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!

~Luke

 

 

I don’t want to be a pessimist, but…

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The weather this summer has been a basket press of awesome, until recently. I’ve driven my motorcycle to work from mid June straight through to the beginning of September with only one exception. In the 6 years that I’ve lived here now, I’ve had at least 3 sets of windshield wiper blades disintegrate because of neglect during the summer. Although we accept wonky weather in May and June, summer is sacred here and we like it hot and dry.

At least that’s what it said in the brochure when I was considering moving here.

The 2013 vintage so far has been a bit bizarre weather-wise. The spring lead up to an extremely short cherry crop in June. July and August seemed to go by beautifully except for a freak (or maybe it’s the new normal) hailstorm in Kelowna. There was a heart-breaking video of trees and vines at The View getting pounded with hail on Facebook. More recently a thunderstorm blew through with high winds at the leading edge that ripped up trees and sent localized hail through vineyards in the Oliver-Osoyoos area. The roof at the winery where I work temporarily became a water-feature for our guests inside as the patio became a splash pool. A local winegrower estimated a one-quarter crop loss on his vines on Facebook shortly after that storm.

20130904-094841.jpgToday’s forecast calls for more thunderstorms due to a low pressure system that will be hanging around for a couple of days.

So is this the new normal? I can never really get a straight answer from any of the wine makers or growers that I’ve worked with as to what is ‘normal’.

“This year’s spring is two weeks beyond what I would consider late.” – winemaker to me in May of ’08.

“This harvest is really late. Later than last year, which was a tad early compared to the year before.” – different winemaker in 2010.

You can see how pinning down ‘normal’ can be problematic.

My first vintage here, 2007, was a little on the wet side. The winery owner remarked that he was using an umbrella for the first time in a decade. 2008 had a late spring, wicked hot summer, and early fall where all the grapes came in early. Ibid for ’09. 2010 and 2011 harvests were late. 2012 was compressed and late, but warm and dry. 2013 has looked to be early although with storms like these blowing through, we might just be lucky to get a crop at all.

Is anything ever ‘on time’ in the Okanagan? What is a ‘normal’ vintage?

If I could retort to myself (it can happen), I would retort with, “Well, what is a ‘normal’ wine?”

The variances in aromas and flavours from vintage to vintage is what makes wine interesting to many wine lovers. Without these little hiccups in weather patterns, all wines would taste relatively similar vintage to vintage. If that’s what you crave, then most likely you purchase industrially produced wines (like the “Cellared in Canada” wines) for under $8 that are manufactured to taste the same year after year and probably don’t read this blog anyway.

Wine is far more interesting than that in my opinion and it’s the weather that can help make it so. Unfortunately for those that produce it (wineries, grape growers, etc), bad weather can be a make or break situation. String a few bad years in a row and the vineyard goes up for sale, or worse, auction. Let’s hope can make it through this season’s late thunderstorms and hail.

Here comes the rain again…

Fall in Wine Country – 2010 Recap

The Sunrock at sunset from Nk'Mip Cellars' patio

The final stages of the vineyard’s activities for the season happens in the fall. All the winery’s work for the year culminates in the multitude of decisions that must be made daily at this time of year. When to harvest the Pinot Noir? What are the sugar levels of the Chardonnay? How low are the temperatures at night? What is the weather going to do?

It’s a lot to think about and it only makes me appreciate what vineyard managers and wine makers do every time I take a sip. It has also made me realize just how tough this vintage has been and that maybe we can be a little harsh when we judge wines. The smaller vintners have to really make what they can with the cards that nature has dealt. The more experienced vintners will be more prepared to deal with the extremes that nature can dish out while the less experienced might be caught off guard and be left with wine that might not be up to par with their past efforts.

Among the many harvest reports and predictions out there (Early vintage post from Cherries and Clay, summary from The Wine Knows) and some happy oddities within the harvest itself (check out Wild Goose’s second-ever harvest of totally botrytis-affected wines). And it isn’t just the Okanagan Valley where the vintage was off – The Vine House in the Kootenays reports a similar warm and dry trend at the end of September and the final hard frost was 2 weeks later than normal.

The most odd thing for this vintage was the utter lack of heat in the summer. Unlike 2009, which was a late starter, quick, burning summer, and an early and fast harvest, this year was completely different in every way. The spring was unusually wet (complete with mudslides), and it finally started to dry up at the end of June. At the end of August, the weather was back to chilly temps and wet weather. And then something weird happened. The fall was moderate and dry and in any other year, it would have been a perfect denouement to the season. For this year, it may have saved the vintage completely.

To cap off the fall, the icewine harvest was completed before the end of November and many vineyards were able to harvest in daylight, an uncommon luxury in BC’s wine regions.

