This year, wine enthusiasts from various backgrounds flocked to the Vancouver International Wine Festival to indulge in a wide array of wines. The festival graciously provided me with tickets to highly sought-after events. In return, I crafted summaries of select trade seminars. Allow me to present a slightly adapted account of a fascinating narrative titled “Defining the Root of BC Terroir.”
Stick with it ’till the end for tasting notes of the wines!
Christina Hartigan, Maude Renaud-Brisson
Jim Faulkner, Ex-Nihilo Vineyards; Lynzee Schatz, Time Family of Wines; Chris Turyk, Unsworth Vineyards; Michael Kullmann, Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery; Graham Nordin, CedarCreek Estate Winery, Sandy Leier, Laughing Stock Vineyards; Charlie Baessler, Corcelettes Winery; Amber Pratt, Moraine Estate Winery; Richard Kanazawa, Bench 1775; Garron Elmes, Lake Breeze Vineyards
The Effects of Climate Change on BC Terroir
Defining the Root of BC Terroir brought together some of the best British Columbian wine producers to explore the essence of BC Terroir at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
Yet, we witnessed an undeniable sombre note to the panelists as they candidly discussed the challenges brought about by climate change.
While we can celebrate the region’s extended summer days and natural acidity, the short seasons and extreme temperature variations pose significant challenges for all producers going forward.
Heat Dome of 2021
The unprecedented “heat dome” in June 2021 exemplified this. It brought weeks of record-breaking high temperatures that were previously unheard of.
Amber Pratt from Moraine Winery expressed her exasperation, saying, “I mean, really, who has ever heard of a heat dome?”
During that event, Lytton experienced temperatures reaching 50 degrees celsius, only for wildfires to burn it down the next day. Tragically, the heat dome led to the loss of 600 lives in our province. But while people can protect themselves with sunscreen or seek refuge indoors with air-conditioning, the impact on grapes is more severe.
How Grapes Handle Heat
How do grapes handle the heat?
“They shut down and don’t grow. It’s really bad with Cabernet Franc,” piped Lynzee Schatz from Time Family of Wines. “Now, we have a delayed spring this year. It was 4 or 5 degrees when we left (to come to Vancouver), and next week they’re calling for 20!”
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Variable + Extreme
Such extreme variability makes preparation particularly challenging to say the least.
In complete juxtaposition, the 2020 vintage the year before gave an uncharacteristically cool and wet June. As a result, yields were down 20-30% in the Okanagan Valley.
Yet just north of the Okanagan in Lake Country, Jim Faulkner of Ex Nihilo experienced something entirely different. “We didn’t receive the drop in production that year like everyone else.”
In fact, his vines were so productive, he made the Pinot Noir we tasted without the characteristic pump over because the vats were simply too full!
The Elephant in the Room; Water Issues of the Near Future
Perhaps fittingly, it was the South African transplant who nailed the problem of climate change on its head. Garron Elmes from Lake Breeze winery added, “We’ve been so fortunate with the amount of water we have and no one is paying attention to this now. In 20-30 years we will not have enough water.”
And it’s true. Currently, the way many BC growers handle heat waves is by watering the vineyard to cool it off, both before and after the heat. It’s a colossal waste of our resources.
Trial New Grape Varieties
So what do we do?
One possibility is to explore new grape varieties for cultivation.
On that note, Amber Pratt, who grows Syrah in Naramata worries that she’ll see a day when they can’t grow it anymore. More to this point, Richard Kanazawa from Bench 1775 was sure we could grow the Spanish grape Monastrell. Let’s just say, he didn’t achieve the results he was hoping for. Monastrell requires a long season for ripening and we just don’t have that.
Finding the best grape varieties for the future will take time.
Apply Better Viticultural Practices
Michael Kullmann, winemaker at Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery, offered some valuable insights. He proposed focusing on vineyard management, including selecting better rootstocks and implementing cover crops. “I mean, we haven’t even touched the surface of what we can do in the vineyard!”
Most importantly, Kullmann emphasized the need for changes in irrigation practices. “Despite irrigating before and after the heat dome, we still experience damage.” Napa Valley had to adapt its irrigation methods and has since seen improvements in wine quality. According to Kullmann, they now utilize misters in the vineyard.
