In early October, the Wines of BC issued a press release and noted “BC’s annual grape harvest has arrived amid cooler temperatures in mid-August and early September. With the long, moderate season, wineries are indicating nice flavour development, beautiful acidity and increased crop levels for an exciting 2018 vintage…Above average Growing Degree Days this spring in BC contributed to an early budbreak for many wineries, with reports indicating the hottest May on record in Summerland and Osoyoos. Moderate temperatures were welcomed in August to slow down the ripening of the grapes and allow more time for flavour development. Winemakers predict the current forecast will allow the late reds to reach full maturity and the cool nights will ensure continued flavour development while retaining balanced acidity.”.
This year I interviewed 6 BC wine makers from across BC’s grape growing regions to get their take on this year’s vintage as of mid-November 2018. The wine makers I interviewed are:
- Benoit Gauthier, Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery
- Bailey Williamson, Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard
- Michal Mosny, Winemaker’s CUT
- Danny Hattingh, Fort Berens Estate Winery
- Andrew Etsell, Singletree Winery
- Graham Pierce, Encore Vineyards
Where are these Wineries?
My Interview with BC Winemakers
1. Where your vineyards and winery are located?
- Benoit: At 2320 Oliver Ranch Road, Okanagan Falls, BC
- Bailey: Cowichan Valley.
- Michal: Deadman Lake Vineyard is located between Oliver & Osoyoos, western side of the Hwy.
- Danny: Lillooet, BC.
- Andrew: We have a 15 acres of grapes in Mt.Lehman (Abbotsford) and 13 acres in Naramata. We also have wineries at both locations.
- Graham: We are sourcing fruit from Kelowna right down to the Osoyoos. We are getting most of our reds for further south and whites and more aromatic wines from more northern sites.
2. It’s Year 2 of forest fires here in BC. How did the forest fire smoke affect the ripening of your vines? Last year the smoke slowed ripening, so had a positive effect on the grapes. Is the same true for your vines this year?
- Benoit: The smoke this year had the similar effect as last year. It cooled down the daytime temperature in August and delayed veraison on the late-ripening variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a concern at the beginning since we had the coolest month of September in 20 years and I wasn’t sure if we would get enough growing degree days to fully ripen the Cab. Luckily, the month of October was particularly warm (with a daytime temperature of 15-20 degrees Celsius) and the grapes got that extra push that allowed them to develop.
- Bailey: No Impact on the Island.
- Michal: I found that some red varietals are having a tougher time to develop phenolic compounds. Wildfire smoke, especially heavy and dense smoke that we experienced in August, was blocking sunshine and lowered daily temperatures. This year especially I found that reds didn’t develop colour as much as other years due to lack of sun exposure.
- Danny: Smoke reduces UV light which does slow down development of the plants. At the same time, smoke can temper temperatures, reducing days where temperatures soar above 38c. This means less heat stress for our vines, which speeds up development. Without the heat spikes, we saw more pressure from powdery mildew which usually is eliminated after a few days of 38+c. Powdery mildew pressure increased further with more precipitation than last year. This meant that our cover crop remained green most of the growing season, which increases the humidity in the canopy slightly. Our team that manages the vineyard was on top of things, so none of these seasonal effects created an issue.
- Andrew: This year was a short year and was also made shorter by the smoke in both locations. The fruit this year is slightly higher in acid for some late-ripening varieties.
- Graham: We had a similar impact this year with the smoke creating a bit of a haze for a couple of weeks so it did slow down ripening and pushed picking a little later than some years.
<Interesting comments about smoke’s effects. Karl>
3. When did you start harvesting grapes and when did you finish picking? Was this year early, right on time, or a little later than usual?
- Benoit: First day of picking: September 5th. Last day of picking: October 30th. Most of the grapes were picked on time (average year). Some of the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir got picked a bit later due to the cold September, but just by a few days.
- Bailey: Early ripening grapes began same time, mid-September, finished Pinot Noir mid-October.
- Michal: We pick each varietal in couple timeframes. Early, mid and late ripening stage. But in general, I think this year was about average in terms of picking times. Some reds were hanging a bit longer than usual.
