Okanagan Wine Industry Matures – Sub-Appellation Proposed

by Susan Desjardins

Sandra Oldfield, CEO of Tinhorn Creek, and Sara Triggs, Director, Marketing for Culmina, recently hosted a webinar to discuss the status of their application for a new sub-appellation in the South Okanagan, that of the Golden Mile Bench, which would encompass some 1600 acres. This would be the first sub-appellation created in B.C. and, to quote Sandra, points to the maturing, like a good wine, of the wine industry in the province. 

Several years and much research have gone into this project, which started August 18, 2009. The boundaries of the sub- appellation include the alluvial fans of the Testalinden, Hester, Tinhorn and Reid creeks. The eastern boundary of the proposed new appellation is at the escarpment, while the western boundary is at the height of the Reid Creek alluvial fan. In addition to Tinhorn Creek and Culmina, wineries on the Golden Mile would include Road 13, Gehringer Brothers, Hester Creek, Fairview Cellars, Rustico and others. 

But it’s more complicated than that, as the boundaries are defined based on a specific set of criteria. For instance, Culmina’s Margaret’s Bench, one of the highest vineyards in the south Okanagan, will be excluded from the sub-appellation. Tinhorn Creek has 100 acres of vineyards on the Black Sage Bench, and blends wine from the Golden Mile and Black Sage for 12 of its 13 wines. The Black Sage Bench vineyards would not be included in the new sub-appellation, nor would any of the blended wines. The sub-appellation designation would only apply to wines where the grapes are uniquely sourced from the Golden Mile Bench. Hence, a winery that purchases grapes from the Golden Mile Bench, yet produces the wine in some other part of the Okanagan, would be in a position to use the Golden Mile Bench designation on its wines.

Some of the defining characteristics of the Golden Mile sub-appellation include its soils, the raised elevation, slope, the aspect and the fact that it is relatively frost free.  To quote from the proposal to the BC Wine Authority:

"The Golden Mile Bench has a unique combination of elements of terroir that justifies it as being awarded a separate sub-region status. The key elements of this sub-region proposal concern the combination of criteria that are unique to the Golden Mile Bench. These include the physical characteristics of landform and landscape position, mesoclimate and air drainage, and the nature of the soil materials. These unique elements of the Golden Mile Bench affect the quality of grapes such that they produce distinctive wines. While these elements of terroir affect all grape varieties, the uniqueness of the Golden Mile Bench was demonstrated specifically in a study of single-vineyard Merlot wines from the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys."

There are perceivable differences between Golden Mile Bench wines and comparable wines from other locations in the Okanagan. The proposal indicates that the research analyzed the flavor, aroma and mouth feel of Merlot using 31 single-vineyard wines from the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys from the 2004 and 2005 vintages, tasted blind by 31 experienced tasters. The results clearly indicated that specific flavor characteristics are common across wine from the proposed new sub-appellation as compared to wines from other regions such as the Kelowna area and the Similkameen. While Merlot was the sample grape used in the research, the influence of terroir would affect all grape varieties. Sandra indicated slightly elevated acidity and a deep, bright fruit component are a couple of the characteristics common to Golden Mile Bench Merlot. 

When asked why they are seeking affirmation of the Golden Mile sub-appellation, both Sara and Sandra were clear that this designation will provide recognition of the special conditions in the region and the flavor differences they create, will provide for consumer recognition and will allow specific comparisons of wines from the Golden Mile with those from other parts of the Okanagan and B.C. Given that those familiar with the south Okanagan are generally also familiar with the Golden Mile, Sara indicated that consumer education will be required to ensure wine lovers understand the true extent of the Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation as well as its unique characteristics. As she pointed out, this region is one of the best-established in B.C. with some of the oldest vineyards in the province.

In terms of the remaining steps in the process, the proposal goes through a review by the B.C. Wine Authority, which includes a ballot of the wineries within the proposed sub-appellation, a site visit, consultation with adjacent regions, grape growers and its members, as well as a tasting by those proposing the sub-appellation. The subsequent step is submission to the B.C. government for approval, which should occur once the legislature returns from summer recess. 

Proposed Golden Mile Sub-Appellation

The proposed Golden Mile sub-appellation.