In 2003 there were 87 grape wineries licensed in BC – now there are 214. This represented a doubling of grape acres from 5,000 to 10,000. British Columbia’s wine is booming business. It brings approximately 800,000 tourists to the Okanagan every year, and creates over 31,000 full-time jobs.
Last week John and I visited some vineyards with my Aunt & Uncle. Most of the vineyards have a winery on site. The wineries have tasting rooms – where for a fee ($5) – you can sample four of their wines.
Grapes are usually harvested from September to November – except those used to make ice wine – in which case the grapes are left to freeze. Harvest can be done by hand or by mechanical harvester depending on the vineyard. The decision of when to harvest is made by the winemaker – based on ripeness, berry flavor, sugar level, and tannin development.
After harvest, the grapes are prepared for the primary ferment – different processes for red and white wines. Grapes are pressed using a crusher which removes any stems. To start, yeast is added to the grapes – to convert sugars in the grapes into alcohol. Red wine is sometimes transferred into oak barrels for secondary fermentation. All other wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks. This period can range from weeks to months, and then the wine is strained and bottled. The time from harvest to drinking can vary – top wines will age for over 20 years. Only about 10% of red wines and 5% of white wines will taste better after 5 years compared to drinking it after the first year. There is also no difference in taste between bottles sealed with a cork and those with a screwcap.
Red Wine vs. White Wine
Interestingly – the difference between red and white wine is caused by the skin of the grapes. With a red wine, the grape skins are left on, and allowed to sit in the juice as it ferments. This also adds tannins to the wine. Tannins are naturally occurring substances in grapes and other plants (such as tea). Tannins are what give some red wines that dry, bitter taste. High tannin wines are very strong. Low tannin wines are smoother. Tannins get more bitter as they get cold – this is why you should serve red wine at room temperature not chilled.
White wines have little or no contact with grape skins during fermenting, and end up with fewer tannins. Acidity is what gives white wines their crisp, tart flavor.
Rose wines (blush) are made by allowing the red grapes skins to ferment with the juice for a very short period of time. Rose wines also have relatively low tannins.
Cool fact: you can make a white wine from red grapes by completely removing all of the skins prior to fermenting. All grapes are white inside.
There are several hundred varieties of grapes grown worldwide, and in many of the newer wine-producing countries (North American, South America, Australia, South Africa) wines are classified by the type of grapes used. In Old World countries such as France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy – wines are named after the region the grapes are grown in. It is important to remember that grapes are a product of the soil and climate that they are grown in. The same variety of grapes can produce two very different tasting wines. Quite confusing. Some of the more popular Canadian varieties:
Cabernet Sauvignon: Full-bodied with herbal notes
Merlot: Fruity and spicy – less tannic than Cabernet Sauvingnon
Pinot Noir: Fresh fruity aromas, low tannins
Zinfandels: Zest, medium to full body. Dry
Chardonnay: Fruity, buttery flavor but dry
Pinot Grigio: Dry and crisp
Riesling: Very sweet with intense fruit flavours
Sauvignon Blanc: Dry and acidic. Tropical fruit flavours and herbal notes.
All of the wineries we toured were beautiful, but the grounds of Mission Hill were amazing. Based in West Kelowna, the estate was founded in 1966 for an original cost of $500,000. The winery is now owned by the von Mandl family (also founder of Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co.) who have spent an estimated 35 million dollars on the facility. Mission Hill owns 900 acres of vineyards and it’s winery has been named “Canadian Winery of the Year” in 2001 and 2007. The centerpiece of the estate is an 85 foot high bell tower with four bells. The largest bell weighs nearly 800 kilograms.
Wine Tour Tip: On the first day, we visited 5 different vineyards, and the consensus was that this was too many. By the last winery – all the wines were tasting the same. The second tour day, we visited just two wineries – and the group thought this was better.