- Danny: We started harvest on September 12, which is a normal start date for us in Lillooet. We finished picking on November 2.
- Andrew: We started in September 12 and finished November 11th.
- Graham: We started picking for sparkling right after the Labour Day long weekend and finished reds on November 7th. This is fairly typical, when you are bringing in a wide range of grape varieties you have a fairly long harvest.
4. Excluding the forest fire smoke, would you say that this harvest produced exceptionally well ripened, quality grapes for classic BC styled wines?
- Benoit: The cooler end of summer and beginning of fall had a great impact on the development of intense flavours. If the wines are made in a terroir-driven style, they will really show the taste of the land, which is what we are all about here at Noble Ridge.
- Bailey: We experienced a multi-day rain event that was brought on by the typhoon that impacted Hawaii and brought rain to the coast and cooler temps, this had a negative effect on the grapes and canopies, this type of weather usually signals winter on the coast so if the canopy was not super healthy it was detrimental, it slowed ripening and then we experienced a very favourable weather pattern for the next 6 weeks, the acids were a bit higher than usual but we had the regular sugar accumulation, this made for slightly incongruous analytical numbers.
- Michal: I wouldn’t describe this vintage as exceptional but at the same time, since I am in Okanagan (since 2012), I haven’t really experienced a bad vintage. Okanagan climate and terroir is simply great and it depends more on growing techniques and experience of us growers to help mother nature produce well-balanced and quality fruit.
- Danny: Lillooet is known for ripened fruit with lower than average pH and higher than average acids for elegant and balanced wines. Keeping yields low ensures higher quality and concentration. Looking back upon the last eight harvests here in Lillooet, this is likely the most balanced vintage of all. Sugars were moderate, pH low, acids medium to high, phenolics peaked just at the right time.
- Andrew: Yes, we were able to harvest all our grapes at the ripeness I was looking for.
- Graham: It was an interesting growing year, although we had a few challenges all in all it was a good year. We just had to hang the fruit a little longer than the past few years to get to full ripeness.
5. Were there any technical issues during harvest?
- Benoit: Harvest was particularly smooth this year, thanks to my crew. We have been together for a while so we are a well-oiled machine!
- Bailey: Addressed above.
- Michal: I did not experience any technical issues this harvest. All went smooth and all wines are showing their typical character we are getting from Deadman Lake Vineyard. Very grateful for that.
- Danny: With more than 200 tons of fruit coming in, we did have issues with space. We delayed a few harvest dates as we waited for tanks to become available again. With the cooler weather at the end of October, which created an environment, not unlike a fridge, the grapes did not suffer from the longer hang time. Last year, we were really in a hurry to get them off as sugar levels were high. This year, we had lots of time.
- Andrew: With purchasing a new winery in April, we were able to just make it with the license before we started the harvest.
- Graham: Biggest technical issue would have been a few lots with slightly higher acid than our goal, not a big deal though.
6. What surprised you about this year’s harvest?
- Benoit: Definitely Mother Nature. The unusual ups and downs in temperature along with an early frost really reminded me that yep, no year is the same! No never know what you are going to get until all the grapes are in!
- Bailey: The outstanding 6 weeks into October, which allowed for phenolic maturity.
- Michal: The Yield. Yield was much higher than expected.
- Danny: Snow in the vineyard on October 2nd. <WOW! Karl’s comment.>
- Andrew: Our Merlot has surprised me again this year. It tastes amazing already and it will spend 18 months in French oak.
- Graham: The biggest surprise would be how great the weather was throughout October and even into November. With cooler than average temperatures in August and September I was concerned we might have an early frost but the leaves all stayed green until after we were done the picking.
7. What’s the most exciting thing about harvest this year?
- Benoit: For me it’s the quality of the wines so far. I am done pressing and fermenting all the reds and I can’t wait to see how they develop in the barrels. The starting point is great and as a winemaker, that’s what puts a smile on your face!
- Bailey: I get to do it again, unlike other producers we only get one chance a year so it is always exciting.
