2017 was a terrible harvest in France due to poor weather conditions through the growing season, producing the smallest grape harvest since 1945. In the United States, Napa and Sonoma Valleys were hit by forest fires which although was late in the harvest, still affected later ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. The Valleys were also suffering from a heat wave, causing grapes over Labour Day to become shriveled.
What about BC’s 2017 harvest? We had forest fires as well, starting in early July, and dry, hot weather. Did our vines suffer? Last year I interviewed 3 winemakers from across BC about the 2016 harvest. This year I doubled the number of winemakers to see if I can get more details about the harvest. The 6 winemakers I interviewed are:
- Jeff Del Nin, Road 13 Vineyards
- Bradley Cooper, Serendipity Winery
- Layne Robert Craig, 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery
- Nadine Allander, ENCORE Vineyards (TIME Winery)
- Andrew Etsell, Singletree Winery
- Pascal Madevon, Consultant Winemaker to BC wineries (Liber Farm and Winery)
Where are These Wineries?
Just to place things in your mind, here is a map that shows the location of the wineries. Two wineries are in the Central Okanagan, and one is in each of the South Okanagan, Similkameen, Fraser Valley, and mid-Vancouver Island. I posed 11 questions to these winemakers. Let’s find out about their harvests.
My Interview with BC Wine Makers
1. Can you first tell us where your vineyards and winery are located?
- Jeff: The vineyards are located primarily on the Golden Mile sub-appellation as well as The Similkameen Valley.
- Bradley: I make wine for Serendipity in Naramata and for a number of other private clients. Vineyards stretch from Summerland to Osoyoos, but 80% of the locations are in the Naramatas and Penticton areas.
- Layne: Comox Valley, Vancouver Island. Right on the straight.
- Nadine: We have contract vineyards throughout the Okanagan Valley; Kelowna, West Kelowna, Summerland, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Oliver and Osoyoos. TIME winery is located in downtown Penticton. Here we produce wines for TIME Winery, Evolve Cellars, and for the McWatters Collection. We also produce some wine out of Evolve Cellars, located in Summerland.
- Andrew: Singletree Winery is located on the foothills of Mt. Lehman, located in Abbotsford, the heart of Fraser Valley’s agriculture centre.
- Pascal: I work all the Okanagan, some in the Similkameen, also on Vancouver Island and in the Kootenays.
2. Forest fires in the Emerging Regions and Okanagan began in the first week of July. I was travelling through the region and recall seeing smoke come down the Okanagan Valley from the north as I sat on the patio at Arrowleaf Cellars in Lake Country. Smoke lasted and was quite persistent during the summer. How did the forest fire smoke affect the ripening of your vines? I have heard some vineyard operators mention that the smoke kept the region a bit cooler, so that the grapes could ripen more slowly.
- Jeff: Exactly, we got enough sunlight on the vines, but did not get the intense heat. Consequently, the sugars were more in balance with flavours, setting this growing season up to be one of the most unique, and possibly best of all time. I contrast that to 2016, where sugars soared way in excess of flavours. The smoke was not intense enough to cause any taint issues.
- Bradley: We may have had some delay in ripening from the smoke cover. The combination between a long, warm summer and a late spring and bloom should, and did, create some offset. I personally have not encountered any smoke taint at this time.
- Layne: No issues here with smoke or forest fires. Realistically it takes a lot of smoke at the right time to alter grape flavours. However, I am aware that the smoke traps in moisture that caused a lot of unexpected powdery mildew in the Okanagan.
- Nadine: Forest fire smoke slowed the ripening of the grapes, allowing us to hang the fruit until flavours reached optimal levels, without high sugars.
- Andrew: We began harvest on September 7 with our estate Siegerrebe. We finished picking October 31 with our Grüner Veltliner. This year we had a late start on the season but once spring arrived, it was very warm and dry. We had a warm fall which allowed us to hang some of our varietals longer than we ever have.
- Pascal: No I don’t think it affected the ripening this year. In 2003, there was more smoke than this year. This season was a little early compared to the 10 year average and was a little late compared to last year, but it was very hot last year.
