BC Wineries Experience the Earliest Start to the BC Grape Harvest on Record

The outstanding summer weather has led to a record breaking start to the grape harvest in British Columbia. For most wineries, harvest typically starts in September or even October, but this year saw most wineries starting two to three weeks ahead of schedule.

The first Sauvignon Blanc grapes for table wine were picked by Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate on August 20, a week ahead of 2013 vintage and their earliest harvest on record.

“Every year we say we couldn’t ask for a better growing season, and every year it seems to be getting better and better!” notes Troy Osborne Director of Viticultural at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate. “Every winery has a picking strategy depending on what style of wine they are looking for. We pick our Sauvignon Blanc grapes early to achieve those green, veracious notes and fresh, crisp flavour profiles.” explains Osborne. “The biggest challenge is dealing with increased growing degree days and matching our crop loads to balance that.”

Above average Growing Degree Days and lower than normal precipitation this summer in BC, contributed to the record setting start. Growing Degree Days (GDD) is the measurement viticulturists use worldwide to calculate whether the growing season has sufficient days where the sustained temperature is at least 10 degrees Celsius, the minimum temperature conducive for ripening grapes. The calculation of daily GDD is a tool used to predict important stages for grapes such as bloom and crop maturity.

In the Similkameen Valley, Orofino Winery picked their first grapes on August 24 including Muscat, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris and on August 28 their Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir were picked and crushed. “We’ve had the same length in growing season but with such a hot and dry June everything got off to an early start.” noted Owner/Winemaker John Weber. “We’re tasting delicious grapes, I’m thrilled.”

It’s not just the Okanagan Valley and Similkameen Valley experiencing record breaking harvest dates. Owner/Winemaker Patrick Murphy at Vista D’oro Farms & Winery in the Fraser Valley describes this year to be the earliest harvest they’ve ever had, starting on August 28 with their estate Maréchal Foch, which Murphy explains they tend to pick early to create their lighter style red. “The wet clay we have here in the Fraser Valley creates a much different tasting Foch to the grapes grown in the dryer, sandy soils of the Okanagan. This year’s crop looks fantastic.” remarks Murphy who has already started picking their Petit Milo and Siegerrebe grapes.

Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery located in Creston, outside of BC’s designated viticultural areas, also reported their earliest harvest to date beginning on August 28, nearly a month ahead of 2014. “We usually start harvest in October, so to be picking grapes in August came as a surprise to us!” states Owner Bob Johnson.  “I’m not sure if it’s because our vines are maturing or if it has just been a great growing season all around, but the fruit flavours are here early and they are really coming along nicely.”

At Monte Creek Ranch Winery situated east of Kamloops along the South Thompson River, harvest kicked off on August 19 with their young vines, and on August 31, after two weeks of fermentation with skins on, they began to press some of their lighter red wine. “The weather this summer has been off the charts compared to previous years. 1998 was a scorcher year too, but this year surpasses it.” Explains Winemaker Galen Barnhardt. “We didn’t get the typical rain we usually get in the month of June, giving the vines a lot of growing degree days.”This year marks the first vintage for Monte Creek working out of their new onsite facility near Kamloops. “The pressure’s on, we thought we would have a few more weeks to get everything organized so the biggest challenge for us this year is getting our cellar ready in time for harvest!”

On Vancouver Island, Unsworth Vineyards started harvesting their Pinot Noir grapes for sparkling wine early at 18.5 brix, but their table wines won’t be ready for picking until the first week of October. Winemaker Daniel Cosman notes that after a wildly dry summer they didn’t experience rain until about three weeks ago, and for two weeks straight it rained so much that harvest is now back on par with its typical start dates. “It’s been an interesting year on Vancouver Island,” explains Cosman, “if I could sum up this year’s growing season in one word, it would be ‘monumental.’ ” Cosman is particularly excited about the significant increase in flavour he is tasting in the fruit this year. This is his tenth harvest on Vancouver Island and he says the only year that has come close to being this good in terms of ripeness and yield was in 2006.

Although the 2015 harvest appears to have been ideal, the hot weather also brings certain challenges. One of the biggest stressors our wineries have had to deal with this summer is the threat of forest fires. While none of our vineyards were immediately impacted by the raging forest fires this summer, nearby fires and smoke from Washington State did have some people wondering if it would be an issue and there is local testing for smoke aroma available to those wineries that had concerns.  “We don’t perceive a problem at this time, but we are doing our due diligence in testing and monitoring for smoke aromas and from initial indications everything is coming out clean.” notes Mike Watson, Viticulturist for Constellation Brands Canada and Past Chair of the British Columbia Wine Grape Council. “We have seen this before in 2003 where heavy smoke never amounted to anything for the wine or the fruit. If there are any affects from smoke aromas, it will be very site specific and will be monitored accordingly.”

After a very hot and dry summer the wineries are glad to see the cool evenings arrive to slow down the ripening and allow for the fruit to have some extra hang time while keeping that crisp acidity that the Wines of British Columbia are so well known for. Wineries are thrilled about the 2015 vintage and are reporting this year’s harvest to be one of excitement.

To keep up-to-date on the harvest, follow WineBCdotcom#BCHarvest2015 on Twitter & Instagram.

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