BC Wine Report: Harvest in the Vineyard
by Rhys Pender, MWSept 17, 2015
As you read this, harvest in British Columbia vineyards is in full swing. In fact, for some, it has already finished thanks to what may well be the hottest vintage in nearly 50 years. At our Little Farm Winery we started harvest on August 19th with chardonnay and were done on September 3rd with riesling, finishing a full three days earlier than we had even started in 2014 – and 2014 was considered to be a hot vintage. But does hot equal good?
In the spring I wrote about some of the challenges and realities of owning a vineyard through the winter and spring months. Having dodged the bullet of potential spring frosts thanks to the early bud break, 2015 was quite the vintage. With harvest done, I can now sit down and reflect on what happened through a whirlwind few weeks between mid August and early September.
The most important news is that 2015 is a quality vintage. It wasn’t without its challenges and to generalize that a vintage is great for all varieties and all wineries would be naive. There were stories of issues with powdery mildew and worries about smoke taint from the fires as well as the worry, as in any hot year, that sugars will explode and acidity will disappear before the grapes have reached phenolic ripeness. This could mean red wines with little flavour and excessively green tannins. While there is nothing that can be done about preventing smoke taint and we can just hope that it didn’t affect any of the grapes, the balance of the grapes and controlling mildew is something you can control with good farming. To some extent anyway.
It was a strange summer. Temperatures were regularly above 40°C and the vines grew more vigorously than in previous years. In spite of the dry heat and the increased water restrictions everywhere, we had to water less than in most years. It only rained a couple of times during the summer but each of those rainfalls was significant, soaking the soil with an inch or more and providing the vines with ample fuel to grow plenty of leaves to fuel photosynthesis.
The result? More work. More trimming, more leaf and shoot thinning, more hours and more expense. Because of the vigour the risk of powdery mildew and various types of pests and rot can increase so more sprays may be needed. Sometimes what seems like a great vintage with stunning weather can turn out to be one of the most challenging in the vineyard. It is the old rule in farming that you have to stay on top of things. And if the timing was right for all the vineyard management the result should be excellent in 2015.
Once the dangers of excessive vigour were taken care of, the vines settled down to some very speedy ripening. Our chardonnay was gaining 0.5 Brix per day, a phenomenal rate and something you had to watch very closely if you wanted to avoid making wines with high alcohol and low acidity. Irrigation, while minimal earlier in the vintage, did become much more regular in July and August, with small and frequent doses just to keep the vines relieved against the relentless heat.
In late August the smoke came. Fuelled mostly by extensive wildfires from Washington State to the south, the sky basically disappeared for a week throughout much of BC and into Alberta. Even though temperatures were high, there was no solar radiation and the vines seemed to completely shut down with gains in sugar in the grapes grinding to a halt. During this time, our riesling grapes gained only 0.5 Brix in two weeks. Eventually the smoke cleared, the sun started doing its thing and the plants responded by getting back into ripening mode.
One of the fears voiced by many of the 2015 vintage is that it might be too hot and too short to develop enough flavours in the wines. In spite of the ludicrously early sounding harvest dates, the growing season was no shorter than 2013 or 2014. Rather than being short, the growing season was just shifted 2-3 weeks earlier. Some growers are harvesting grapes four weeks earlier than 2014. Bud break happened 20 days earlier for our chardonnay and harvest was only 18 days earlier meaning 2015 was actually a slightly longer growing season than 2014.
There has been much speculation about the 2015 vintage and much drama with temperature records broken, horrific fires and endless assumptions of grandeur. As is always the case, we won’t know anything until we taste the wines, but with enough luck and a bit of skill, all the elements are there for some pretty killer wines.
But the time for reflection is over. I’ve got to go and start removing nets, watering in the vines and getting them ready for the winter, which in true Okanagan/Similkameen style will probably be on us just as suddenly as spring sprung. But for at least a month or two I can be grateful that we’ve got the grapes harvested, crushed and pressed and fermenting away safe and sound in the winery. Then we can start worrying about the winter, all over again.
Rhys Pender, MW
WineAlign in BC
The BC Wine Report is a look at all things in the BC Wine Industry. In addition to this, we publish our popular 20 Under $20 shopping guide and the BC Critics’ Picks report including the wines that excite us each month. Lastly, Anthony Gismondi closes out each month with his Final Blend column – an expert insight into wine culture and trends, honed by more than 25 years experience as an influential and global critic. Hope you enjoy.