The 2021 harvest will surely be marked in our minds as COVID continues. Plus during the summer there were major fires in BC, and now with the heavy rains and flooding, I’m sure the weather has had an impact on harvest and fermentation. Socially distanced visitors to BC wineries ensued this year. 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
- Graydon Ratzlaff, Recline Ridge Vineyards and Winery Ltd
- Alesssandro (Alex) Nel, Fort Berens Estate Winery Ltd
- Michael Alexander, Summerhill Pyramid Winery
- Val Tait, Gold Hill Winery
Where Are These Wineries?
I colour-coded the pins on this map to match the colours associated with the winemaker names that I have listed above.
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?
Bailey: Cowichan Valley Sub-GI.
Graydon: We are at 2640 Skimikin Road, Tappen.
Alex: Both are in Lillooet, Northbound on Highway 99.
Michael: We are located at 4870 Chute Lake Road, Kelowna. B.C
Val: Our winery is located in the boundary of Oliver and Osoyoos on the west side of the valley (3502 Fruitvale Way Oliver BC). Our vineyards are located in Osoyoos, Oliver, Peachland and West Kelowna
2. When did you start harvesting grapes and when did you finish picking?
Bailey: Was this year early, right on time, or a little later than usual? Started on the 7th of September last pick October the 11th this was about a week to 10 days earlier.
Graydon: Harvest started just after Labour Day, and was completed onsite mid-October. Our contract site (about 5 miles East) was a but later and completed at the end of October. Almost an average harvest timing.
Alex: We started picking Chardonnay for Sparkling wine on August 30th and ended with Cabernet Franc on October 23rd.
Michael: We started picking Sept. 7 and finished October 20th. We found harvest started around when we would expect but everything seemed to hit ripeness around the same time so we finished about a week earlier than last year.
Val: Harvest began in late August (Sauvignon Blanc) and finished in late October (Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon).
3. What surprised you about this year’s harvest? Did you have a bigger or smaller volume of grapes compared to last year?
Bailey: Condensed the ripening window was shorter due to the heat dome we figure Volumes were up due to purchasing the home vineyard was within 5% of last year. GGD (Growing Degree Days) were up this year over last and there were a couple of major rain events that required careful attention regarding pick dates Last year, 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.
Graydon: Crop yield on our site and our contract site was above average. Quality was also excellent on our site, so a ‘perfect’ growing year?? Not that I want those conditions again, but it is interesting. With the heat dome, we think things slowed down a bit, after racing ahead very quickly in the earlier part of the year. Then, with the smoke, it slowed down even longer, so it stretched our harvest back to almost ‘normal’ timing. Sugars were generally quite good, with nice acidity as well. Still determining what effect the smoke will have on finished wines.
Alex: We had an above average harvest in some blocks with higher yields, compared with last year. We had some heat damage to our young vines which caused smaller berries and very concentrated wines made from these grapes. It was a wet season with rainfall almost every week throughout harvest, which made picking tricky, but it was a cool season overall, showing great aromatics and natural acidities.
Michael: This year we saw smaller and more concentrated berries, the result was a smaller than normal harvest. It also meant more concentrated wines. With all the heat we had around veraison we saw great phenolic ripeness without sugars shooting up. The wines that came from this fruit have an incredible depth and concentration already but still have balance.
Val: The light crop in our Oliver and Osoyoos vineyards surprised me this year. Our crop was off by 40 -60% by weight in some of our blocks compared with last year. Very cold and wet conditions at bloom in these blocks were most likely to blame because any blocks that bloomed in advance of this cool weather or after this cool weather were actually heavier than crop weights compared with last year. The extreme heat in the summer did not seem to have any adverse effects on our fruit quantity or quality as we were able to irrigate. We did have problems with rampant vine growth because of the heat so our labour inputs were higher in all areas.