3. When did you start harvesting grapes and when did you finish picking? Last year was really hot with an early harvest. Is this year’s harvest time frame comparable?
- Jeff: Chenin Blanc for sparkling wine was harvested on September 8th. This is about 3 weeks later than 2016, but more in line with historical start dates. I would classify 2017 as a ‘normal’ vintage. Not too hot, not too cool.
- Bradley: Picked some grapes for bubble in the first week of September and then most of the whites came in about week earlier than historical averages. Reds were delayed as the weather pretty well stalled out.
- Layne: The end of August was our first harvest, and it went all the way thru to mid October. Hear units were higher than last year, but we had a late start. So it all evened out.
- Nadine: Our harvest began on August 28th, 2017 with Chardonnay for an all-new McWatters Collection traditional-method sparkling wine. This was about two weeks later than the previous year when we started on Aug 15th, 2016. Our last picking date this year was on October 24th, some gorgeous Naramata Bench Viognier. In 2016, our last pick date was Nov 1, 2016 as we had to wait until a break in the rain. This vintage, we had the bulk of the grapes picked in a (VERY BUSY) 3-week period, from mid-to-late September. In this way, it felt more condensed than last vintage when fruit intake was more evenly spread out.
- Andrew: I have heard some vineyard operators mention that the smoke kept the region a bit cooler, so that the grapes could ripen more slowly. Overall, we don’t think the smoke will affect this year’s harvest. In the Fraser Valley we did see some smoke for about two weeks, but it did not affect the vines or grapes this year.
- Pascal: It was a little early. On average we were 1 week early compared to the last 10 years. In the Okanagan the Chardonnay was picked the last week of September, and the Sauvignon Blanc the week before. Merlot was picked around the first and second week of October. Cabernet Franc around the second and third weeks of October, and Cabernet Sauvignon the last week of October.
4. Excluding the forest fire smoke, would you say that this harvest produced exceptionally well-ripened, quality grapes for classic BC styled wines?
- Jeff: Yes, exactly. I expect good quality across the board, possibly one of the best years ever for reds. Especially Merlot, which had exceptional ripeness levels, colour and flavour. For me, whites were typical, but the smoke did result in higher levels of acidity. For the first time ever, I found myself hanging whites longer on the vine to achieve a drop in acidity. That is definitely unusual for the south Okanagan and Similkameen.
- Bradley: Ripeness levels seemed to be adequate to better. Acid levels were sustained nicely giving us some hang time in reds and whites.
- Layne: For us, it was a great year. One of the highest yields and quality we have produced.
- Nadine: We are very pleased with the wines that were produced this year. The whites are bright, fruit forward, and have lovely acidity. We feel they are of a higher quality than last years wines, due to the clear expression of fruit flavours and aromas coming through in the finished wines. The reds are also fruit-forward, complex and possess some firm tannins that would suit ageing. Alcohol levels are in check.
- Andrew: This year was a great year for growing grapes in the Fraser Valley and we saw some of the highest yields and least amount of damage or disease this year. This vintage saw the fruit hang longer on the vine, creating a riper and more flavourful grape.
- Pascal: It was a very good year. No question about it. I like the white wines this year.
5. Without the wines being finished the fermentation process, do you think that there is any risk of smoke taint for your wines, from 0-100%?
- Jeff: Very little risk of smoke taint. But we are prepared with reverse osmosis if smoke taint does occur. We did not get smoke taint in 2015, and the smoke intensity was way higher. So we are not expecting anything in 2017.
- Bradley: As previously stated, I haven’t encountered any smoke taint at this time.
- Layne: No risk.
- Nadine: Our wines have all finished fermentation, been pressed off, and barreled down (if applicable). We have detected no trace of smoke taint at this point. We are optimistic that they will not exhibit smoke taint aromas or flavours. I would welcome more research to be done on smoke taint and grape quality.
- Andrew: Not applicable.
- Pascal: Smoke taint. No.
