Le Vieux Pin winery at Oliver, British Columbia, Canada, has retained some of its apricot, apple, and pear trees.
Some people are giving a second thought to the pace at which vineyards are replacing orchards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. While the trend to vineyards is fulfilling the region’s aspiration to become a Canadian version of California’s Napa Valley, it has also fuelled the conversion of many orchards from tree fruit production to grapes.
The Okanagan remains a minor viticultural region on the global stage, but the pace of change at the local level has been significant. The province currently has approximately 7,500 acres of vineyard, up from 2,500 acres a decade ago. Meanwhile, apple acreage has declined from 18,400 acres in 1997 to 9,000 acres last year. Other tree fruits have posted similar declines, cherries being a notable exception.
While more efficient plantings have diminished land requirements, grapes have also provided an attractive alternative to orchardists hit hard by low fruit prices. Yet some are questioning the broader environmental impact the shift could have on the valley.
Anthony Burée, general manager of Le Vieux Pin winery on the Black Sage Road near Oliver, is among those concerned at the scale of the change.
When Vancouver-based Enotecca Winery and Resorts, Inc., established Le Vieux Pin four years ago, it opted to maintain a greater mixture of vegetation on the ten-acre site. Just six acres were planted to grapes, while about 2.5 acres were allowed to remain as orchard. About 700 lavender plants were used as landscaping along the road to the winery, too. (The winery’s name comes from an old pine tree on the property that was also kept.)
"It was kind of fundamental," Burée said of the decision to plant vines alongside the trees.
A model for Le Vieux Pin existed in the northern Rhône of France, Burée explained. The areas share similar soil types, he said, prompting Enotecca to plant the classic grapes of Côte-Rôtie, including Syrah and Viognier, in the vineyard.
But the orchard, which includes apricot, apple and pear trees, also seemed an appropriate touch.
"When you go to Côte-Rôtie, you realize that the primary agriculture there isn’t grapes, it’s apricots," Burée explained. "Looking at the climate, looking at the soils—the soils were almost identical—we said, okay, that’s what we need to plant here."
The affinity is deeper than the soils of the two regions, however. Burée points to the long history of growing wine grapes in France and suggests that growers in British Columbia could learn from France’s experience. While the Côte-Rôtie has traditionally had apricots growing alongside vineyards, research in Europe has found ecological benefits of maintaining a diverse mix of vegetation—something Burée hopes to demonstrate at Le Vieux Pin.
"For a culture to have a sustainable agriculture for 1,000 years, they’re probably doing something right," he said.
While the winery plans to process the fruit from its trees into products to be offered for sale either in its shop or at local grocers, Burée is also counting on the trees and lavender to ensure a more diverse insect population on the property. He believes it’s already happening.
"What we’re seeing is just a much more diverse insect population—bees and those things—than we do on our other properties where we don’t actually have any fruit trees," he said.
While the phenomenon hasn’t been measured in any scientific manner to date, Enotecca has been encouraged enough to apply its experience at Le Vieux Pin to its four other Okanagan vineyards.
Lastella Winery, which opens in May in Osoyoos, will have a garden designed with the goal of attracting a more diverse insect population to its ten-acre site.
The desire to ensure the Okanagan isn’t overwhelmed by the vineyards that are a cornerstone of the local economy isn’t just limited to fostering beneficial insect populations.
Enotecca is also working with Ducks Unlimited on a project intended to clear noxious weeds from streams on two of its properties. Enotecca would like to replace the weeds with native vegetation that could help clean water flowing into Lake Osoyoos.
Enotecca also has plans to develop another winery in the South Okanagan that will use both geothermal and wind power, giving it the potential to be energy self-sufficient.