By Kate Faas
Despite being one of the worlds youngest wine industries, British Columbia has made a name for itself in the international wine community. Under Canadian Federal law, every bottle of wine sold is required to state where the wine was produced. The labels “International and Canadian Blend” or “Cellared in Canada” do not necessarily mean that the grapes are locally grown. The British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliance, also known as the BC VQA, guarantees that grapes are 100% grown in BC and that the wine was made following strict guidelines. The alliance started just after Canada signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US in 1988. By 1990, the local wineries were finding it hard to compete with the new wave of international wines that were brought in. The alliance was put into place to improve the quality of wine in the BC region by mastering the grapes and hybrids that had the most success in the region. There are now 280 licenced grape wineries apart of the alliance. The grapes used in BC VQA certified wines are of the “Vitis vinifera” varietal, including grapes such as Pinot Gris and Merlot as the top growers. There are 9 regions and 4 sub Appalachian areas recognized. Each individual wine must be submitted to the association each vintage to receive approval. The labels of the wines must also be approved with many guidelines, including the stamp of BC VQA wine on the bottle and avoiding the use of certain pesticides or fillers.
A local Okanagan winery, who prefers to remain anonymous, was not able to certify their wines with the BC VQA even though their grapes were all grown within the province. The owner of this winery stated, “I believe the BC VQA hinders the creativity of wineries by telling them they must use certain grape varietals and filter wines in a certain way or else they won’t be recognized by the so called ‘stamp of approval’. My wines are of less value in customers eyes than a product that can be guaranteed that it was locally produced even though it is made with quality assured process.”
Fruit wines are not considered to be VQA approved. When speaking with a representative, Matthew, from Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery, he was not too concerned with being left out of the list of approved wines. He saw the VQA label as nothing more than a marketing tool but did not think that it stopped the sale of the wine from his company. The only downside he stated was that certain wine carriers, such as Save-on-Foods, will only sell BC VQA certified wine.
Quail’s Gate is one of the older and more prominent wineries in the Okanagan region. Maggie Peak, the director of marketing, stated that when the BC VQA was first brought about it was necessary for many vines to be taken out and the correct vines to be planted in. She thinks that this was a good thing for the winery because it helped them establish the high caliber wines that they have today. The alliance moved the BC wine industry to strive for higher quality because the benchmark was so high. According to Maggie, this made it easier for Canadians to recognize quality and understand what is exactly going into their wines. Another good quality of the VQA is that it outlined the regions that grow wine in the province and narrowed down which grapes do best in each area.
Overall, it seems that the BC VQA was a positive addition to the wine industry in the province and that it has helped both the tourism industry in the Okanagan and the locals in the area discover quality wine.