British Columbia is Canada's westernmost province, located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. While not as productive viticulturally as the more-continental province of Ontario, British Columbia is home to a rapidly growing wine industry, mostly located on the southern edge of the province along the international border with the United States. The diversity of landscapes here – from rainy islands to desert-like valley floors – means that a wide variety of grapes are planted in British Columbia, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
North to south, the province of British Columbia is longer than California and larger than Texas. The entire wine industry occupies the southernmost 150 miles (240km) of the province, however, in a select few regions where the macroclimate is favorable to premium viticulture. The British Columbia wine authority recognizes five Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs) in the province: from the maritime-influenced climates of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, to Fraser Valley just west of Vancouver and the more continental areas of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.
Most viticulture in British Columbia takes place in the Okanagan Valley, nestled between the Cascade and Columbia mountain ranges where harsh weather systems from the west and north do not often reach. This long, narrow valley is considered to be Canada's only desert, and the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do well here, particularly in the south around Osoyoos. The region's few lakes serve to moderate temperatures here, and warm days followed by cool nights give rise to a distinctively bright style of wine.
A more boutique wine industry can be found in the islands surrounding Vancouver, where the less-predictable maritime climate and rugged topography is not as suited to commercial viticulture. Instead, many small producers make boutique grape and fruit wines from Pinot Noir, Riesling, cranberries and blueberries.
British Columbia's wine-growing history dates back to the mid-19th Century, when missionaries planted grapes for sacramental wines near Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley. However, the wine industry didn't really take off until a free-trade agreement with the United States in 1988 opened up possibilities for vintners, and a vine-pulling scheme encouraged growers to replace the Vitis labrusca and riparia grape varieties with higher-quality Vitis vinifera vines.
The British Columbia Wine Institute was established in 1990 to oversee the quality of BC wines, and the Vintners' Quality Alliance (VQA) system that was in place in Ontario was adopted by the province. To be labeled as a BC VQA wine, the grapes used must be grown entirely in the region and the wine must undergo a quality check to ensure it meets the British Columbia standards.