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What you Need to Know Before Visiting Okanagan Wine CountryBy Greg Weekes

The Okanagan Valley wine industry was a boom waiting to happen. The relatively long, warm summers and abundant sunshine are both ideal for the cultivation of grapes. A diversity of growing conditions—from the sandy desert soils of the south to the topsoil and clay of the cooler north, plus distinct microclimates created by the valley's lakes—enables the production of a diversity of wines.

The first wineries relied on commercial grape plantings near Kelowna . In 1980 there were but five wineries in the entire region. The subsequent introduction of large-scale irrigation dramatically fueled the growth of vineyards, especially at the valley's southern end, where persistent dry winds reduce moisture in both vines and soil.

The industry also was aided in the late 1980s, when a government-subsidized program resulted in the uprooting of 90 percent of the cool-climate, hybrid grape varieties, replacing them with vinifera grapes (the botanical name for the European grape species) that thrive in the vicinity of Okanagan, Skaha and Osoyoos lakes. There are now more than 100 wineries in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, making this Canada's second largest wine-growing area after Ontario's Niagara district.

Along with fruit orchards, geometric rows of grapevines are one of the Okanagan's most frequent sights. Many grape growers in the hottest part of the valley, around the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver , specialize in reds, especially Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Among wines produced in the central and northern valley are Pinot Noir (a grape that thrives in cooler climates), Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Okanagan vineyards also produce icewine, a rich but refreshing dessert wine originally from Germany (where it's called Eiswein). The grapes are left to freeze on the vine; the constant freezing and thawing causes them to dehydrate, which concentrates the sugars and acids and intensifies the flavor. They are hand-picked when the temperature falls to at least -9 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit). Only a few drops of sweet, concentrated juice can be salvaged from each cluster, since much of the water in the grapes remains frozen ice crystals. While the flavor returns are high, the yield from such a crop is low.

British Columbia produces some world-class wines, and rigorous standards ensure their quality. The presence of a Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) seal and a label that says “Product of British Columbia” means that the wine is made with 100 percent British Columbia-grown grapes. Wine in bottles that include the name of the viticultural area was produced using a minimum of 95 percent of grapes grown in that area.

For budding connoisseurs, here's a quick primer in the five steps of wine tasting. First observe the wine's appearance; white wines gain color with age, while red wines lose color. Then swirl the wine; the movement aerates it, releasing the aroma, or “bouquet.” Smelling the wine—finding its “nose”—can tell you many things: Is it fresh? Bitter? Nutty? Fruity? There are all kinds of ways to describe a wine's fragrance. Then taste; allow the wine to come into contact with various parts of your mouth before swallowing. Sweetness, acidity and astringency are some characteristics to consider. A high-quality wine will have a pleasing aftertaste, or “finish.” Finally, sit back and savor. Light, medium and full-bodied wines offer different sensations. If your conclusion is a satisfied “Ahhhhhh,” you'll no doubt want to taste this wine again.

With dozens and dozens of Okanagan wineries to choose from, it's easy to create your own itinerary. When is the best time to visit the Okanagan Valley's wine county? September through mid-October is when the grapes are harvested. Practically every winery boasts a picturesque setting, whether it's gently rolling, vineyard-covered hills, a backdrop of austere, towering bluffs or a view looking down on a lovely lake. “Wine route” signs along Hwy. 97 will lead you to many wineries; pick up information and maps at local visitor centers.

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Okanagan Valley, BC

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