Cool, then Hot, then Wet, and Finally Dry: Skill, Hard Work and Courage Rewarded in Vintage 2013
The BC Wine Report
By DJ Kearney
The 2013 vintage has ended the reign of cool in our winelands. After a few years of distinctly challenging, dour growing seasons, the kind of warm dry weather our winegrowers always expect returned. The rebound to normalcy started hesitantly last year, and my WineAlign colleague Treve Ring wryly captioned her 2012 vintage report “When average is amazing”, referring to the fact that blessedly average 2012 was happily much better than the previous two. All things being relative (especially in wine vintages) 2013 has been described as ‘rewarding’, ‘promising’, ‘solid’, and ‘one of the best in the last 15 years’.
Please see reviews of some of my picks below as well as a link to the BC Crop Report.
However one wants to state it (given that the first rule of wine marketing is that the vintage you are selling is the BEST vintage), there have been a series of trying growing seasons, save for the joyously average 2012. But then came 2013 with a bigger crop (27,000 short tons) and climatic statistics that place it in near 2006 and 2009. Merlot again topped the tonnage list with 6,233.2 tons and Pinot Gris edged back in front of Chardonnay with 3,224.4 tons.
In the Okanagan Valley (where 95+% of BC wine is made) the season started with a good-looking April. The road to bud break was smooth until the beginning of May which dawned cold but turned warm later in the month and drier than the norm, receiving only 26 millimetres (rather than 36 mm which is the 30 year average). June was rainier than the norm throughout the Okanagan (40 mm versus 36 mm average) and first signs of bloom were as early as June 10th but most flowering occurring in early July. Growth took off then with rocket boosters, creating a flurry of shoot positioning, tucking, plucking, suckering and general uninterrupted canopy management for the next many weeks. All this was done in considerable heat too, allowing for an even budbreak, flowering and fertilization. Watching acid, sugars and phenolic ripeness levels became a bit nerve wracking as the grapes galloped along in the heat, about ten days ahead of the norm. Mike Bartier of Okanagan Crush Pad spoke of the constant need to control vigour in these growing conditions. Withholding irrigation, using cover crops and a distinctive adaptation of cane pruning were three tools used at OCP this vintage to lower yields and promote optimal ripening.
Mother Nature can always be casually two-faced, and in mid-September she dealt a gift of growth-slowing cooler weather but a slap of heavy rain throughout the interior. Vintners were faced with tough picking decisions. Bob Johnson of Baillie-Grohman said “our gewürztraminer simply did not have the flavour development we were looking for, so we let it hang until after the rains”. October was a truly odd month and the heat shut off in a hurry, making it cooler than any vintage in the past 15 years, and allowing acids to hang in there for balance. Speaking of acid, winemakers who work with older vine riesling have observed that greater age (20 plus years) allows acids to hold in a special way, even through intense mid-summer heat.
In the southern Okanagan, reds are expected to shine and Darryl Brooker of CedarCreek observed that their merlot, cabernet franc and syrah were ripened nicely by the summer heat and well-refreshed by the early autumn cooling trend. They should carry a little more fruit than the 2012’s, with balanced acids and ripe enough tannins. Pinot and gamay look promising too, especially for those who picked before the rain.
The Similkameen experienced fairly similar conditions but Orofino’s John Weber noted that the harvest began well before the mid-September rains and fruit was in great shape.
Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines, a sparkling specialist estate, observed it will prove to be a “good vintage for sparkling as acidity and sugar took its time to balance, even with the heat, but the shorter ripening season didn’t develop as much flavour as 2012”. Traditional method bubble from 2013 will be great canvas for autolytic character.
There was a bountiful icewine harvest this vintage, doubling that of last year. 2012 delivered a small harvest of high quality wines, but in 2013, the arctic express came early and producers were happy with both quantity and quality.
Other challenges in 2013? Hail, high winds, wasps and episodic sour rot. JoieFarm’s Robert Thielicke estimated that there were 40,000 wasps in a few of the vineyards he visited, and severe selection of fruit was essential on the sorting tables. He says they lost 4 tons for the rosé program directly to rot and insect devastation, and in one contract vineyard, they called in 30 pickers to salvage 36 tons of pinot (at only 21 Brix in early September). Happily some great fruit was available and JoieFarm have in fact upped their 2013 rosé production.
The cool-hot-cool cycle has caused the odd combination of suppressed aromatics, flabby, dilute yet over-ripe whites, where crop lowering and picking times were not managed severely.
Vancouver Island had their challenges too. After the soggy and wet 2012 vintage, 2013 was looking stellar: April budbreak, June flowering and July veraison all on time and successful then, as Averill Creek’s Andy Johnson said, “it all changed on the night of September 14th when 35 mm of rain hammered the vineyards”. The rain persisted through the end of September; bunch rot spread (Averill Creek lost 6 tons of pinot noir to bunch shatter) and they ended up picking 42 tons of pinot noir instead of the usual 65-75 tons at Brix readings of 20-23 degrees. A cool and dry October saved the day and in the end, the pinot noir and gris quality was “some of the best we’ve seen” said Andy, “but disease pressure had to be managed”. Animal pressure too, as hibernation-bound bears were attracted to the fruit in numbers only seen in 2010.
All in all an improvement on 2012 even though vintners did not get the fruit volumes they wanted, there will be some lovely juicy, elegant and balanced Island whites and reds. Chris Turyk of Unsworth Vineyards noted: “The weather turned in the second half of September so better growers and better sites picked early and people who kept the fruit on the vine suffered. Yields are down overall because 10-15% of fruit had to be dropped. Quality is probably on par with 2012”. The Islands are always a challenge, Chris continues, “Those who waited for every extra degree suffered because the rain didn’t stop, so all their fruit became waterlogged or rotted on the vine. That’s every harvest for us in a nut shell. How long can we wait to get the brix up and attempt to lignify seeds (rare in vinifera here), without losing the crop to the eventual rain? How to work with lean and acidic musts with green seeds, botrytis and mildew is oenology 101 here.”
All in all, a vintage that reflects British Columbia’s wine regions that cling to the vinous fringe. Our northern latitude curtails the growing season, ensures extremes of weather, massive diurnal shifts, and never, ever a dull moment. This is how you respond and cope, says Mike Bartier, “set yourself up for an over-vigorous vintage, then you can adapt”.
So what has 2013 given us? A bountiful vintage with fragrant richer whites, streamlined flavourful reds, tangy sparkling wines and a bumper crop of icewine.
DJ’s first look at 2013 in BC:
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