2014 Vintage

IMG_0789The grapes for the 2014 vintage are being harvested, slowly, as I type this. It’s been a pretty good year and people that I’ve spoken to are generally optimistic about the prospects for 2014. In fact, it could be the one we’ve been waiting for.

I should start this whole thing but saying that no winery will ever tell you that there is anything but a ‘good’, ‘great’, or ‘exceptional’ vintage. No winery will ever tell you, “You know, 2010 was just an awful vintage. Don’t buy anything from that year.” Nor will they agree with you when you say it to them. The code word that they use for vintages where the weather was generally less than cooperative is ‘challenging’ – as in, “It was a challenging vintage.” They bottom line is that they have to produce wine each year regardless of whether or not it was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vintage. The wines may be a little different year to year, but that’s ok. There’s a saying in the industry that the absolute best vintage of all is the one that they’re trying to sell you.

I think that it’s really not up to the wineries to qualify a vintage as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and truth be told, they probably won’t want to qualify them. It really is up to the wine media to do that. They will taste a huge variety of wines from multiple vintages as the go about doing their work covering the industry and will make assertions based on their experiences. The only thing that a winery will be able to adequately give you an impression of is the ease at which the grapes were harvested in the fall. A vintage will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for them depending on how much control they had over the harvest for that year. Could they bring in each variety of grapes at the optimal time of the wine maker’s choosing? Or were they forced into harvesting a particular variety early or later because of inclement weather, slow ripening, or otherwise less-than-ideal conditions? Wineries have a finite number of tank space available and most of them need to use each tank more than once in a season, often counting on some varieties to ripen at different times. If the Pinot Gris and the Merlot are ripe and ready at the same time (late springs followed by hot summers might do that) when in a ‘normal’ year they would be ready weeks apart, both varieties could be optimally ready to harvesting at the same time which means that the winery might not have enough tanks. So does the wine maker pick the Gris a bit early and risk holding the Merlot on the vine longer so that they can use that same tank? Or would that sacrifice the quality too much and alter the resulting wine beyond what they were planning? Hard to say. Are the wines going to suffer that badly? I think it really depends on how the winery and wine make can handle the rigours of the harvest. A ‘good’ vintage for them is one where they make the decisions without being forced into anything.

I also believe that we are at a relatively new plateau for BC wine. We seem to have reached a new level now in our history that there are very few wineries producing seriously flawed, consistently undrinkable wines. There are still a few out there and of course everyone has their own tastes and preferences but by and large, the industry is not where it was 10 or even 5 years ago when it was still risky to open bottles from new or inexperienced producers even in ‘good’ vintages. I believe that even if we’d had an absolutely perfect vintage in 1998 (a random year – I have no idea what that year was really like) would the people involved with the industry here at that time have known what to do with it to make mazing wines? From grapes of amazing quality, one can make amazing wines or crappy wines. With crappy grapes, one can only make crappy wines. The quality can only go down. Wine knowledge in the aggregate has increased immensely and quickly over the past decade. I would argue that the industry here knows more about what to do in all kinds of vintages to keep the quality of the wines as high as they can possibly be.

Get on with it. What was 2014 like?

Everyone likes talking about the weather and it’s a big part of how the grapes mature so here’s a little recap of what happened in 2014. Keep in mind that as someone who commutes on a motorcycle to work, I believe that I’m more aware than the typical car driver on how the weather was throughout the summer. I’ve put gas in my car only once since April. Just saying.

IMG_0790While every vingeron can tell you the exact date of key happenings in their vineyards (bud break, flowering, fruit set, veraison, etc.), I can not. Nor do I believe that it will be of much interest for this article. I can say that the weather through the spring here in the south Okanagan was up and down – rainy or sunny but generally warm all around. It was not predictable and in my experience living here, it never really is. So it’s pretty well par for the course. I do remember hearing that bud break and flowering were all on the early side of normal but in all my years of being here and working in vineyards and wineries, nobody has ever been able to tell me what ‘normal’ was.

June, July, and the first part of August was hot and dry. From mid-May to the beginning of August, I was on the motorcycle every day except one due to the exception weather. (My rule this summer was that if I can get to work dry, I’ll take the bike. I donned my rain gear only once to get home.) The grapes progressed quickly and things needed to slow down a little. Fortunately, August happened.

August in the Okanagan has always been the dependable month. If you were going to plan a family beach trip, August was the only month where that was pretty well guaranteed. I’ve had outdoor music gigs cancelled, curtailed or disrupted by the weather in most months except for August. It was always predictable – August starts with the letter “A” and so does the word “Awesome”.

Not this year.

Things cooled off – a little. (Of course, this is relative. If it’s been 40 degrees for 3 days, 33 feels ‘cool’.) Clouds shaded the sun and brought rain (drizzle, downpour, showers, etc.) more than once. The temperature was lower and we had a series of big storms blow through. No hail or anything to damage crops but enough to blow all kinds of motorcycle-damaging debris across the roads. These kinds of climactic temper tantrums were usually an extension of spring blowing into summer (like in June and July of 2010 and 2011) but not good old, predictable August. The grapes did slow down a little bit but with with some wineries in the south harvesting reds in mid-September, it’s clear that this year’s harvest is starting up earlier than previous years so those sugar levels must be pretty good.

Of course, perspective is everything and this is really what I saw as I drove to the Black Sage Bench from Oliver each day. It’s very likely that my impressions would be different if I drove to Okanagan Falls everyday or worked in Naramata or Kelowna. Perhaps people who work there could add their impressions in the comments section below.

At this point, if the weather stays dry and relatively warm until the end of October, we could be in a for a potentially fantastic year for all wines – white and red. With our northern latitude here in BC, we don’t often get the chance to harvest when we want. And as I mentioned earlier, if the vignerons are able to choose their harvest time based on quality and taste and are not forced into making logistical decisions because of the weather, we could be in for a banner year. In fact, from the wineries that I’ve visited and the people that I’ve spoken to so far this fall, this could be one of the best vintages in the past decade. And with a lot more experience under our belt as an industry and the knowledge on how to handle it, this could be one of the best vintages in the history of BC wine.

Cheers from wine country!




2 thoughts on “2014 Vintage

  1. Luke, thanks for writing this. I haven’t had a chance to reach the interior this year (as yet), and so I have had no first-hand data about how the vines and grapes were doing.
    It’s an interesting perspective you have created here — one that most of the general public would not tend to be aware of. By that I’m referring to the way in which vineyard managers & winemakers might talk about a given year (ie. “it was a challenging vintage”) and how even a challenging year means that, essentially, wineries won’t make this fact well-known. I suppose it really doesn’t matter anyway, with all of the winemaking techniques we have at our fingertips that can help to make a wine “closer” to what was envisioned. Not having a good vintage in the past would definitely have meant that sales would have suffered. Now a challenging vintage seems that it merely means changing the way in which we verbally promote a given wine.

    1. Thanks for such a great comment Valerie! I’ve always been intrigued by the good vintage / bad vintage thing and it’s something that I want to explore more in the future. I hadn’t thought that it was such a different perspective but you’re right, it’s perhaps something that the general public may not be aware of. I’ve always thought of the vintages as being different anyway and that fact didn’t bother me quite as much for some reason. Perhaps it’s an ‘old world’ thing where fluctuations in the weather in a given season can have huge repercussions on the vintage quality. Maybe it’s something we don’t have to think about as much here. Maybe wine making technique is an important factor, like you said. More good points worth exploring for sure.

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