- Michal: I think it is the waiting, planning, adjusting your schedule based on what to pick first. Those moments when you have to combine knowledge, experience and intuition and make a quick decision. This never repeats every year. Each harvest is very unique for this.
- Danny: Generally, the overall quality of the fruit.
- Andrew: Moving into our own production facility on the Naramata Bench!
- Graham: For me the most exciting thing was being at a new winery, with new equipment and vineyards I hadn’t worked with in the past.
8. What’s the scariest thing about harvest?
- Benoit: Oh, many things can go wrong!!! To name a few: Frost at the end of September, your assistant winemaker breaks a leg, 45 days of rain straight through harvest, all of your equipment breaks down at the same time….but fortunately, harvests here are pretty uneventful. We are well prepared and ready for all that comes at us.
- Bailey: How is it going to come in, all at once or nicely spread out.
- Michal: Not having enough tank/barrel space or having too much space.
- Danny: Being understaffed at times, the 80-100 hour work weeks, wears the team down.
- Andrew: Moving into our own production facility.
- Graham: Scariest part of harvest was in September we had some cool weather and I was concerned we would have a frost before all the grapes were ripe, luckily the weather stayed great right into November.
9. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine or using amphora or acacia barrels?
- Benoit: In the last few years, I have been experimenting with new wines. We are just releasing our vintage Port-style wine (2014 The Crown). We will release in 2019 a Rose Sparkling and possibly a new Chardonnay on which I experimented with a series of different yeast, malolactic bacteria stains, barrel fermentation regimen and batonnage.
- Bailey: We are doing a natural ferment of Ortega in an Amphora.
- Michal: My only experiment is bringing Green Veltlin (Gruner Veltliner in German, Veltlin Zeleny in Slovak) into our portfolio. It is a varietal that I used to work with back in Slovakia. A touch of oak fermentation in Slovak barrel and the result is making me very, very happy.
- Danny: We always have a number of experiments going on as we continue to learn about the terroir. One of the spearheads is our natural ferment program. All of our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are now fermented using only native yeasts. This year, we experimented with natural fermentation of Pinot Gris, which is much more difficult as introducing native yeasts into a closed stainless steel tank is much more challenging than in an open top fermenter or an oak barrel. In the end, we are very pleased with the results and will continue next year with a larger portion of Pinot Gris with natural ferment. We are also working on a special 10th Anniversary project. It might be sparkling, it might be Rosé. Stay tuned for more details in 2019.
- Andrew: We are releasing our 2016 sparkling that is made the traditional way. This harvest will see our third sparkling being started.
- Graham: Well it is a new project for me, so everything is new 😉 We are making some traditional method sparkling this year.
<It looks like sparkling wines are growing in BC. Karl>
10. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
- Benoit: After spending so much time together during harvest, we decided that it would be great to lock ourselves in a room for an hour and see if we can get out (do the Escape Room challenge).
- Bailey: We have a team dinner with the owner.
- Michal: Every year we go for end of harvest dinner.
- Danny: We are not done with our last press load. Our Cabernet Franc, which is currently drying on drying racks, for our passimento style wines, will be the last ferment and press load. The last press cycle marks the end of the gruesome schedule of pump overs and punch down at 8am, 2pm, 8pm and 2am. After the last press load and some good night sleeps, we will celebrate the vintage with our team just before Christmas.
<That is exciting to hear. Karl>
- Andrew: Slept, this year was full of late nights and long hours.
- Graham: Once we are finished pressing the last of the reds (likely next week) the harvest team will go for dinner and (a few too many) drinks. And then take a couple of days off:)
11. Will you be making late harvest or ice wine this year?
- Benoit: Wisely…. No.
- Bailey: No ice or late harvest, stay tuned for a Port Style Black Muscat NV.
- Michal: No.
- Danny: Fort Berens has a Late Harvest in our portfolio and which is historically made from Riesling. This year, we experimented with our Late Harvest, where we made it from Orange Muscat.
- Andrew: We are not planning on it.
- Graham: No, fortunately for me no Icewine or late harvest.