Misting helps reduce the moisture disparity between the air and the roots. It not only prevents vine shutdown but also promotes water conservation giving mother nature a big hug along the way.
Certainly, Graham Nordin from CedarCreek Estate Winery concurred. Having transitioned to fully certified organic practices years ago, CedarCreek is witnessing enhanced ripeness levels while simultaneously achieving lower sugar levels in their grapes.
Planting in New Areas
Another solution to accepting the limits placed on us by climate change is to look to planting in other areas. On this note, Kanazawa expressed his belief that Vancouver Island could potentially produce the finest wines in the future.
This statement sparked a response from Chris Turyk of Unsworth, the sole winery representing Vancouver Island, who confidently remarked, “Hey, we already have the best wines!”
[Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil are soaring to new heights with vineyard plantings in elevated terrains… I tasted the best wines from those areas. Check out my tasting notes at the bottom of Southern Exposure]
Whether it’s trialling new grape varieties, adapting cutting-edge irrigation techniques, or discovering better rootstocks, BC wine growers have their hands full mitigating the weather extremes brought on by climate change.
Still, BC producers are doing more than just a few things right to result in the wonderful flavours we sipped that day! So let’s raise a glass to the blood, sweat and tears behind this glorious juice.
Tasting notes after this short message…
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* Tasted April 26th, 2023
Unsworth Charme de L’Île, Rosé NV Sparkling, Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island 11% abv $30
It’s a pretty copper-flecked pale pink colour with delicate aromas of sour cherries, pomegranites and yeasty notes from ageing on the lees in tank. The low alcohol, red fruits and bubbles are like a burst of joy on hot days, refreshing your soul sip by sip. Well done, Chris Turyk!
It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes and made in the Charmat method.
Nk’Mp Cellars, Winemaker’s Pinot Blanc, Okanagan Valley, BC 2021 13.5% abv $36
Pretty white flowers, juicy pears and crisp apples join forces to create a tantalizing aroma that will make your nose wiggle with delight. Underripe nectarines join the symphony whilst sipping reveals the same fruits in a salad dressing texture with a mid-weight frame. Sure, the alcohol gives a gentle warming hug, but fear not, my friend, for this wine finishes with a refreshing flourish of juicy acids.
Bench 1775 Winery, Viognier, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, BC 2021 (sold out)
Behold the pronounced aromas that will make your senses do a happy dance. Picture beautiful textures, honeysuckle in the air, a touch of beeswax, ripe peaches, and the irresistible allure of lemon curd and lemon blossoms.
From the initial sip to the mid-palate and all the way to the glorious finish, expect a rich and mouth-filling experience that will leave you wanting more. The acidity levels are high, adding that extra zing to the mix.
Oh, and watch out for the alcohol! It’s high and warming, ready to wrap you in a cozy embrace.
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Ex Nihilo Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Lake Country, BC 2020 (sold out)
Pronounced intensity aromas jump out of the glass with dill pickle, tomato leaf, and both sour and ripe red cherries. The wine has a tinny mineral backbone while west coast Douglas Fir and forest floor scents makes you feel like we’re sipping the essence of nature itself.
This wine is beautiful! Light sandlewood notes highlight the oak ageing. The alcohol is medium; balanced by the red fruits. Sour cherries finish with the tiniest hint of bitterness.
TIME Family of Wines, 'Chronos' Cabernet Franc, Okanagan Valley, BC 2020 13.5% abv $47
This medium bright ruby gem boasts an intense medley of crushed rocks, juicy red plums, a subtle hint of green leaf, and a touch of light spice.
Then, brace yourself for a lively experience as the acidity dances on your palate.
In terms of body, it’s a charming mid-weight plus that provides a satisfying presence. Now, here’s a curious twist: while the official website states 13.5% alcohol, this wine gives off a warming sensation more akin to 14%. Flavours of ripe red cherries burst forth. There’s no doubt this is an enchanting creation. Yet, the nutmeg finish outlasts the cherry fruit suggesting a slightly heavy-handed use of oak.
Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery, Grand Vin 2012 Okanagan Valley, BC $69 (sold out a long time ago!)
