Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Vintage in the Okanagan - Some thoughts about 2008 and other years gone by and what the future may hold.

Lately I've enjoyed fielding a few comments and questions regarding the Okanagan and the conditions under which we grow grapes and make wine. These days, most of the discussion takes place on Twitter. One hundred and forty characters is a difficult constraint for this subject so I thought I'd expand a couple ideas here on the old blog.

As people become more acquainted with something like wine, it's normal to expect a desire for more knowledge to surface. Depending on the individual, this can be a passive absorption of what comes their way or a single-minded compulsion. Most of the time it's somewhere in between. Personally, I find these discussions invigorating.

I think I made a comment about a vintage being typical. This led to some retorts about what defines typical in our neck of the woods. I now realize I was making one of the first mistakes of good journalism: assuming your reader already has a lot of the information. It occurred to me that I need to define Okanagan typical. So first, what are the factors that make this area unique among wine growing regions?

I want to try to establish what "cool climate" wine growing is and how it fits in to what we are doing in the Okanagan Valley. And finally, what kind of wine can you expect from the Okanagan in typical and atypical years?

There's a popular saw these days that sounds like this: there are no more 'good' or 'bad' years in the world's wine regions anymore because technology and spread of good cultural practices in the age of information have given producers the tools to eliminate or obscure some of the serious deficiencies of past vintages.

To a great degree this is true. The modern winemaker has a vast array of tools in the kit. There really is no excuse for the release of flawed wine. (Was there ever?) The grape grower also has many newish developments over the past decades to tap into. Together, a lot of factors can be manipulated.
At the end of the day, grapes and wine that have had a heavy hand applied will tend to be more homogeneous in style and quality.

Notice I didn't say good or bad. All I'm saying is that robust handling results in a displacement of the wine's sense of place.

(Well, I can hardly believe I wrote that last bit because, out here in the wild North west, terroir and all that is probably a few decades off. Or is it?)


The Okanagan is a wine producing region that knocks loudly on the doors of unconventionality. We grow a huge variety of different grapes, tended in a number of fascinating ways, harvested under a myriad of conditions and regimes. It's impossible to get a consensus-building answer on the right way to do anything wine and grape-wise in this valley. Wine makers and growers from all over the world bring their influences and teachings and put them to work. The result is: a Syrah made by me has almost no resemblance to one made by Jackson Triggs just down the road.

(old world wine growing regions: restricted by law or custom to a few varieties in each region, in-grained growing practices that differ little from one vineyard to the next, winemakers that are produced generationally at the same institutions)

Having said that, why not throw a couple more cats in the bag?

The climate here is unlike anywhere else. It doesn't allow that same Syrah to ripen like anywhere else in the world. We're farther north than anywhere on the globe that seriously grows grapes. We lucked out by having a chain of lakes that moderate the winters (and summers) so that all this is possible. Otherwise, it'd just be a dusty, sand and gravel extension of the North American desert system: arid and violent. Too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

Another factor that defines the Okanagan and causes the wines to be the way they are is the short growing season. When our pals in California are enjoying bud break and the beauty of wild mustard blooming we're still shoveling snow and breaking snot-sicles off our noses while we prune. The vines, though, are sort of pre-programmed. Cabernet Sauvignon needs in excess of 180 days of growing season. That's six months. IF April is nice you may see the buds emerge late in the month. Do the math. Has it been a long, warm summer? You MIGHT have ripe grapes by the third week of October. But probably not.

One thing in our favour: in the warmest part of the year, because we're so far north, the sun shines harder and longer than in points south. This is only good for a couple months but, hey, we'll take what we can get.

If you combine some of these factors you get degree days. It's a way of measuring the value of the sunshine. We rock. We often exceed a lot the 'classic' wine growing area like Germany and Bordeaux when it comes to degree days. Problem is: we have little shoulder season. It takes a long time to warm up and the season goes off a cliff around October 10th, give or take a few days.

