March 2015 : Spring in the Vineyard

British Columbia Wine ReportMarch 18, 2015

by Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender MW

Rhys Pender MW

As is often the case in BC’s Okanagan and Similkameen valleys, spring comes quickly in the vineyard. Winter for a vineyard manager is a time of mixed feelings. Once the grapes are harvested, the vines watered in with a last irrigation before the lines are blown out and the nets removed, there isn’t a lot you can do. Except worry.

You worry a lot during the winter. It is the price to pay, flirting with the whims of Mother Nature, for growing grapes in the northern extreme of where viticulture is possible. Every vineyard area in the world has something to stress over, something beyond the control of people and in the hands of Mother Nature. It could be heat, drought, rainfall, hail, humidity or a range of pests and diseases. In theOkanagan andSimilkameen few of these are a serious problem except for one thing – extreme cold.

A bit of cold weather isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, it is essential to shut the vines down and regenerate them for the upcoming year. Ideally the cold weather comes slowly and steadily, allowing the vines to build up their hardiness to survive the worst of what Mother Nature can throw at them. With gradual cooling, vines can often withstand temperatures as low as -20°C without any damage. Scientists at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland run tests every couple of weeks to test how hardy the different grape varieties are. The chart they send out showing the lethal temperature at which half the buds will die at is poured over by growers all winter with one eye on the thermometer. You can also go out into the vineyard and take cuttings and then slice open the buds to see if they have been killed by frost. Basically all you can do is hope.

Spring in the VineyardOnce the warmth starts it can often be a very sudden start to the year. This year, temperatures in early March were already hitting 20°C in the day, even though nights could still be a chilly sub-zero. Nice weather to be out pruning in for sure, but a worry that the early heat may encourage buds to push and place them at the mercy of a late freeze. The worrying continues.

As soon as the vines are dormant, pruning can begin. Pruning is probably the most important job in the vineyard. It largely determines both the quantity and quality of a crop. Pruning too much creates a small crop and large shoots that will not only produce an uneconomical crop but also create over vigorous shoots from which to choose when pruning the following year. Under pruning creates too many shoots and they may not grow large enough to create the leaf area that will ripen enough grapes. Balance is the key and it takes a trained eye to look at each vine individually and determine exactly what treatment it needs.

The next step is planning for the year ahead. When will the vine’s sap flow enough for you to tie down the canes, how many hours do you need to allocate for weed control, thinning and other canopy management? You switch on the irrigation and hope nothing has frozen and exploded, that the pump still works and that pocket gophers haven’t eaten through too many of your pipes. More to worry about.

Once the buds burst and the vines start growing it is basically non-stop work in the vineyard until harvest. But getting through the winter without damage is the first of many feelings of relief that you feel throughout the year, relief at different milestones successfully achieved and potential devastation avoided. And then there is always the next thing to start worrying about. That is farming.

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For readers in Vancouver, I hope to see you at Chambar on April 7th. I’m teaming up with Chef Nico Schuermans for the Taste of Maclean’s Dining Series. It promises to be delicious – and WineAlign members get a special price. (click here for more info)


Rhys Pender, MW


Rhys, along with his winemaker wife Alishan Driediger, own and farm the boutique and organic Little Farm Winery, in the Similkameen Valley.

Taste of Maclean's Dining Series