The 2020 harvest and the days and months leading up to it will surely be marked in our minds. Starting in March we had the shutdown of our economy and quarantining to keep us safe from COVID. In the summer there were major fires in California and Oregon, with the smoke travelling up to British Columbia. Then in October the Okanagan broke a record for the most snowfall. Quarantining reduced visits by summer holiday guests to our wineries, reducing revenue. BC wineries transitioned to offering their wines online, if they already did not have an e-commerce website.
Overall, how did the BC grape growing season and harvest fare?
This year I interviewed 5 BC winemakers from across BC’s grape growing regions to get their take on this year’s vintage as of mid-November 2020. The winemakers I interviewed are:
- Bailey Williamson, Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard
- Benoit Gauthier, Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery
- Graydon Ratzlaff, Recline Ridge Vineyards and Winery Ltd
- Rolf de Bruin, Fort Berens Estate Winery Ltd
- Val Tait, Gold Hill Winery
Where Are These Wineries?
My Interview with the BC Winemakers
Thank you to these winemakers for taking the time to answer my interview questions and let my readers find out more about their wineries and the progress of their 2020 grape harvest.
1. Where your vineyards and winery are located? Any new vineyards?
- Bailey: Cowichan Valley, yes we are planting new vineyards on site; a very small harvest off the Paula Vineyard planted in 2017, 7 acres, Pinot Noir 115,828,667,777, Pinot Munier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, approx. one acre each.
- Benoit: We are located in The Heart of Wine Country: Okanagan falls, with 25 acres of Estate grown grapes.
- Graydon : In Tappen, B.C. Onsite and contract vineyards in the Shuswap.
- Rolf: Lillooet, BC. We planted 18 more acres in 2018 and 2019
- Val: We have 6 vineyards: 1 Haynes Pt in Osoyoos -10 ac., 2 Estate home vineyard in Oliver – 28 ac., 3 Black Sage vineyard in Oliver (new) 10 ac., 4 cracked granite in Peachland – 10 ac., and 5 West Kelowna vineyard – 10 ac.
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: First pick was Siegerrebe Sept 17, 10 days later Ortega.
- Benoit: We started a bit later than usual on September 9th, picking our Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. We finished at about the same time as usual, picking Cabernet Sauvignon on October 29th.
- Graydon : First picking date was September 14th. About a week later than ‘normal’.
- Rolf: September 14 which is about average.
- Val: We started harvesting in the third week of September and we finished at the end of October. We were at least 14 days behind average.
3. How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?
- Bailey: A fairly average year. Flowering was prolonged due to spotty weather, bud burst was with in a week of last year, cool June, no really hot days this year, only a few over 30 C, rain was spaced thought out the year so no need for much irrigating, high smoke in Sept which lead to lower temps and impeded ripening somewhat.
- Benoit: We had a poor start of the season with colder and rainier periods than the norm. Bloom and veraison were behind by about ten days. Lucky enough, September was just about the best month of September I can recall in my 12 years in the Valley. That really helped bring the ripening of the grapes back on track.
- Graydon : Delayed with late Spring/early Summer cool/wet conditions. Significant yield loss on one site, due to lack of fruit-set during this period. Rainy October, set things back a bit as well.
- Rolf: The season had a decent start with a summer that was slightly cooler than average (meaning we did not break 40c this year). We saw weather improve late August and early September, which helped accelerate ripening of our fruit, which meant we were able to catch up on any time lost during the summer.
- Val: Very late start in the spring with high rainfall events and cooler than normal temperatures. The summer was very mild. Fall was nice with above average temperatures.
4. On Oct 23 a 120-year-old record for most snowfall on an October day has been broken in Kelowna. The previous record was 12.7 cm in 1899, according to Environment Canada. In Penticton, the South Okanagan city matched a 95 year-old record at 11 cm of snowfall. Did that impact any harvesting of grapes in the vineyard? Was the subsequent evenings cold enough for ice wine harvest? Do you think this cold snap so early before the vines can harden off will cause some vine damage?
- Bailey: I get a few reds which we can’t grow here for the Quill Red and so did have our contract grower affected so we had him pick as soon as he could and shipped, 24 hours to get here and start fermenting.
- Benoit: That day was a lovely day…not! I was blowing the irrigation that day (see picture) and trying to drag the compressor across the vineyard. But hey, we had it pretty good up to that point. We had to pause harvesting grapes for 3 days, both due to snow and cold. I don’t do icewine so harvesting grapes at minus 4 degree C for red wine fermentation is not ideal! I expect some bud damage from that cold snap.
- Graydon : Oct. 23rd as well. Got about 6 inches in total. Delayed some harvest dates on later varietals, such as Kerner, etc. Not sure that the temperatures were cold enough to do any damage. No ice wine production here.
- Rolf: We had a bit of snow on Oct 23, but not sure if it broke any records. 90% of our harvest was in by that time, so it did not have a huge impact. Post harvest, we fertilize and irrigate the vineyard, so many of our blocks were already preparing for winter. The temperatures did dip below freezing (-7.2c), but nothing very dramatic.