6. Were there any technical issues during harvest?
- Jeff: Apart from a rash of equipment breakdowns (a collection of bad luck), the only technical issues from the season was a predominance of powdery mildew caused by the smoke. The smoke acted like a greenhouse and kept humidity levels higher and temperatures in the zone that would support mildew growth. This problem caused many issues for growers across the valley, who are not used to the mildew pressure we faced. This caused a lot of vineyards to either lose a lot of fruit, or in some cases, all of their fruit. Fortunately, we were able to jump on the problem early enough that it did not cause us significant economic damage. But we did have to put more people on our sorting table to remove questionable fruit.
- Bradley: No technical issues I’m aware of.
- Layne: No real issues, just be patient and what for perfect on vine ripeness.
- Nadine: We were working with all brand-new equipment at TIME Winery this harvest, so we had a bit of a learning curve to overcome, but it turned out great!
- Andrew: With the larger yields this year we had to pick our popular Siegerrebe over three days. Funny story: we were short on bins as well and had to borrow some from a neighboring vineyard!
- Pascal: No. People working in the wineries are more experienced than before, so less problems. In 2001 when I arrived in BC, there were situations where there were wine making problems because we were trying to figure out how to handle the acidity, sugar, etc. in the grapes.
7. What surprised you about this year’s harvest?
- Jeff: No major surprises from the harvest except 1) Mildew as mentioned, 2) high acidity in whites 3) Much lower bunch weights than expected, resulting in a major drop in total grapes harvested.
- Bradley: Two surprises – we had to turn down a grape contract. That doesn’t happen much anymore. Grower overcropped. AND a very small overall harvest. Almost everything came in 20% down or more.
- Layne: No real surprises.
- Nadine: The thing that surprised me most about the harvest was the acidity that the grapes retained. We had to delay harvesting a few varieties until titratable acidity dropped a bit. The result will be some very bright, balanced, and refreshing wines.
- Andrew: We were pleasantly surprised on how well the grapes grew this year, with grape clusters that were clean and full down every row. As the winery’s viticulturalist, it’s a view I’ll never got tired of seeing.
- Pascal: The increase of the quality of wine making everywhere. I feel now there is a lot of competence in wine making. It is impressive.
8. What’s the most exciting thing about harvest this year?
- Jeff: The most exciting thing about harvest: Roussanne and Merlot are looking very, I’m very excited to see how this works out.
- Bradley: Syrah from the Naramatas continues to excite me.
- Layne: 100% disease free as a bio dynamic grower!
- Nadine: For us, the most exciting thing this harvest was to be making wine in our brand-new winery in downtown Penticton. We have been looking forward this for quite some time. We are very happy with how functional the cellar and crush pad are.
- Andrew: This year I will be making three different types of wine from our Siegerrebe: a still wine, an orange-style wine and new this year will be a sparkling Siggy! I am also making a traditional-method sparkling from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown on our estate vineyard. We also introduced Okanagan Malbec into our Bordeaux blend, Harness.
- Pascal: The whites yes, but also the reds, especially Cab Sauvignon and Malbec. Possibly better than last year. I feel also that the crop is lower than last year and the berry size was smaller. I think it means you will get something better. Part of the lower crop may be from crop thinning and sometimes when there was a big crop in the previous year, the vines compensate and produce less the following year.
9. What’s the scariest thing about harvest?
- Jeff: The scariest thing about harvest is the drop in volume at a time when our wines (and BC wines in general) are on an up-surge. But ‘scary’ is a stretch: these are just things to manage, not fear.
- Bradley: I’ve never seen so FEW fruit flies. #endoftimes
- Layne: Being patient.
- Nadine: The scariest thing about harvest is the fear of running out of fermentation vessels/cooperage! With a few rental tanks procured before harvest, we managed to end harvest with one, single empty tank, enabling us to be able to easily rack our finished wines without prematurely blending any lots. It was close, but we did it!
- Andrew: The weather. I am constantly watching the forecast making sure there is no rain close to harvest.
- Pascal: <MyWinePal: Nothing mentioned.>
10. How would you characterize the red and the white wines you produce in your area of BC? How long would you suspect the longevity of the wines from your region of BC for red and white wines?