This Bordeaux blend is one of BC’s icons and it doesn’t disappoint. At 11 years old, an opaque brick colour catches your eye. On the nose, expect a strikingly complex mélange of dried cherries, blackcurrant, graphite, pencil shavings, toast, nutmeg, clove, slight tobacco, wet leaves, and a touch of mint leaves. Oh yeah, baby!
The alcohol is high and balanced along with the juicy moderate plus acidity The only thing out of whack is the tannin; it’s drying out. So if you have this in your cellar drink up and do not decant it if you want it to last long in your glass!
Drink it with a fatty steak or portobello mushrooms sauteed in rich, butter or coconut oil to juice up those drying tannins.
Unfortunately, this wine lost points because it was dropping out. Had I tasted it at the beginning of the seminar, it probably would have scored higher.
Lake Breeze Vineyards, Riesling, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, BC 2018 (sold out)
Picture a pale lemon wine with bright gold flecks shimmering in the glass. The pronounced aromas fill the air with lime zest, lime blossom, granny smith apples, honeysuckle, lime juice, and even a subtle hint of plasticine.
This is a dry wine and the high acids give a nice zesty kick to each sip. This wine offers a lighter presence while the alcohol is balanced at 12%. Moderate plus juicy finish. It’s just starting to come into its own and has a long life ahead of it.
Moraine Estate Winery, Syrah, Okanagan Valley, BC 2022 $14.2% abv
(price isn't listed as it's for wine club members only)
Aromas of crushed rocks, blueberry, and violets. There’s also a hint of black pepper, with nutmeg spice, and wood that create a delightful sensory experience.
On the palate, prepare for the delicious presence of blueberries, cherries, and a juicy character, accompanied by notes of nutmeg and baking spice. The finish brings a touch of sour cherries that will make your taste buds rejoice.
With refreshing moderate plus acidity, it has a lively balance with medium fine tannins.
The finish leans slightly towards bitterness indicating that it could have spent a little less time in barrel. But, it doesn’t detract from the wine’s overall goodness. The length is moderate plus with a good dose of complexity to keep things intriguing.
This wine will improve with a few years in the cellar and will then likely bump into the 90’s
CedarCreek Estate Winery, 'Platinum Jagged Rock' Syrah, Okanagan Valley, BC 2020 $69
Youthful and bold, this wine dazzles with an opaque purple hue. Aromas burst forth, showcasing candied violets, ripe blueberries, black cherries, and cherry pie filling, with a subtle mineral edge. A single sip reveals moderate fine-grained tannins, balanced warmth from the alcohol, and a long finish. Whether cellared for years or enjoyed with a summer BBQ or roast lamb, this wine is sure to please both novices and pros alike.
Corcelettes Estate Winery, Syrah, Similkameen Valley, BC 2020 13.5% abv $32
Almost opaque purple.
Mineral notes are the first to lift out of the glass with crushed gravel followed by blackberry, blueberry, and a soft violet lift. There’s some light spice and vanilla spice from the oak and a hint of green stems for complexity (likely from some whole cluster inclusion, but I didn’t look it up.) Refreshing acidity backs up this heavyweight wine with fine medium tannin. The alcohol is cozy and warm and the finish is juicy and thirst quenching, finishing with red and sour cherries.
I love this wine. Looking forward to revisiting it after some time in bottle.
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Great article Joanne, it was certainly an interesting discussion. While Michael was talking about the use of canopy misting I couldn’t help but think of how nature-based solutions will certainly play a role too. For instance, rather than relying on canopy misting, which requires a capital investment and uses irrigation water, growers might consider using agroforestry techniques and planting a stand of trees near their vineyard. Stands of trees near vineyards have been shown to improve humidity, reduce evapotranspiration, and enhance the water cycle by pulling water from deep underground where vines may not have access to it.
Adaptation to climate change will almost certainly involve new technology, but we will also need nature-based solutions for the industry to survive.
Thank you for your insightful contribution, Galen! I think we all love the idea of planting more trees. It also provides birds with more habitat.
For everyone else, Galen is the winemaker for Monte Creek Winery and is a sustainable guru extraordinaire. I met with him last year and learned how the team at Monte Creek attacks pesky fungal diseases, heat domes and wintry cold ‘au naturel.’ Read my interview with Galen here.