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

 

 

Chef Meets BC Grape

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Just like “The Lake” that I wrote about last month, this event is another one that I’d really like to attend but won’t be able to. It’s a great series of wine events called “Chef Meets BC Grape” presented by the Arts Club Theater starting on September 17th. There’s a lot of local names (well, local for me because I live in the Okanagan) on the list of events and it all kicks off this Wednesday with a Signature Tasting event at the Vancouver Convention Centre East. 90 BC wineries will be represented at this tasting. That’s 90 wineries folks – in one room! So there’s a lot to try and a great way to check out some of their new releases, especially if you didn’t get to visit the Okanagan this past summer. The full list of wineries in attendance is available at the Arts Club website.

But it’s not just all wine. The whole point of these events is to put BC food together with BC wine. This is why I’m really annoyed that I can be there because I think this is brilliant. There will be some favourite Okanagan restaurants represented that night (such as Miradoro, Liquidity, and more) and to have them all in one place is simply amazing to me. (Somebody, please tweet this with a unique hashtag – or mention me @winecountrybc – so that I can follow it on Twitter.)

Food gets more of the focus the next evening with the Uncorked Kitchen Party. It’s presented by the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association and features the big guns from the winery restaurant scene where I live in Oliver. Chef Brock Bowes (Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl), Chef Jeff Van Geest (Miradoro) and Chef Jenna Pillon (Terrafina) will all be there along with 10 wineries from here in the south. It’s an amazing line up of wine and culinary talent that we have here in the Okanagan and we’re more than happy to share them with you. Please enjoy and have a great time!

The full schedule of events is as follows:

Signature Tasting
Wednesday, Sept. 17th, 7 – 9:30pm
$85 – Vancouver Convention Centre East

Uncorked Kitchen Party
Thursday, Sept. 18, 7 – 10pm
$95 – Westside Grand, 1928 W Broadway, 2nd floor

Mission Hill Family Estate Dinner
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 6 – 9pm
$160 – Bistro Pastis

Visit the Arts Club Theatre website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Podcast 139 – Wine Tour Companies, Part 1

grape escapes
…and WE’RE BACK!!

DSC_1503Wow, it’s been a while since the last podcast. I can’t believe it’s taken this long but that’s the way the old cork crumbles. My voice is finally back in shape enough to be recorded properly without sounding like a sick duck and so here we go with a podcast series on wine tour companies and why you should use them on your next trip.

The first in the series starts with Dino from Grape Escapes Wine Tours out of Penticton. He grew up here so he’s seen it all and has a huge amount of local knowledge. He’s proud of his home and it shows.

Have you been on a tour with Grape Escapes? Have you used any tour company for a wine tour? Did you have a good time? Would you do it again? These are the things inquiring minds want to know. Leave a comment below about your experiences with a wine tour company. I’ll be posting my own thoughts on future posts about this topic.

It’s not a focus group, it’s a wine blog. However, when travelling to wine country I strongly suggest filling up your iThing with Wine Country BC podcasts so you’ll be ahead of the game when you get here.

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…

Podcast 129 – BCWine 101 Oliver Osoyoos

Riverstone Estate Winery, north of the town of Oliver.

20130218-203437.jpgWelcome to BC Wine 101, where I will focus in on a different wine region in each episode for anyone who is interested in learning about BC wine, including the wine bloggers who will be traveling to Penticton for the Wine Bloggers Conference coming up in June.

You can listen online here or download our podcast on iTunes.

There’s a reason that the town of Oliver calls itself “The Wine Capital of Canada” and you’ll know why when you see it. There are vineyards everywhere here. But there are other crops here – cherry, peach, and apple orchards, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers, and more. It is a farming community and, for BC at least, it’s a large, high density one. For wine grapes, it’s the quality and consistency to grow grapes that are more difficult or impossible to grow elsewhere that draws wineries from other regions in BC to proudly proclaim that the grapes for this or that wine come from “the Golden Mile” or “the Black Sage Bench” or simply, “Oliver.”

Back Camera

Looking south from White Lake Road. The Golden Mile is on the right side of the valley, Black Sage Road on the left.

Map courtesy of Wine Tripper – BC Edition available on iTunes.

A little disclaimer about this region: I live here. Although it’s pretty safe to assume that I will have something personal to disclose about every wine region in this series, the fact is that I live and drive through this area everyday and have for over 5 years now and have worked at wineries here for most of that time. I run into winemakers picking out bananas at the supermarket. My kids go to school with their kids. It’s a community built around wine, farming, and central air-conditioning. The summers here can get very hot.

Which is why grapes, and those who grow them, love this region. Some of the best vineyard land in the country is located here. In this podcast, Tim Martinuk, president of the Oliver-Osoyoos Winery Association, talks about what makes this area worthy of the name, the Wine Capital of Canada.

The wineries of the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association and the South Okanagan.

OOWA Member Wineries

Adega on 45th Black Hills Burrowing Owl
Cassini Cellars Castoro de Oro Church & State
Covert Farms Desert Hills Fairview Cellars
Gehringer Brothers Hester Creek Hidden Chapel
Inniskillin Intersection Jackson-Triggs
Moon Curser Nk’Mip Cellars Oliver Twist
Platinum Bench Quinta Ferreira River Stone
Road 13 Rustico Silver Sage
Stoneboat Tinhorn Creek Young & Wyse

Other wineries in the South Okanagan area:

La Stella Winery Le Vieux Pin Winery Platinum Bench Winery
Looking north from Burrowing Owl Vineyards on the Black Sage bench.

Looking north from Burrowing Owl Vineyards on the Black Sage bench.

Overlooking the town of Oliver from Hester Creek Estate Winery's vineyards on the Golden Mile bench.

Overlooking the town of Oliver from Hester Creek Estate Winery’s vineyards on the Golden Mile bench.

Fall colors in a vineyard near the town of Oliver.

Fall colors in a vineyard near the town of Oliver.

Sunset from Nk'Mip Cellars looking northwest over Osoyoos Lake.

Sunset from Nk’Mip Cellars looking northwest over Osoyoos Lake.