The long, hot Okanagan summer is jumpstarting harvest season for many wineries in the valley.
Township 7 Vineyards and Winery are starting their earliest harvest to date, with sparkling wine grapes being picked off the vine two weeks ahead of schedule.
“By far the earliest (harvest) we’ve ever done, like many other wineries in the valley. Aside from that little bit of smoke, the season so far has just been fantastic. Fingers crossed that the phenomenal weather holds right through to the end of the season,” Lori Pike, public relations for Township 7, said.
Sparkling wine grapes are intentionally harvested earlier than others because the wine requires grapes that aren’t fully ripened, but the harvest of grapes used for chardonnay may be coming up as soon as the end of the week.
Pike suspects, providing that the warm weather persists, that nearly all of the grapes will be coming in early. On a typical year, white wine grapes get picked around September and red wine grapes are harvested October and sometime early November.
It is an early start, and good conditions for fruity flavours, but it creates new problems, Pike said.
“It’s good and bad. On the good side, it’s great to start getting things in early while the weather is nice and it’s obviously easier for the staff,” Pike said. “It’s also great for the tourists to see when they are here and it’s always exciting to see the sights and smells of harvest.”
The downside is that the grapes will likely be coming in all at once, which has a tendency to create bottlenecks in the winemaking process.
The Black Hills Estate winery in Oliver is also starting an early harvest, also the earliest in recent memory. Their Semillon grapes are ready to pick 21 days earlier than the earliest harvest in the winery’s 20-year history.
“It was significant,” Glenn Fawcett, president of Black Hills Estate winery, who added the weather seems to be pushing the schedule ahead for all the 16 different types of grapes grown at Black Hills.
“We’re clearly two or three weeks ahead of where we’ve ever been before,” Fawcett said.
The early harvest is the result of the hot summer persisting through the growing season, but it was also a combination of a mild winter and an equally mild spring, Fawcett said.
“Vines throughout the valley, not just Black Hills, have grapes that have ripened and are being picked,” Fawcett said.
A benefit of the early harvest is avoiding the possibility of a frost hitting the plants in the fall.
“If you have that happen in the fall when the grapes aren’t fully ripe, then you end up picking grapes that aren’t fully ripened and therefore your wine flavours aren’t as remarkable, so that’s always the risk,” Fawcett said.“When most everything has been picked by say the end of September, then you’ve really avoided that risk of a fall frost.”
The unusually warm weather also builds the sugar in the grapes, which can create better flavours in varietals across the board.
“Our vineyard team has been tasting the grapes and they’ve really evolved nicely, they have wonderful fruit flavours. It’s nice to have them ripening, but in tandem with that we have the full fruit flavours developed and that’s important.”
It’s a tough balance, according to Fawcett, who said that sometimes in a hot summer grapes won’t get enough hang time to develop full flavours. This year appears to have seen the best of both worlds.
“This year with the circumstances we’ve got both happening,” Fawcett said. “It’s coming in early and it’s got wonderful flavours.”
Bruce Fuller, owner/propriety Rustico Farm and Cellars in Oliver, said the winery is still doing its brix count, which is a process that analyzes the sweetness of the grapes, but he anticipates an early harvest as well.
“It will be a bit early. It’s hard to say exactly when it will be because we’re just doing our brix count now,” Fuller said.
He anticipates the harvest is earlier than usual, but he said it does vary year to year, and it’s somewhat business as usual for Rustico.
“Some of them are ready to pick now I understand. I guess it really depends where your vineyard is located,” Fuller said. “At Rustico we have a beautiful location for the vineyard and I would think we’re about three weeks away from a harvest at our place.”
“It’s hard to say if it’s beneficial, it’s same-old, same-old, but we’ll be picking earlier,” Fuller said.
The season may have been ideal for the grapes, but not so much for wildfire conditions, which created a bit of a close call for Rustico.
“Our whole hillside here was in flames,” Fuller said. “The flames didn’t effect our grapes at all, they didn’t touch any of the grapes. We did get a couple of leaves that had curled with the heat, but other than that we don’t see any damage to our vineyard.”
The smoky skies that have persisted over the valley for the past week aren’t going to affect the grapes much according to Fuller.
“The smoke hasn’t really been heavy enough or sitting around long enough to alter the flavour from the grapes,” Fuller said. “Certain people think, oh well everything is going to be smoky, well that’s not the case. It has to be really intense and sit right on the grapes for a period of time.”