to grow grapes – especially Pinot Noir, which (thanks to a string of warmer vintages) is becoming a Cowichan hallmark.

Williamson suggests: “It’s important to isolate the high quality parcels that can do well. It will also encourage more cross-pollenation between winemakers—including those who have worked internationally and now bring their ideas here. Everyone benefits from that collective knowledge.”

Overall, says Williamson, “There’s a lot to be gained from playing in the bigger sandbox. It’s an exciting time…”

If the Sub GI’s have matured into adulthood, the province’s nine identified wine regions have moved well beyond infancy, with some strong indications as to what might lie ahead.

For instance, the recently declared Thompson River area includes the banks of the Thompson reaching from Chase in the east, Kamloops in the centre and Cache Creek to the south and west. The current growing area, predominantly 500 metres above sea level, is a relatively new shift that has really only become feasible with the onset of milder winters.

While perhaps less of a risk, winter kill still represents a threat for some varieties. Harpers Trail, for one, trialled several red vinifera before deciding which made the most sense in terms of quality—and which might not be so vulnerable to winter kill as some others. In that case it was Cabernet Franc, which, in the right hands, has turned out to make some impressive wines.

Climate change is now a formidable player, with shifting norms the rule rather than the exception. For instance, while the Thompson River growing area is currently concentrated mainly to the east of Kamloops, it’s important to note that in the early 1980s there was once at least one producing vineyard of note on the Ashcroft benches, well to the south west. Pioneering Harry McWatters purchased grapes from the Basque Vineyard to make one of his first Chardonnays, before it was wiped out in the devastating freeze of 1985.

The Similkameen Valley benches are also ripe for a sub GI, especially as, in the broader context, the current Similkameen Geographic Indication encompasses the entire watershed of the Similkameen River Valley, which stretches well west, beyond Princeton.

As yet there’s no official action for the South Okanagan, although the east Osoyoos benchlands, Balck Sage Bench, and west Osoyoos benches are all general possibilities that will likely emerge.

To put it mildly, BC has been well behind the eight ball when it comes to adopting a system of appellations and sub-appellations now commonplace across the wine world. And as BC flexes its export muscle (based on quality not volume) it’s becoming more apparent that such a system in harmony with leading wine producing areas is a necessity, not an option.

Painted Rock owner John Skinner—a key mover behind the Skaha Bluffs Sub GI proposal—sees it this way:

“We have show some conformity by international standards. Even though it still feels like the early stages, in the international market, even just a few years ago, we were the new kid that no one wanted to talk to. And now we’re the new kid that everyone wants to talk to,” says Skinner.

The Painted Rock owner was one of the first to see the potential in developing relationships from Beijing to Bordeaux. Working with renowned consultant Alain Sutre, he has a strong connection to the latter and now has listings on top wine lists in that city, as well as in London.

Skinner has seen the reaction to Canadian wines shift from curiosity to conviction that the Okanagan now ranks as a ‘serious’ producer. And while wine geeks may get excited about an ‘undiscovered’ region, that’s not enough, he insists.

A developed appellation system that “peels away the layers, from Canada to the Okanagan and then specific areas” says Skinner, “adds up to a wonderful coming of age initiative that’s going to help us refine our messaging to the international community, as well as to local wine consumers.”

“For us, Skaha Bench needs to be separate” (from Naramata and Okanagan Falls), he says. “It really does have very specific relevance to what makes it tick, and that’s the lake influence, as well as our unique position. The sun goes down very late where we are, though a ‘V’ in the hills.”

Skinner feels strongly that there’s an enormous collective benefit from having “that extra line on on a label.”

“It’s all about engaging and respecting the consumer,” he says.


Singletree Siggy Siegerrebe 2017, Fraser Valley ($16)

All stainless-steel fermented and estate grown. Aromas of orchard and tropical fruits with mineral hints preface a palate of pear, peach and apple with a slight zesty grapefruit edge, wrapped in juicy acidity through a lengthy, refreshing finish.

