In October the Wines of British Columbia sent out a brief media release about the current state of the 2019 Harvest, stating “…Despite a wetter than average September, winemakers are overcoming the challenges they are faced with right now crediting skilled vineyard management and embracing the lower sugars and alcohol levels they are seeing in the wines so far…”
It is now at the end of November and BC wineries are wrapping up their harvest, except for any late-harvest and icewines, which need colder temperatures. Overall, how did the BC grape harvest fare? Did the September rains cause a catastrophe, or was it a mere blip, with October having wonderful warm sunny weather?
This year I interviewed 4 BC winemakers from across BC’s grape growing regions to get their take on this year’s vintage as of mid-November 2019. The winemakers I interviewed are:
- Bailey Williamson, Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard
- Michael Alexander, Summerhill Pyramid Winery
- Andrew Etsell, Singletree Winery
- Michal Mosny, Winemaker’s CUT
Where Are These Wineries?
I colour coded the pins in the map below to match to the winemakers’ names above.
I would like to thank each of these winemakers for taking the time to answer my interview questions. I know that Harvest is a busy time and that they are still in the process of turning must into wine.
My Interview with BC Winemakers
1. Where your vineyards and winery are located? Any new vineyards?
- Bailey: We are in the new to become Cowichan Valley Sub-GI, waiting the Minister’s signature and adoption into Legislation. The original vineyard is 8 acres. We planted 7 acres 3 years ago, 4 clones of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris. We will plant 10 more this year and 10 the following year, mostly to the same varieties but a few different clones. When all is done we will be 35 acres of vineyard.
- Michael: We are located at 4870 Chute Lake Road, Kelowna. B.C.
- Andrew: We have two wineries, one located in Abbotsford, The other is located on the Naramata Bench. We have three vineyards, one located at our Abbotsford location the other two are located on the Naramata Bench. We just added the second vineyard early in 2019. This vineyard is called crooked vines and is located on lower Debeck Road in Naramata.
- Michal: Deadman Lake Vineyard between Oliver and Osoyoos on the western side of the highway and a new vineyard just north of Oliver.
2. 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?
- Bailey: The Siegerrebe came in first as usual on Sept 11, all the other varieties were within a couple of days of previous years. The last was the Pinot Noir on October 10. There was a pretty good frost the night before.
- Michael: We started harvest on September 6th for sparkling and finished our reds on October 25th. We do still have Icewine hanging so can’t officially call harvest done until it is in. This year was a few days behind the past few years but overall was a pretty typical year with regards to pick dates.
- Andrew: We started the season on September 19th with Siggy and ended the harvest season with Gruner Veltliner on October 30th. It is a little later to start harvest and early to finish. It was a condensed Harvest season.
- Michal: We started on September 10th. I’d say it was earlier than expected considering the development during growing season. First pick of some varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer came in about 10 days ahead of last year. Last pick of some reds was 24th October, it was the third pick of Syrah.
3. Were there any technical issues during harvest?
- Bailey: There were no technical issues, we were testing a few new configurations with respect to operational processing in anticipation of larger volumes in the future given the new plantings coming online.
- Michael: We had a little less heat and a little less sun then we have had over the past few years, as a result, we saw lower sugar levels. We are very lucky at Summerhill that we get to celebrate vintage variation and as a result, we adjusted our cap management protocols, pressing programs, and a few other things to ensure that every step was about preserving the beauty of 2019.
- Andrew: Early Frost posed some challenges.
- Michal: There is almost no harvest without minor technical issues. The main technical issue this harvest was rain 🙂 The timeframe for picking was tight and we had to pick and process fast.
4. What surprised you about this year’s harvest?
- Bailey: Everything and nothing, you can’t have any preconceived ideas because it is farming and you have to maintain the position of adaptability.
- Michael: I was surprised by the balance in the wines. With the cooler harvest season, I was worried that we would see high acid wines that were out of balance, instead, our acid numbers looked great, out pH’s were spot on and the phenolic ripeness was exactly where we wanted it. The result of it all are wines that have great balance and are exciting to drink.
- Andrew: Our Malbec was a huge surprise this year. <Karl: I wonder what the surprise will be?>
- Michal: Even though there was lot of stress to get grapes off the vines fast and the whole harvest basically happened in 2 big waves, the quality of juice and fermenting wine is very good. As far as analytics, the numbers were all over. But again, the wine is showing beautiful flavours.
5. What Do You Look For When You Make Wine?
- Bailey: I look to make the most authentic representation of the grapes while balancing taste and intervention.
- Michael: When grape sampling we look at empirical measurements like brix, pH, acidity, etc. But they all come second to flavour. When tasting samples there is a clear moment when things taste just right, picking at this moment means wines with soul and excitement. There is a balance in the wines that only mother nature can achieve-It’s my job to trap that moment in a bottle.
- Andrew: Quality fruit. You can not make good wine from bad grapes!
