Each growing season Mother Nature likes to dish up a few surprises for Okanagan grape growers and winemakers; 2017 is no exception.
In fact, the torrential downpours in the spring and drought-like conditions in the summer, mixed in with weeks of smoke and ash were cause for more than just a little concern.
“Every year brings something different,” said Hillside Winery Bistro winemaker Kathy Malone last week during the harvesting of their Muscat grapes from vines planted in 1984. “But whatever happens we’re learning something, good or bad. There’s no point in worrying every year is a challenge. Every year we push the envelope a little bit. It’s half strategizing and half trouble shooting, being able to react to changes in the situation and react to the fruit as it comes in.”
The smoke from the forest fires which blanketed the valley for much of the latter stages of the summer was late enough that she doesn’t think it will impact the flavour.
In fact, Malone believes it may have actually been a blessing.
“I think we lucked out this year, the only impact I think is that it lowered the temperatures a bit during our really hot days which actually gave us a more optimum temperature,” she said. “If it gets too hot it stresses the vines and they shut down and also it (heat) advances ripening so we get too much sugar which means we get too much alcohol, the smoke actually acted as a filter.
“I think they (wines) we’ll have a really good balance this year because we’ve had warm nights that have brought the acid down to really good levels and it hasn’t been too too hot so the sugars are just at optimum picking levels.”
Muscat is a white wine grape and one of the older varieties and is picked earlier than the red grapes which are still on the vines and will be harvested in the upcoming month.
It is also unique in it is one of the only berry species in which the grape tastes the same as the finished produce in the glass.
Malone keeps a close eye on the grapes this time of year. When the seeds of the fruit turn brown, the flavour becomes pleasant to creatures like birds and bears for propagation purposes and humans as well.
“This is the most exciting time of the year for us,” said Hillside president Duncan McCowan. “This is where it all culminates into the grapes coming in. You can just feel the energy. It’s looking great this year. The first batch that are in, I’m just thrilled how the quality is coming in.”
Hillside has decided to only buy its additional needed grapes from local growers.
“It just makes sense that people are here and they want to taste wine from here,” said Malone. “So there’s no point using grapes from Oliver and we want to dial in these sort of small micro climates and showcase them in wines.
“Buyers are becoming more informed all the time and we’re trying to let the customer share in the experience.”
Laura Kittmer, media relations officer with the B.C. Wine Institute headquartered in Kelowna, expects the tourism winery numbers to fall short of what was record year in 2015.
“With the flooding in the spring and the smoke from the wildfires, I don’t think the numbers will be as high. You have to remember last year we had an incredible early start to spring and summer which brought out the tourists and visitors,” she said.
“It’s still a growing industry. We are young and learning as every vintage is different. No two years seem to be the same. So we have to cross your fingers a bit every year and hope Mother Nature will be on our side.”