4. We had forest fires again this year plus the heat dome at the end of June. On July 13 the White Rock Lake fire began in Kelowna, and later Vernon residents were on evacuation alert. There were also fires just to the north of Osoyoos. Did either the forest fires or heat dome affect your vines this year?
Bailey: The Island was not affected.
Graydon: See Answer 3.
Alex: We had 2 fires in our area, McKay creek and Lytton. We were fortunate enough that we had no smoke around the vineyards. The breeze blowing off Seton Lake runs behind our vineyards, which kept the smoke from reaching us. We almost always have a Northerly wind which kept the McKay creek fire away. We also made a Pinot Gris from a block in Lytton, which was lucky enough not to have any smoke taint. Proceeds from this wine will be used to help Lytton recovery. <MyWinePal: that is very thoughtful of you to do.>
Michael: The heat dome definitely affected things, we had to keep a close eye on the vines to ensure we didn’t get sun burn on the fruit. We were lucky and saw no sun damage in our vineyards. We also noticed that the heat dome seemed to have reduced the disease pressure leaving us with clean, healthy vines and fruit. We haven’t seen any smoke taint yet, we are crossing our fingers that none shows up.
Val: See comments above regarding the heat dome. The fires had no impact on any of our blocks, or at least there is no effects on flavour that we can detect at this time.
5. This is the second harvest under COVID. What did you do differently this year compared to last year?
Bailey: Nothing different we followed the PHO and all staff were fully vaccinated.
Graydon: As for effects of COVID, last year and this year, customers still came in usual amounts, over the year. However, the heat dome discouraged visits, as it was too hot (it actually topped out one evening at 48C!!). And, then the smoke DID keep folks away as well, so overall sales dropped during those times.
Alex: This was the second vintage that we struggled to get a large enough harvest team. Towards the end of vintage we were able to get pickers from the Okanagan, covering their fuel expense and offering our property as a campground, in order to complete the vintage in time.
Michael: We followed the same protocols as last year, team safety was and is priority number one.
Val: Our workers did not interact or socialize outside of our company, so it was probably a little boring for them in their off hours. Other than that, we did not do anything different from last year.
6. Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?
Bailey: I am really enjoying the fermenting of Pinot Noir in the Amphora whole cluster and the profile it gets from the carbonic maceration, the clone we have tends to be a bit more brooding and this brings forth the fruit a bit more <MyWinePal: That sounds exciting>.
Graydon: Haven’t changed our wines, really, although we did add a Pinot Gris to the lineup, and people are loving it.
Alex: Being the new winemaker here, most styles will change. We had our first harvest of Gruner Veltliner which will be bottled separately, which will be great to taste. I am also doing a barrel fermentation on our reserve Riesling, using winemaking techniques I learned in New Zealand. I had massive success with this on Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa, so I am excited to see how it comes out.
Michael: They are all my babies so I get excited about all of them, but I get more excited about our biodynamic program. The Bio-D series always show a true expression of the vintage. This year’s wines are no exception. The wines become little time capsules of the 2021 year.
Val: We are increasing our focus on Cabernet Franc, and this year, we harvested Cabernet Franc, same clone and rootstock, from three different vineyards. We are going to explore the differences in these wine lots.
7. How do you grow your grapes, e.g. using organic or biodynamic methods?
Bailey: We are in the transition phase to organic in the vineyard the old block has been farmed organic for the last 3 years, it requires way more attention to detail and pick dates due to the climate here on the Island.
Graydon: With the climatic conditions here, we can’t attempt organic methods. We are just ensure the best quality through intensive vinecare, including appropriate spray chemicals, excellent husbandry practices, leaf removal, etc.
Alex: We use an Organic approach, farming the soil. We are composting all our cellar waste, which will ultimately be worked back into the soil. We do not spray herbicides and we have very little disease pressure, so no need to spray heavy fungicides, only light sulfur.
Michael: Our estate vineyard is Biodynamic and Organic, out contract growers are organic.
