A difficult growing year for the Okanagan Valley to produce superbly flavorful Canadian wine.
Wineries and vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley are optimistic that this might be one of the most flavorful vintages they’ve ever had—but with a reduced yield.
The Okanagan is British Columbia’s oldest appellation, a roughly 124-mile-long area stretching from the Canada-U.S. border to just above the 50th parallel. It is home to more than 85 percent of the province’s vineyards by area.
Starting in June, the region experienced smoke from both nearby forest fires, as well as California’s north coast. Then came the the “heat dome” that scorched almost all of Western North America, resulting in extreme drought conditions.
“This is the toughest growing season we’ve ever seen,” says David Paterson, winemaker and general manager at Tantalus Vineyards, located in North Okanagan and one of the oldest continuously producing wineries in the province.
First, Came Smoke
The effects of forest fire smoke in the Okanagan were mild this year compared to elsewhere on the West Coast of North America. Viticulturists and winemakers interviewed all agreed that their vintage won’t be significantly affected by smoke taint.
“The north end of the Okanagan has seemed to have escaped the worst of the smoke,” says David Paterson.
“It reduced sunlight and made us worry early in the season,” says Neelam Dhaliwal, manager at Kismet Estate Winery, located at the south end of the valley. Kismet is both an established winery and a major grape supplier for larger wineries throughout BC. “Fast forward, we found the grapes were in ideal condition, and quality is high. The smoke was high, and wasn’t surrounding the vines.”
But the smoke did impede grape growing in other ways.
“Work was slow for a lot of the summer because you couldn’t stand outside without your eyes burning. … We do check-ins and had to closely watch workers because some of them will push themselves out in the vineyards when it’s not safe. We ended up giving more days off than normal, and lots of breaks,” she says, noting that Kismet uses no mechanization in managing its vineyards.
Smoke came relatively early to the valley, around the middle of June when much BC’s grape crop enter flowering. This turned out to be fortunate. “Because smoke came early this year, smoke taint in the wine is not going to be significant,” says Severine Pinte, winemaker and viticulturist for both Le Vieux Pin Winery and LaStella Winery, both in the South Okanagan. She comments that in years past, particularly the 2015 vintage, when fires were at their most intense in mid-to-late August, smoke taint was a much more serious problem.
Then, Heat And Drought
In late June, the heat dome beat down on the province’s vineyards right in the middle of fruit set, throttling cluster size for many key varieties.
“You could fit an entire cluster of the Pinot Gris in the palm of your hand,” says Derek Kontkanen, director of winemaking in Western Canada for Arterra Wines, and head winemaker at Inniskillin. Arterra is Canada’s largest wine producer (at around half a million cases per year) and owns ,or is partnered with, more than half a dozen wineries in the Okanagan alone.
“The heat was getting up to 48°C (118°F), affecting our flowering and fruit set… it completely shut down our Cabernet Franc.”
For Pinte, the effects of the heat dome were much more severe in her South Okanagan location the last week of June. “We started doing irrigation at night, much more than usual, but the vines still suffered quite a bit. It was clear early on that phenolic maturity was going to be delayed. It was location-dependent though, some of our vineyards had better water retention capacity, but where water retention was poor, these ended up with very small grapes, despite increased watering.”
Severine estimates that some blocks will have up to a 50 percent reduced yield. Others will be closer to normal because of viticultural techniques she implemented to mitigate the effects of the unusual weather conditions.
“We de-leafed late in the season to give more sunlight and help with maturity,” she says. “And we actually did not do green harvest on most of our blocks.”
She goes on to say that early ripening varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, seem to have performed fine, while later ripeners, such as Syrah and Viognier, have been more affected by the heat.
A Year of Superb Quality
“The result is that, with less water, we’ve got more concentrated grapes, better skin-to-juice ratio, that are going to give us more flavor and better structure in our wines this year,” says Arterra’s Kontkanen.
That being said, he also comments that he’ll have to be more cognizant about not over extracting tannins of his red grapes, and that white wines, too, have the potential for excessive phenolic dryness and astringency.
Though official numbers have not yet calculated, the winemakers interviewed estimate a drop in overall yields for the BC 2021 grape harvest to range between 10 to 50 percent. But, despite, this, none of them are looking to make immediate changes to how they operate. At least not yet. “We’re hoping this year was a freak occurrence,” says Patterson.
Andrew Monro is a marketing writer currently based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He grew up in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley as the wine industry began booming there in the early 2000s, giving him a lifelong respect for winemaking and a deep curiosity in wine and how it’s made. Follow him on Twitter at @AGMonro, where he talks about digital marketing and wine (sometimes both at the same time).