Baillie Grohman Pinot Noir Terraces 2017, Creston, Central Kootenays ($27)

Forward notes of red and black cherry with some forest floor and spicy hints before a well-structured palate defined by bright acidity and approachable tannins, followed by a pleasing savoury element and fresh finish.

Carson Pinot Noir 2016, Naramata Vineyard, Naramata Bench ($49)

From sandy loam over clay loam soils, on a fairly steep, southwest-facing slope. Whole-cluster pressed and aged 11 months in one third new French oak. Lifted aromas of strawberry and red fruits with some earthy hints, followed by a supple, elegant strawberry and cherry palate, wrapped in voluptuous acidity, with fine tannins, spicy undertones and excellent length.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve 2014, Keremeos, Similkameen Valley ($59)

A classic Bordeaux blend with varieties vinified and matured separately, aged 15 months in French oak (31% new). Wild red and blackberries on the nose with some earthy notes lead to a juicy, vibrant and layered palate, defined by a streak of savoury underpinned by slate and minerality with blackberry, mulberry and cassis notes, supported by good acidity, an excellent refined tannin structure and a lengthy, schisty finish.

Emandare Pinot Noir 2015, Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island ($45)

Fermented and aged in neutral French oak, unfined and unfiltered. More signs of good things to come: very pure fruit expression with lifted red berries, medium-bodied palate with some earthy and forest floor hints and definite mineral streak.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2016, Lillooet ($25)

A lighter-bodied Pinot but one that punches well above its weight. Primarily Lillooet estate fruit (74%) with 26% from Vernon’s The Rise Vineyard. Aromas of wild red berries and spice before a well-balanced palate of strawberry and cherry. Good intensity, balanced mouthfeel and silky tannins, through a gently spicy and juicy finish.

Harper’s Trail Cabernet Franc 2016, Thadd Springs Vineyard, Kamloops, Thompson Valley ($25)

A lively, fruit-forward palate of raspberry, mulberry and mocha notes with a definite mineral streak in the mid-palate. Firm but approachable tannins and a lengthy, schisty ending. Arguably the most impressive red variety from Kamloops so far.

Hester Creek The Judge 2015, Golden Mile Bench ($50)

From one of the warmest vintages in recent years, made from some of the oldest plantings in the valley. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is aged for 2 years in 75% French and 25% American oak. Lifted notes of black and red food announce a plush palate of mulberry, black cherry and vanilla with well-integrated tannins through a solid close.

Moon Curser 2016 Syrah, East Osoyoos Bench ($26)

From an excellent vintage, aged in new and used French and Hungarian oak with the majority in neutral barrels. Inky purple in the glass with generous aromas of black fruit. Meaty and spice notes, with hints of leather and tobacco, preceding a plush, mouth-filling palate of cassis, blackberry and anise notes. Supported by well-integrated tannins, well-managed oak and a savoury edge through a lengthy close.

Noble Ridge The One 2015, Okanagan Falls ($40)

A classic blend of 70/30 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is whole-cluster pressed and cool fermented, with 28 months en tirage. A lively stream of fine bubbles and creamy mousse, with notes of brioche and citrus, before a crisp but mouth-filling palate supported by good acidity and a mineral streak through the close.

Road 13 Blind Creek Viognier 2017, Similkameen Valley ($19)

Vibrant stone-fruit and citrus notes, followed by a lush but clean, focused palate of honey, citrus and orange blossom, with bright acidity and a generous, lingering finish.

Tightrope Riesling 2017, Naramata Bench ($19)

From the lower side of Naramata Road, partially whole-cluster pressed, fermented just off-dry. Upfront honey and orchard fruits followed by a lively, citrus and tropical palate with layers of juicy lemon and lime wrapped in a very good fruit–acid balance with a streak of elegant minerality to close.



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