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Welcome to B.C. Wine Country Canada is celebrating a milestone birthday this year, marking 150 years since it officially became a country. If you were a traveller to British Columbia in 1867, you likely were drawn by the fur trade or the hope of striking it rich by prospecting for gold. The west was still pretty wild back then. You certainly didn’t come here for the wine. Yet it was around that time that B.C. wine country began. Father Charles Pandosy is credited with setting up the first vineyards at the Obelate Mission near Kelowna starting in 1859. The purpose was to make sacramental wines for his parish. Those were pretty humble beginnings. The grapes planted were labrusca varieties, native North American species that were less desirable than European grapes. The wines produced weren’t of the best quality. Nonetheless, a smattering of small wineries cropped up on the heels of Father Pandosy’s initiative but Prohibition put a stop to them and most of the vines were pulled out. It wasn’t until 1926 when the first commercial vineyards were planted and Calona Wines began offering products for sale to the general public. It was not a stellar beginning. B.C.’s early foray into the industry was synonymous with jug wines with laugable names like Fuddle Duck and Hot Goose. To serious wine consumers, the products were a joke. No one believed that B.C. could ever evolve into a credible wine region. But it did. The turning point came in the latter part of the 20th century. B.C. wines had evolved somewhat by then. Most of the labrusca grapes were replaced with European hybrids, which were a marked improvement. But they still tended to produce wines of little dimension compared to the revered European vinifera varieties. As much as growers might have liked to planted vines of better quality, they chose the hybrids for a reason. B.C.’s climate was considered too harsh for the delicate vinifera. The summers were certainly hot enough, but producers were afraid the vines wouldn’t winter over. The hybrids were crosses of two or more varieties and designed to be much heartier. That was fine for a while. Prior to late 1988s, the Canadian wine industry was well insulated with a solid grip on the domestic market. But when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into play, winery operators were forced to embrace radical change or risk being overtaken by higher quality imports. They chose to change. Fortunately grape growers were offered aid from the federal and provincial governments to pull out the less desirable hybrid varieties and replant the preferred vinifera grapes. There were 14 wineries at the time in B.C., with approximately 3,400 acres of grapes. Growers pulled out about two-thirds of the vines, leaving barely 1,000 acres in the ground. The replant was based in part on experiments undertaken in the 1980s by researchers and growers, but there were also plenty of gambles taken. In the end, it paid off. That move was the catalyst for remarkable growth. Two years later, the Vintner’s Quality Alliance was introduced to further elevate the quality of B.C. wines and set a standard. While the program has been controversial at times, it has gone a long way toward building consumer trust in B.C. wines Today there are approximately 280 licensed grape wineries in the province and another 70 or so licensed producers making fruit wines, mead, ciders and other wine-type products. There are 80-plus grape varieties planted in the more than 10,000 acres of vineyards in B.C. The top two white varieties grown are Pinot Gris and Chardonnay and the top two reds are Merlot and Pinot Noir. But the province is also well known for producing Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah (Shiraz) and Gamay Noir. Canadian wine industry now has an annual national economic impact of $9 billion. Nobody would have expected that 150 years ago.
Harvest 2016 The appearances of small green shoots on B.C.’s grape vines always delights growers and wine enthusiasts alike, as it marks the beginning of another growing season in British Columbia Wine Country. The 2016 vintage got off to a stellar start with the earliest bud break on record, closing out strong with an early harvest for many wineries across the province. However, the span in between was a bit of mixed bag, weather wise. The summer months were actually cooler and damper than usual, but that was actually a good thing. Because of the early start and unprecedented warm spring temperatures, development in the vineyards was weeks ahead of schedule and growers were concerned their crops would ripen too fast. Hot, dry weather helps develop sugar in the grapes, but too much heat for an extended period can result in fruit that is unbalanced and boozy. Growers want grapes with the right amount of sugar (brix) to achieve body, flavours and alcohol levels, but still with enough acidity that the wines retain their freshness. And an abbreviated growing season is not desired by anyone. Experienced growers will tell you elongating the period the grapes remain on the vine tends to build complexity in the fruit. Often the difference between a good wine and a great one is a little extra hang time. April, May and June in 2016 was unusually warm and while residents and visitors likely rejoiced in the early beach weather, it had vintners worried. Then came July and August and it all changed. It was like the seasons were reversed. But growers welcomed the moderate temperatures. The fall harvest still came ahead of schedule for many wineries, but summer’s cooling trend help vintners stretch the growing season much further than what might have been possible if the heat continued. The result in 2016 was fruit that was ripe, balanced and with complex nuances expected of a terrific vintage. Christmas came early for icewine producers when temperatures plummeted on December 6, 2016 to allow several vintners in the Okanagan Valley to begin picking frozen berries for the revered dessert wine. In all, the industry is excited about the 2016 vintage. They expect it to reflect an excellent growing season, as well as the increased maturity of the vines and the people who grow and develop with them.