Sub-Regions in British Columbia
by Rhys Pender
There are many questions a wine industry must face as it grows. Some of these issues require long-term thinking, such as which grape varieties and wine styles will consistently produce the best wines in the long run. Other issues are more immediate and the decision can have a vital impact on the direction the industry takes. Something that the British Columbia wine industry needs to think hard about right now is the creation of sub-regions. In order for the industry to build the quality reputation it needs to be sustainable, there needs to be a correlation between place, grape variety and style that consumers can start to understand.
There are a few simple reasons why sub-regions are needed for BC wine to flourish. It is mostly about the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan, known as the hub of BC wine, is too big and too varied to have any real meaning to consumers in terms of a recognizable wine style. With 84% of the acreage and probably a much higher percentage of production, although well recognized as a name, it tells you little about what you will get in a bottle. The distance from one end of the Okanagan to the other would, if slapped on a map of Europe, cover areas that could stretch from the northern Rhône to the Côte d’Or or Chianti to Venice. The second reason is that there are too many grape varieties to get any real sense of specialization. You can’t be everything to everyone. The good news from all this, though, is that there are some areas within the Okanagan that are starting to specialize and build a reputation for a certain grape or wine style. Hence the need to capture these developments in sub-regions and give a meaningful sense of terroir to consumers.
One of the big questions is when, when is the right time to carve up the mighty Okanagan? I would argue that the time is now, but that the industry must not rush in and instead concentrate on building a long-term strategy that will develop in complexity only as the industry needs it too. In other words, any new sub-regions must be meaningful to consumers. There are a couple of risks, one being that the sub-regions be driven by regional marketing bodies rather than the wine in the bottle and the other being the temptation to create too many sub-regions too soon. Some have speculated that the Niagara Peninsula’s 10 new sub-appellations in 2005, although based on impressive science, were too many for consumers to grapple with.
There have been a number of opinions as to how the Okanagan should be divided up, with the most scientific study published in Geoscience Canada in December 2005 by Pat Bowen and the team at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland. They broke the Okanagan into five regions, or six including the Similkameen Valley, which already has its own appellation. The five regions were Kelowna, Penticton, Vaseaux – Oliver, Golden Mile and Black Sage – Osoyoos. This study takes into account of a number of the key issues – the difference in the ability to ripen certain grapes as you head further away from the USA border and also the fact that vineyards on the east side of the valley that get long afternoon sun are often hotter than those on the west.
An even simpler, and very consumer friendly method, would be to initially just break the Okanagan Valley into three sub-regions called North Okanagan, Central Okanagan and South Okanagan. There are some logical geographical points where the lines could be drawn and each of these three sub-regions can be quite comfortably linked with a group of different grape varieties that over-perform in the area. To name a few, the North Okanagan, starting from around Peachland, can do some great, lighter Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Central Okanagan makes for firmer, riper versions of the same varieties while the South Okanagan is home to most of the burly red wines from Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties. Of course there are exceptions but the concept holds true for a large percentage of the wines. Further sub-regions could be created once quality, reputation and style have been achieved within these areas.
There is already one sub-region of the Okanagan that has completed the arduous requirements of section 29 of the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation, waiting only to be signed into law to come into use. The first sub-region of BC is Golden Mile Bench. While it might have been ideal to start with a bigger, broader sub-region, as mentioned above, the Golden Mile Bench proposal, which I consulted on, was important because it has laid the groundwork for future applications and helped the BC Wine Authority (BCWA), who decides these things, figure out a process for creating sub-regions that did not yet exist. Golden Mile Bench was one of the few areas distinct enough to be able to be clearly demonstrated as unique in an application.
The creation of sub-regions wouldn’t eliminate the Okanagan Valley as an important region, nor would it necessarily make it appear less prestigious. There are some great wines that are blended from different parts of the Okanagan Valley and these would not change. What would happen is that producers would be able to start developing a reputation for a specific area for specific styles of wine, something meaningful to consumers. Having the right grapes in the right place naturally makes better wines with less winemaking influence needed to try to force the fruit they have into being something it isn’t. With the high cost of making BC wine and the resulting high prices, it only makes sense for consumers to start to be able to hone in on which sub-region is best for which grape variety or style.
The next step is figuring out who is going to be behind the development of further sub-regions. Somebody has to pay for all the science and research that goes into it. Because it will become part of the law, legal terms for labelling that will have to be followed by all wineries, it should likely be a combination between industry and government. The British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI), which represents a large percentage of BC wine production, has recently created a BC Wine Appellation Task Group to work in partnership with the BC Minister of Agriculture and the BC Wine Authority to look into any recommended changes to the Regulation. Open to all interested 100% BC wine producers it will be exciting to get more opinions on the issue out for discussion.
While the BC industry is still young, there are many top quality wines being produced and it is time to start developing a system to help producers showcase which varieties and styles perform best in which areas. As a result, quality can only improve, the reputation for BC wine will continue to grow and producers and consumers alike will be better off. But, it must be approached carefully because creating meaningful sub-regions is something you only get one shot at.
Rhys Pender MW
Photos courtesy of Treve Ring
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