- Michal: Purity, balance and complexity. Purity by making wine traditionally, no or only organic yeast to highlight the pure varietal characteristics true to each vineyard. Complexity by fermenting in oak and skin and lees contact. And balance, just by letting the wine find its balance through good ageing with minimal use of SO2 and not using any fining agents or finishing additions. Just time and sounds of classical music in the cellar.
6. Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?
- Bailey: We fermented the Estate Pinot Noir whole cluster in amphora with zero additions, so no yeast or anything else. We gently pressed it and it is now going through ML conversion naturally.
- Michael: I am really excited about our ever-expanding biodynamic wine program. We have released 3 biodynamic wines thus far, all three are exciting and unique. They have also been great learning experiences that have allowed us to continue to grow our Bio-D program.
- Andrew: Our Malbec this year will be absolutely amazing. We also have some surprise roses that will be a treat for our guests. <Karl: Now we know!>
- Michal: Just like last year it’s Gruner Veltliner and we have added new wines to our heritage series – Kerner, Muscat Canelli and Riesling. All wines we used to make back in Slovakia where we grew up and by using Slovakian Oak. All wines are unique and expressive. And every year I am very excited about our estate Syrah, Sauv Blanc and Rose.
7. How do you grow your grapes, e.g. using organic or biodynamic methods?
- Bailey: This past year was the second year we tested our methods of organic growing on the older established vineyard, We have incorporated some biodynamic practices, the ones based in science not the witchy stuff, we dance around the vineyard naked for fun not because it makes the grapes grow better. We will begin to investigate the different certifying bodies and see which one aligns with our philosophy best. We will extend these practices into the new vineyard and coming plantings.
- Michael: Our estate vineyard is certified organic as well as certified biodynamic. When we make decisions for our vineyard we ask the question-will this leave the land better for the next generation? The answer must be a firm yes for us to move forward. Organic and biodynamic farming ensures that we will pass along land healthier than we found it.
- Andrew: We use conventional farming techniques.
- Michal: Basically we have our own method of farming that combines methods like – organic-biodynamic and sustainable. Our estate fruit doesn’t see any pesticides, herbicides nor synthetic fertilizers. Our plants got used to it and we know what they need and especially what block or part of the vineyard needs special care. From Biodynamic practices, we use two sometimes three preparations, cover crops, and working according to lunar calendar. We are not certified because we don’t believe that a relationship with land can be certified. Its all about flavours in our wine.
8. How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?
- Bailey: Farming, bud break was a bit earlier and that was encouraging, the conditions for flowering were perfect, hot and sunny which continued for the rest of the summer up till September when it got cool and a bit rainy, This was not optimal but due to the diligence of our viticulturist, Michael, the fruit remained intact and of high quality.
- Michael: Every vintage comes with its own challenges, some years have smoke, others spring frost, this year we had more rain and less heat than we had hoped for. When the clouds parted, we saw beautiful blue skies for long enough to ripen the fruit. This was a year of trusting everything would work out and that the vines would know what to do. And they did.
- Andrew: This season was average, we were lucky to have no smoke this season.
- Michal: I think it was a beautiful growing season. I always hear a lot of concerns, complains etc. But comparing bad vintages in Europe, I haven’t experienced anything even close to that here in Okanagan. This season remind me a lot to 2012, when we arrived in Okanagan. Cold spring, late bud break and rainy fall with early overnight frost. There was also lot of frost damage this year so yields were down at some varietals.
9. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?
- Bailey: I am trying out a small run of Pet Nat Gamay Noir, 500 bottles, as mentioned earlier whole cluster Pinot Noir in the Amphora.
- Michael: We are always experimenting and trying new things at Summerhill, the past few years have been dedicated to expanding our biodynamic program. Each vineyard, cellar, and vintage is different and in turn the winemaking needs to be different. Our biodynamic program allows us to try new things every year and this year was no exception. The 2019 Summerhill vineyard wines will be as unique as the year.
- Andrew: Nothing that I can talk about yet, but stay tuned there is a special one.
- Michal: Not really. We always use wind ferments, it’s just a question of what % per wine. Because of the rainy fall, the % is lower this year and the rest had to be inoculated with organic yeast. We want to be on the safe side and offer our customers clean wine with no weird flavours. Then we always use skin contact, each varietal is cold soaked between 3 hours and a couple of days.
10. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
- Bailey: Beer and Pizza. We will have a party for the whole winery before Christmas.
- Michael: We are very lucky and get to work with over a dozen small family growers who put their heart and soul into the grapes. This harvest we are inviting our growers, vineyard teams, and cellar team to take a moment, share a bite to eat, taste through the young wines, and celebrate what we all worked so hard to make. It is about celebrating the people that make Summerhill such an amazing place to be.
- Andrew: We celebrate by getting a good night’s sleep. Harvest is extremely busy for our tiny team. So the best way to celebrate is by getting some decent shut-eye.
- Michal: A beautiful cigar from the Dominican Republic is still waiting…