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Are Okanagan GSM blends safe(ish) from climate change?

June 6, 2024
Some Okanagan Valley producers believe warm climate Southern Rhône varieties, like grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre, will shine in the face of increasing summer temperatures

Without hedging words, nothing is safe from climate change. The hazards of encroaching wildfires and increasingly erratic weather patterns will forever be factors in the life of a winemaker. This is true, particularly in British Columbia’s Okanagan, which has had some tough times. 

The impact of climate change in the Okanagan Valley is starkly evident with back-to-back vintages of severe cold snaps. The first was a climate-change-related freeze in December 2022, with Wine Growers British Columbia reporting a 54 percent crop reduction. The second is a cold snap with significant periods below -20°C between January 11-15, 2024, resulting in a potential crop loss of 97-99 percent.

Read Also: Willamette Valley winegrowers take head-on approach to climate challenges

It’s a dire situation with few silver linings. Some producers are seeing signs of vine life this spring, expressing hope that not everything will need replanting — a potential province-wide cost of up to $317 million. For others, hope lies in a years-long focus on varietal diversification.

Enter Okanagan GSM blends

Like the stock market, diversifying a portfolio requires investing in several assets, which, when working together, leverage a unique result. The assets, in this case, are grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre — flagship varieties famous for Southern Rhône’s GSM blend. Grapes that typically thrive in a hot, dry, and windy climate are seeing pockets of potential in the South Okanagan, a region with only a handful of spots that can deliver similar attributes. 

Pentage WineryPentage Winery was among the first to craft a GSM blend after planting Penticton’s Dirty Dozen vineyard in 2007. They waited four years for the vines to establish before releasing their inaugural vintage in 2011. 

Dirty Dozen Vineyard is “positioned with an optimal south-west aspect and receives ample heat exposure,” says Julie Rennie, Pentage’s co-owner and proprietor. Additionally, the grapes “thrive in clay, glaciated soil, offering excellent water retention with effective drainage.”

Similarly, Hester Creek seems to have found its lucky strike location for growing grenache and mourvèdre in Osoyoos’s Vineyard Eleven, releasing its inaugural 2022 vintage this month.

“We have this unique location, which is rare in the Okanagan, where we can grow these varieties,” says the winery’s president, Mark Sheridan. “Given the attributes of Vineyard Eleven, the heat, soil, [Osoyoos] lake effect, and aspect, we saw an opportunity.”


Hester Creek’s Mark Sheridan with vineyard management team: Iqbal Gill, Sukhi Dhaliwal, Balwinder Dhaliwal. (Photo by: Nicole MacKay)

Of GSM’s three grapes, syrah undoubtedly has BC’s most successful track record. It overtook gamay about twenty years ago for the province’s fifth most planted red grape, covering 654 acres, and was responsible for 9.27 percent of red wines in 2022.

In contrast, grenache grows less than 10 acres across the province, and mourvèdre even less, on just over five acres. 

“Our primary hurdle with growing grenache is it’s not particularly resilient to winter conditions,” says Rennie. According to Sheridan, however, we face climate events that affect all, not some.  

“Grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah are not winter hardy. But it doesn’t matter if you get to -25°C and below. Nothing’s going to do well at that point,” he states, adding that it comes down to matching varieties to the best possible site. 

“If you don’t match the varieties to the specifics of that site, then you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and the effects of climate change will only amplify.” He adds, “You have to have a synergy at the beginning between variety and terroir.”

The future of GSM in the Okanagan

Adding a GSM blend into an Okanagan winery’s portfolio isn’t about market share but innovation. 

“Incorporating this rare blend into our portfolio was driven by a desire for innovation, uniqueness, and our personal affinity for the Rhône blends,” says Rennie of Pentage, who also produces a white Southern Rhône blend comprising Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier. 

Hester Creek

In contrast, the GSM blend is “a bit of a departure for Hester Creek,” says winemaker Mark Hopley, who focuses his red winemaking on mostly Bordeaux-style wines, in addition to a varietal syrah. “So, by design, when we came up with this wine, we wanted it to be grenache-focused and have that ripe, juicy fruit up front.” 

Laser-focused red fruit is on display in Hester Creek’s 2022 GSM. From only two-year-old vines, it’s light and offers notes of savoury spice and smoke with nicely accentuated acidity and moderate tannins. 

Side by side with Pentage’s 2017 GSM, there’s no determining throughlines linking an Okanagan Valley style. Pentage’s vines, planted 13 years earlier, result in a wine with bold, dark berry aromas, coffee, leather, and surprisingly delicate tannins. 

Road 13Somewhere in the middle, stylistically, is a third South Okanagan Valley expression. Road 13’s GSM blend has been a part of its portfolio since 2014, with the majority of fruit (about 60 percent) coming from the Road 13 Home Block, while the rest comes from the Black Sage Bench. Its 2021 GSM displays a berry profile similar to Pentage’s rendition but with more toasty notes, pencil lead, and a hint of tobacco. 

The future of GSM blends in the Okanagan is bright. By leveraging unique terroirs and focusing on innovative practices, winemakers are not only surviving but (hopefully) thriving amidst climate challenges. “We aim to stack all the odds in our favour,” concludes Sheridan, underscoring a forward-thinking approach that may well set the standard for winemaking in the face of climate change.


Nicole MacKay is a wine, food, and travel writer and holds managing editor roles in two international publications: Wine Folly and SOMM TV Magazine. She is also a contributing writer for Decanter, a certified Spanish Wine Scholar through the Wine Scholar Guild, and holds a level 3 certificate from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Follow her work on and Instagram @SocialSips.


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