There will be some interesting wines from this vintage, which I believe will separate the men from the boys.  Newer wineries that haven’t had to face a difficult vintage like this one might stumble a little without proper mentoring from an experienced consultant. Experienced producers will handle this vintage fine although ripeness and concentration will be noticeably different from recent vintages.

Many of the most coveted wine regions in the world are in marginal climates and BC is no exception. It’s the risk that makes it interesting from year to year. For me as a wine consumer, that’s the most interesting thing about wine.

Hester Creek's vineyard in early fall.

La Stella's vineyard in October

(Of course, we are now fully into winter and the snow is falling with renewed vigor. I’ll have some winter pics as soon as I can.)

September 2010 – Almost there

It’s getting so close you can feel it. Grapes are being tested daily for sugar levels and tasted to see how they are coming along. It’s the last time before crush to get any equipment fixed, get tanks ready, and make space for the new grapes for the 2010 vintage once they are picked. Winery people (vineyard managers, wine makers, etc), who generally seem pretty easy-going and relaxed most of the time, are noticeably less so at this time of year. There’s a lot riding on what will happen over the next couple of months and they have every reason to be a little on edge. That’s the excitement of making wine and most of them really love being on that edge – it’s why they signed up for the gig.

Tim Martiniuk told me that he thinks harvest is still "about a month away" if the weather holds. Of course, that's the big unknown. (Click on the photo to go to Stoneboat's website.)

Some of Stoneboat's famous Pinot Noir (Sept 14th, 2010)

Pinot Noir has a tendency to genetically mutate within the same vine. Individual Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris clusters can frequently be seen growing on Pinot Noir vines. (The same thing can happen on Pinot Blanc or Gris vines where an occasional Pinot Noir cluster will show up.)

Stoneboat's "other red" Pinotage. (Sept 14th, 2010)

With its tightly bunched clusters, Pinotage looks very similar to Pinot Noir and for good reason - Pinot Noir is one of the parents of Pinotage (along with Cinsault). It was developped in South Africa in 1925 and is still one of South Africa's claim to viticultural fame.

 

View from the tower at Burrowing Owl Vineyards on the Black Sage Bench.

Chardonnay growing at Burrowing Owl. White grapes turn from unripe green to a lighter yellow (for Chardonnay or Riesling) or pink (for Pinot Gris or Gewuztraminer)

August 2010 – Chillin’ in the Heat

August is hurry up and wait time in the wineries and vineyards. The grapes are almost to their full size but haven’t turned colour yet. Red, pink and white grapes are all still green. Until the sugars start to push them into their proper ripe colouring, they will stay green. Each grape variety changes its colour at different times. This is called “veraison” and is an important indicator of the progress of the season. Starting mid-late August, veraison will give growers and indication as to when to expect the harvest.

At Hester Creek, the merlot vines were all neatly tucked into their wires to get all the sunshine possible.

Merlot grapes in their typical medium sized, loose clusters. This allows for good air circulation and prevents mould or mildew by keeping the grapes dry.

 

Meanwhile, across the street at Gehringer Brothers...

 

These grapes were building larger, more tightly packed clusters.

 

Across the valley at Black Hills...

 

The large clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon were taking in the heat.

July 2010 – It’s easy being green

Things are way greener now as the summer has finally kicked into gear. The summertime sunlight and heat are now helping those vines to grow greener and wilder. The grapes are starting to get bigger and are developping slowly. My 5 year-old son came along with me and helped take some photos in the middle of the second week of July. First stop, Rustico Farm Cellars at the south end of the Golden Mile.

Rows of vines at Rustico Farm Cellars.

Clusters of small grapes at Rustico.

Guest photographer - from my son's camera

My son's photo of Rustico owner, Bruce Fuller and myself.

We checked out a little of what has become of the Testalinden mudslide that happened in June. It passes fairly quickly on the highway but you can still see quite a bit of damaged buildings and dried mud. If you haven’t already, please consider donating to the mudslide victims. Information is available here.

Off we went to Road 13 for a quick visit and to see how the vines were coming along from last months installment. I didn’t want to use the same vines again from month to month because I thought it would be more interesting to show difference places. Each vineyard is unique and each vigneron’s methods equally so. But there were a couple of different things happening here that I thought were interesting to show.

Like at Rustico, these vines haven't been tucked into their wires yet. One major job in the vineyards at this time of year is tucking the shoots into the wires of the trellis and trimming off the tops of the vines.

These rows have been tucked and have a much neater appearance. Tucking controls the leaf canopy and allows each row of vines to get equal amounts of sunlight.

Cutting the tops of the shoots stops their growth and forces the vine to put more energy into the grapes rather than growing more shoots.