- Jeff: The reds and whites are big, intense, rich and round, but with good balance of acidity and tannin. The longevity of certain wines depends on many things, including the varietals, the flavour chemistry, the tannin extraction, pH, and even the method of sealing the bottle. Generally, we are not looking to make wines to last for decades, but rather: most wines are crafted to be drinking well either immediately, through to about 8-10 years after the vintage. We strive for balance, and do not like to bottle a wine that is unbalanced now so that it will soften into balance 15 years from now. This is particularly relevant to our focus on Rhone varietals at Road 13, which often are at their magnificent peak of youthful splendour in the first 3-5 years of their life.
- Bradley: I’m unable to characterize the wines of the Naramata Bench with so much diversity and style differences. The whites tend to favour crisp acidity styles and the reds seem to develop great personality wherever they get a good representation of the mountain gravels over the silt of the bluffs.
- Layne: We are very Mid to Northern France in comparison. Nice acidity, very aromatic, with very alive long flavours. Whites are very stable, easy 5 year wines. The Pinot Noir, well longer than I will live to find out.
- Nadine: Each lot of wine is treated differently to make the best wines we can, and to express the vintage. Some may have longer aging potential than others. In general our white wines tend to be fresh, aromatic, and fruit forward with a touch of minerality. For Evolve Cellars, we make them to “weekday” or “any day” wines… affordable and quaffable. We source the fruit from Summerland, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, and Oliver vineyards. Our sparkling fruit tends to come from our Oliver Vineyards and our Kelowna contract vineyards. For the white wines we make for TIME Winery and McWatters Collection, these tend to see some barrel ageing and an increased focus on building texture and complexity. Our red wines for Evolve are fruit-forward with soft, approachable tannins so that they may to be enjoyed early on in their life. For TIME Winery and McWatters Collection, the reds have firmer tannins, more complexity, longer barrel ageing, and darker, riper fruit notes.
- Andrew: I would characterize our white wines as fruit-forward, aromatic and well-balanced. We do grow red grapes that we make into a rosé and now a traditional-method sparkling wine.
- Pascal: In the Similkameen, it depends where you are. Liber Farm in Similkameen are at the end of the Valley, a hot spot, close to the border, but because of the river nearby it cools the vineyard at night. There is also the shadow of the mountains and wind that also adds to the quick cooling at night. There is a lot of wind because it is a narrow valley. Liber Farms produce incredible Chardonnay. They started 2 years ago and farm organically. Their Merlot is very Bordeaux styled, with lots of intensity and complexity because, I think because of the daily temperature variation.
11. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
- Jeff: We are still in harvest mode and have not celebrated yet. I expect we will have a feast, with plenty of wine, cider and beer consumed. We did open up a bottle of Sparkling Chenin Blanc to celebrate the last fruit being crushed.
- Bradley: For the most part, there’s not much of a team. Usually two people doing the work. We pop a few bottles of bubble when the time comes. We have most of our reds still to press at Serendipity as is the quaint house tradition so we’ll probably be wrapping it up in December. My other clients are done pressing now and are busy with barrel work and filtering whites ahead of impending bottling schedules.
- Layne: I think we all just slept. Big harvest, very busy crush pad, close to 100 tons.
- Nadine: To celebrate the Harvest, we began by “christening” the first pick of grapes for the 2017 vintage with a bottle of sparkling wine, as it crossed the sorting table and went up the elevator into the press. We celebrated the end of harvest by getting together one evening with our close-knit cellar staff and those who helped out during harvest, for a couple of drinks and some appetizers at Local On Lakeshore in Summerland.
- Andrew: We held our first annual harvest dinner this year. It was held in the middle of our vineyards. We had great food, live music and an amazing group of people to celebrate harvest with.
- Pascal: Most of my clients have a Christmas party. When they finish they open some Champagne at the end of harvest, but the Christmas party is more important.
Thank you to all the winemakers who helped us understand this vintage. So the smoke was not a problem in BC. That is great news. I look forward to seeing some of the white wines released in Spring 2018, reds in Fall 2018 and onward. Enjoy.