[This article is the first of a three part series on the Similkameen Valley and it’s wineries.]
The Similkameen Valley is a wine region in British Columbia nestled in a basin just west of the Okanagan Valley. Here the hillsides reaching up from the Similkameen River have sagebrush and Ponderosa Pine trees, and orchards and vines compete for soil with oceans of dry, yellow grasses. For those of you who haven’t beheld the image of grasslands when the wind is blowing, a visit to the area is rewarded amply by that vision alone. The town of Cawston, only 16 minutes from the border with the United States, is the Organic Farm Capital of Canada and the epicenter of a cluster of high quality wines which are as gratifying as the landscape; there are many reasons to go!
The terroir of this desert is endowed with natural goodness. Ah, yes, terroir! That French word that evokes romance and culture. It translates as everything that makes a wine what it is: the people, the soil, the climate. It is the soil that is arguably the Similkameen’s best defining differences!
‘Similkameen’ soils have two layers of silty loam reaching deep (up to 75 cm) before they turn over to a gravelly sandy loam subsoil. Variable sized rocks run throughout both layers.
Why is this important?
The silt topsoil, provides some water retentive capabilities. It will keep some moisture for long periods of time to aid the vine in this dry, semi-arid desert. The rocks present on the vineyard surface can heat up during the day and slowly release heat throughout the night allowing for an extension, if you will, of the short growing season of this northerly lattitude.
The subsoil (gravelly, sandy loam), is the same as the subsoil in parts of Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley. If it didn’t have the sand, it would be too fertile to produce high quality grapes. If the soil has too much clay mixed with the silt, the water will clump the soil and could block the roots from growing. It is the sand that prevents the clumping and allows the water to drain. Gravel also provides good drainage; good drainage is of utmost importance for large root systems to grow and take form.
Remember that famous region called Bordeaux? It is said that it is the gravel subsoils and the precise timing of the rising and falling of the Gironde River that produces what is arguably the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. The large root systems bring high quality to the wine.
Large vine root systems are crucial for protecting the vines from periods of drought by stretching their smaller lateral roots deep to collect whatever molecules of water they can find. Experienced grape growers also tell us that older vines that have had the time to grow extensive root systems are also more resistant to diseases.
Alternatively, vines with small root systems would need contant irrigation to keep the plant alive. Too much irrigation and the vine is too vigorous for high quality grapes. This is because with constant, ample water or fertile soils, the vine will continue to grow a big bush of green foliage and stretch tendrils further into the sky to the detriment of grape berry quality.
Instead, high quality grapes grow when the vine believes it is fighting for it’s existence. It will then focus all of it’s strength on producing visually splendid plump berries with high levels of sucrose to attract hungry birds to eat them. Birds will then carry the seeds (through their poop!) to other locations for the continued existence of the species. When a plant is over-watered, it knows is going to survive and won’t focus its energy on building deliciously fat eye-candy grapes – the best grapes for making great wine!
Reasons to go… wineries in the Similkameen have great terroir and great grapes. They only produce wines in tiny quantities which means you might just have to travel there to taste them.
Expect to find high quality, mineral driven Rieslings, some of the richest Meritage bottlings (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the other Bordeaux varieties blended together) that Canada offers, Chardonnays, and even Dolcetto, Chasselas and Petit Verdot. There are (so far) rarely lineups in the tasting rooms; it’s a good time to go!
And if I haven’t supplied enough information to convince you, visit again soon for the next part of this series where we zero in on Hugging Tree Winery and again later for Orofino Winery, sharing stories and tasting notes.