Trucker hats are a necessity in the vineyard and wine shop. (photo by my son, who also photographed every single item in the entire wineshop, including most of the photos on the digital photo frame. This one was the best and most in focus.)

June 2010 – Baby grapes

June is when things start happening and the vines start getting busy. New shoots are growing fast. What were once deserted rows of twisted brown and grey wood clinging to wires are now bristling with freshly grown leaves, ready to take in all the sunshine. It is from the sun that the sugar comes and enters into each grape, which will eventually be turned into alcohol.

New shoots are growing quickly now on these vines at Road 13.

Because the sugar comes down the shoot from the leaves, some quality conscious producers will do something called green harvesting – they will remove any clusters of grapes located high on each shoot leaving only the lowest cluster of grapes. This cluster will then receive all of the sugar produced by the leaves on that one shoot instead of having to share it with any other clusters.

Lots of new green at this time of year.

This also reduces the over-all yield of the vineyard, sometimes by a lot. That’s one of the biggest choices that winemakers and grape growers have to make. For example, reducing the yield by green harvesting to 2 tons per acre means that all that sugar and flavour is going into a very small amount of grapes. That means they will get very concentrated wines but won’t have very much of it to sell. The flip side of that is to try to get a lot of grapes without green harvesting (roughly 6 tons per acre or more). In this situation, the sugars are spread out over more grapes resulting in less concentration and less flavour, but more wine to bottle.

Baby grapes: These tiny clusters will become flowers and then grapes.

Supply and demand then dictate how much each bottle of wine will cost. That’s why some producers have to charge more because they have less wine and need to make up the costs of producing it. Others can charge less because they have more of it to sell. It’s all a part of the many complicated choices that have to be made by wine producers everywhere.

May 2010 – Shoots and Leaves

The weather has really warmed up a lot now in wine country and in Okanagan Falls the vines are showing some action. Shoots and young leaves are starting to grow and soak up the sunlight as they start providing the vine with energy to build fruit and vegetation. I worked at a winery that spent quite a while at this time of year doing something called ‘shoot thinning’. This is where I spent days flicking off shoots that are growing in undesirable locations on directions, or if there are too many shoots growing on a single cane or cordon.

While most of our trees have leaves by this time of year, the vines take a little while longer to really start to show growth. Once they get going though, they’ll be sending up shoots and clusters pretty quickly.

Baby vines recently planted at Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls.

New vines are inter-planted with old vines. The old vines will be taken out once the new vines are almost ready to produce fruit.

A recently replaced cane on a vine trained using the "Geneva Double Curtain" trellis at Noble Ridge in Okanagan Falls.

A closer view of a new shoot.

It’s a great time of year to visit wine country. Although the weather is a little unpredictable at this time of year, it’s not overly hot. It’s one of the few times of year in the Okanagan when it’s just ‘pleasant’. The crowds haven’t arrived yet and because much of the previous year’s whites have been bottled, there’s plenty of wine available in the wine shops.

April 2010 – Spring is springing

In the Okanagan, spring isn’t a gradual progression of seasonal change that it is in other places. One day it’s -2 at night and then 25 and sunny the next day. Someone just flips a switch and poof, the temperature goes up, the bareque gets cleaned (I wish) and then you find yourself having the mow the lawn again. But that’s what makes all the vines start to wake up and that’s exactly what’s happening right now. If you’ve been following some of the wineries on Twitters, you’ll have already seen some snaps of their vines going through bud burst. The fruit trees near Oliver have been blossoming for a while not and it seems to take vines a little longer to get going. Here are a couple of photos that I snapped while out for drive on Black Sage Road the other day.

Vineyards near Burrowing Owl

Vineyard on Black Sage Road

Still snow on the peaks

Painted Rock Estate Winery as viewed from the lookout on Hwy 97.

Sleeping Vines – March 2010

Lately I’ve been ranting on about this, that, or the other and I thought that I would change it up a little this time and maybe start with something that involves more photos. I used to work as a portrait photographer, which actually killed my love of photography for a long time, but I’m starting to get back into it.

So if you’re curious about what wine country looks like throughout the growing season, then this might be interesting for you. We are currently in the off-season when it isn’t all lush and leafy like it is in the summer when most people visit the Okanagan. Spring is just around the corner though and we’ll get our leafy valley back. This might make an interesting photo series – a document of the whole growing season. We’ll see how that goes.

Even though there has been very little snow this year, the valley still looks wonderful even with the leafless vines and trees. Here are a couple of shots that I took while stopping in at Inniskillin Okanagan to pick up some of their tempranillo. Theirs in the 3rd version of that variety that I can find in the Okanagan after D’Angelo and Twisted Tree. I’m looking forward to trying it out soon.