So those are some of the factors that makes the Okanagan wine region 'unique'. We are cool climate wine growing. We are extreme cool climate wine growing. Next time you hear somebody from a 200 day growing season or anywhere south of 45 degrees latitude (northern hemisphere) wax on about cool climate conditions, give them a light cuff to the occipital and remind them that winter temperatures that hover near freezing do not make a region cool climate. If at harvest all you're worried about is a little rain, that's not cool climate. Try looking at your vineyard heavy with Merlot and 1 brix short of target and the weather man is saying the first Arctic Express is poised to break-out and head your way. That, my friend, is cool climate.

And that is unique.

Typical Okanagan vintage. Hmm. difficult to define. Because of our wild conditions, vintages here are less consistent or typical than other regions. But here's what: budbreak in early May, generally May is nice. Pray we don't get a killing frost during the first 15 days of May to whatever deity you wish. A couple of days or even weeks may see temps in the low 30'sC but the nights are still cool. June is encouraging at first but usually there are a couple weeks that seem a little too rainy. Usually during flowering which is a bummer. July it suddenly goes heat crazy with long periods of mid-30'sC. Nights are still refreshingly cool. But then the temps spike, temperatures in the south end are in the mid-40's and the nights don't dip below 20C. You get massive growth from vines that don't shut down in the mid-30sC (some do). August is when the grapes begin to colour and start tasting like grapes. If we get a heat spike in August there is rapid ripening (at the expense of flavour complexity) and we start picking grapes in September.

In a normal year, September is our golden child. We need 20/20. We need 20 days at 20C (daytime median) and then we should have it in the bag. Anything after that is bonus time, hang time, whatever. If the weather is dry you get to call the shots and wait for more on-vine flavours to develop. But don't wait too long, my friend. In a matter of days, you can go from crisp sunny days to 10 cm of snow in the vineyard and not a leaf on the vines.

In 1998, we had a very warm year, did the whole harvest in short pants and were sitting in the pub, showered, grinning ear to ear and having a beer while our friends in California were still waiting for grapes to come in. Atypical.

What can you expect from a season like this and a region like this? We will always struggle getting our reds ripe in typical vintages. Accept it. Celebrate it. Indeed, these conditions create wonderfully nuanced wines that have flavours and bouquets like no other. When it all comes together, they rank with the best in the world. We just have to understand it won't come together as often as we wish. With climate change there have been more good years for reds lately. But '08 put the kibosh on that. More on that in a moment.

Our white wines thrive here. With solid vineyard practices and good winemaking, our white will maintain their place as premium products. We should be careful to exploit the varieties that work and to use caution around planting warm region cultivars. It could be argued that we should just grow Gewurztraminer.

Hmmm. About 145 day growing season, tasty, fairly winter hardy.

Nahh. That would be taking the easy way out.

And now a word from 2008. Typical.
A late spring caused a delayed budbreak. Most vines survived a colder-than-average winter but there would be no fruit on about 20% of them. The vines that put out flowers put on lots so anticipated shortfalls appeared to be almost made-up. Good weather ensued. We had a nine week session of great summer weather and it appeared the vines were catching up. They were. But the actual grapes were not. We had no heat spikes. August saw a lot of hazy days with high cloud that reduced the degree days. Veraison was late. More than a week for some varieties. September saved us. We got the 20/20. But then things deteriorated rather rapidly. Pick dates were delayed. Not too much rain but not warm either.

I took a look at what was coming and decided to cut our losses and bring it all in by the last week of October. Best thing I decided all vintage.

Some decided to go after more 'hang flavours' and let it all hang out. November came in like an ice-filled fist and blew that idea.

2008 Tale of the Tape:
Whites should be uniformly good to excellent. Exceptional acids will have been reduced in cellar by blending or chemical means. Flavours may develop a little later in bottle.
Reds grown on good sites and with attention to detail will be exceptional if harvested before the killing frosts. Acids will be a little higher than the last few years but they are manageable. Know your producer, buy from those you trust.

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