Val: We do not farm under any certification or recognized formal body, other than following environmental and BC farming practices. Unofficially we farm organically with the exception of two applications of herbicide and sustainably. Grapes are one of the easiest fruits to grow organically and sustainably.
8. How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?
Bailey: More days above 30 c than last year and the usual dodging the rain events around harvest, normal.
Graydon: We saw some stressing on the vines as a result of the heat, but overall, they performed very well. (We don’t irrigate, so we were watching closely.)
Alex: We had the highest temperatures ever recorded in June, which caused a lot of sun damage on our young vines. We also had a lot of rain throughout the growing season which made it difficult to water stress the vines at times, which delayed some picking days.
Michael: Mother nature gave us another unique growing season, with persistent heat until September, forest fires earlier than past years, and no rain for weeks on end. It proved to be an amazing year producing some of the prettiest fruit I have seen. I have no doubt 2021 will produce wines we talk about for years to come.
Val: As usual, the season was completely unpredictable. I thought we would be harvesting earlier than normal, but we ended up harvesting our reds at the same time as last year. Malic levels at harvest were very high which I found very surprising, as we normally have very low if any malic at harvest.
9. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?
Bailey: Nothing new just refining the process with the pinot noir and amphora.
Graydon: No new methods or practices, although we did curtail vineyard soil cultivation between the rows. We’ve always tried to knock back weeds under the vines with appropriate chemical early in the growing year, and then used a spring harrow and cultivator to reduce weeds in the rows. This year, we allowed the natural grasses to start to fill in the spaces between the rows, and will likely continue that next season as well. That may have actually helped this year, with hot and dry conditions, retaining a bit more moisture under the surface.
Alex: I am making a Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, partially barrel-fermented, which will age for 36 months in bottle. I work extremely reductive on all white wines, combined with aromatic yeasts and cold fermentations, which will lead to fresh lively styles of wines with great ageing potential. As mentioned previously, I am barrel fermenting the Riesling Reserve, using a combination of whole cluster pressing and destemmed grapes and natural fermentation.
Michael: We are expanding our large format oak program. I love the texture that comes from oak ferments and aging but don’t want the oak to overpower the fruit. We are finding large format barrels are working well for the style of wines we produce.
Val: I experimented with an orange wine using Gewurztraminer, prepared destemming, followed by a long cold soak, and then wild fermentation on skins for an extended period (6 weeks). This wine will be bottled under our new TerreLab label which is for very small lots of wine that I play with. <MyWinePal: Very interesting!>
10. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
Bailey: Took some days off and slept.
Graydon: We celebrated harvest with a big YAHOO at the end. It’s basically our winemaker (Jaime) and myself, plus hired pickers – who were hard to come by this year. So, once complete, and wines in the tanks, we breathed easier for sure.
Alex: I had the cellar team over for a traditional South African Braai (BBQ) with a few great wines.
Michael: We are still sorting out the plan, but I have no doubt it will be fun (and covid safe).
Val: We had a harvest dinner and a lot to drink!
The wineries followed the same COVID protocols as last year so there were no major issues, but COVID did reduce the number of visitors to the wineries. The harvest started about the very end of August and ended almost at the end of October on average for the wineries. For most of the wineries, the heat dome did reduce the overall yield a bit and compressed the growing season, but they still produced quality grapes. The smoke from forest fires may have slowed the ripening process a bit in the Interior so that the grapes did not overripen losing our characteristic acidity. So far there has been no indication of smoke taint in their wines. The wineries continue to experiment with their wines, such as fermenting Pinot Noir in Amphora with partial carbonic maceration, adding Pinot Gris to their lineup, barrel fermenting Riesling, continuing to push ahead with a biodynamic format, and exploring how Cabernet Franc expresses itself in different vineyards. I look forward to trying these experimental wines, and all wines produced this year. With the lower volumes in general you should buy the wines when they come out sooner, rather than later.
Thank you to all the winemakers for participating in my 2021 BC Grape Harvest interview!