- Val: The cold event happened when most of the whites were picked and about half the reds. We were negatively impacted in our Peachland vineyard which is at 680 m elevation. We picked most of the remaining Chardonnay before the snow and then completed the pick after the cold snap passed and the snow melted. Unfortunately any opportunity to further ripen the Chardonnay was ended with the cold snap. Our remaining reds of Cab Franc and Cab Sauv however, continued to develop phenologically with the return of sun and warm weather so we were able to finish ripening the remaining reds.
5. What surprised you about this year’s harvest?
- Bailey: Not much surprises me, I always plan for the unknown, the coast is a much more fickle region to grow grapes so one gets used to bracing for the challenges, yields were generally down due to poor fruit set, and sugars were not as high as we have seen in the past few years although the quality was good from a phenological perspective.
- Benoit: I think it’s the fact that we went from Summer to Winter in the span of 3 days in October. Where did the Fall go?
- Graydon : Yields were definitely affected by the early-season cool-ness. Initial delays in development were made up a bit in September, but still delayed overall harvest dates.
- Rolf: Obviously, everyone is dealing with lower crops, perhaps what surprised me was how late in the season we saw this. It was mostly berry size that caused the smaller crop. Smaller berries are great for colour and flavour, but typically, we see smaller bunch size (fewer berries per cluster) and fewer bunches per vine as leading causes for lower crops. This year, most indicators were normal, but at the end the berries did not swell like they usually do. Rainfall is not really a factor for us, as we irrigate, so drought was not a root cause.
- Val: The balance in the fruit in our southern vineyards – with ripening acids usually drop off with the warm fall weather, but cooler conditions this year meant great acid / sugar balance and low sugars at harvest with full tannin ripeness.
6. Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?
- Bailey: Given the Covid 19 situation we did not see it as a year to get too far out of our comfort zone, this industry is not about highs and lows it is more prudent to move with purpose in a planned direction.
- Benoit: Yes, but it’s a secret. Ok, see the picture for a hint.
- Graydon : We’re always excited about our varietals and what they produce. Madeline Sylvaner, Madeline Angevine, and Siegerrebe will all be awesome.
- Rolf: We are experimenting with Gruner Veltliner. We planted just under an acre of GV in 2019 and this year, we were able to purchase some fruit from the Okanagan. Trying our hand at a first vintage with purchased fruit. 2021 or 2022 we will have our first estate vintage.
- Val: I’m very excited about lower potential alcohol. But I’m always experimenting and this year I did a whole berry ferment on cab franc picked two weeks early that I am doing in a very light fresh style. I’ve also done a skin contact ferment of Chardonnay, a Tempranillo Rosé and an early pick Malbec fermented via carbonic maceration.
7. Another year has passed where we have forest fires in British Columbia and across the border in the USA. This time the smoke comes in during grape veraison. Have you initially seen any evidence of smoke taint in the grapes, red or white?
- Bailey: No impact in our region.
- Benoit: No, it was not intense enough and I don’t expect any issues on that front.
- Graydon : Very little smoke up here, and no evidence of taint so far.
- Rolf: There were no fires of concern near Lillooet this year.
- Val: I feel the risk will be very low as the fires were peaking well in advance of veraison. I haven’t done any testing but even in years when smoke taint was an issue, the amount of fruit that has historically been affected has always been very small.
8. COVID really shut down things for wine regions around the world. How did COVID affect you through the growing season and during harvest?
- Bailey: It had the same impact as many others with regard to vineyard staff, tighter protocols and heightened due diligence, being small and on the Island has its advantages at times and this may have been one of those.
- Benoit: I had to adjust my hiring practices. I hired local workers and kept good distancing practices. Lucky enough, I had enough people to get the job done and on time. Not everybody got so lucky this year unfortunately.
- Graydon : Covid effects: labour shortages, initial customer absence. LOTS of birds everywhere. Hard to speculate if lack of vehicle traffic early in the year worldwide may have contributed to seasonal variance.
- Rolf: Certainly, it was more difficult to find vineyard works and pickers this year.
- Val: COVID was a challenge for labour as we kept a very tight bubble of few workers in our operation. It meant more hands on deck helping out in the vineyard and the cellar.
9. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?
- Bailey: I have 2 amphora now and fermented Bacchus on skins in one and pinot noir in the other whole cluster with carbonic. Once they are empty I will use them to age the pinot noir. Our owner, Paul, has an experiment with another partner to produce a low alcohol Aperitivo which should be released some time in the next few months.
- Benoit: A picture is worth a thousand words? See above photo.
- Graydon : No.
- Rolf: We continue to do lots of experiments, in particular continuing our efforts with natural ferments. Particularly on the white wines fermented in stainless steel tanks, this tends to be quite difficult to do as the environment tends to be almost sterile. So we are micro-oxing our white ferments to introduce “dirty” air from the cellar that hopefully contains the right spores of the wild yeasts that we are looking for.
- Val: Please see comments above on new products.
Certainly some interesting answers and observations. Overall the growing season was average, but there was a cooler rainy spring. August and September had good weather. Harvest started a little later than usual. Rain and the crazy snowfall in October, influenced smaller yields, but there was still some maturation of red grapes after the snow melted. COVID affected wineries needing vineyard workers and grape pickers. Experiments continue with roses, natural ferments, and carbonic maceration. Should be interesting to try the white wines in the Spring 2021, followed by the reds in Fall 2021 and onward.