British Columbia

B.C. winemakers in good spirits about 2021 vintage despite summer of fire and extreme heat

This year could be known as one of the better vintages in recent memory for British Columbia's wine industry, despite the unprecedented growing conditions wine growers faced over the summer with fires, a record-breaking heat wave and extreme drought conditions.

Wine grape crop has higher concentrations of flavours but lower yields

Despite lower yields from severe heat and drought conditions, winemakers like Barclay Robinson of Road 13 Estates, in Oliver, B.C., are anticipating an excellent vintage from the wine grape harvest this year. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Grape growers in B.C's Okanagan region are looking at reduced yields of up to 30 per cent as workers bring wine grapes from the vineyards during the annual fall harvest.

While an unprecedented summer of record-breaking heat and extreme drought conditions has contributed to the smaller wine grape crop, those same growing conditions have helped yield fruit that winemakers are especially excited about.

"I'm very optimistic about what's going to come out quality-wise for 2021, in spite of all that Mother Nature threw at us this year," said Barclay Robinson, head winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards, in Oliver, B.C.

"I'm seeing fantastic flavours across the board in our whites and our rosés and then the reds that are coming in right now."

The winery and its vineyards are located on the Golden Mile Bench, a sub-wine region in British Columbia on the western slope of the Okanagan Valley, south of Oliver.

Temperatures reached into the high 40s C for multiple days in late June — a crucial time in the growing season as grape vines move from flowering to fruit set.

"With that much heat, the plant just basically shuts down, Robinson said. "It's not ripening, it's not growing because it can't pull up water and nutrients out of the ground at all."

The hot and dry summer in the Okanagan has resulted in smaller grape berries with a higher concentration of flavours this year, according to winemakers. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The heat stress led to poor fruit set — which occurs when a fertilized flower begins to develop a seed and grape berry — and reduced yields in some varieties.

According to Wine Growers British Columbia, yields are down 15 to 30 per cent this year.

Continuous warm weather through the summer — coupled with drought conditions in the region — resulted in smaller berries on grape vines but a strong concentration of flavour in the fruit, Robinson said.

"That concentration of flavour is going to give fantastic wines for 2021," he added.

'Mother Nature this year helped the wineries'

A few kilometres away, Balwinder Dhaliwal is also anticipating an excellent vintage from this year's crop, despite lower yields.

Dhaliwal grows about 200 hectares of wine grapes, which he sells to wineries across the Okanagan and uses to make wine at his family's Kismet Estate Winery.

"Mother Nature this year helped the wineries," he said. "I think this is the best vintage since we've been doing this, almost 25 to 30 years."

Kismet Estates Winery owner Balwinder Dhaliwal says wine consumers should be delighted by the 2021 vintages produced in the Okanagan Valley, especially red wine varieties that benefited from the hot, dry summer. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Red wine grape varieties such as Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz especially benefited from the hot and dry summer, Dhaliwal said, noting that the concentration of flavours will light up customers' palates in wine-tasting rooms.

"People that know wine and love wine, they definitely can tell the difference this year," he said.

Growers across the Okanagan are reporting similar stories of lower yields but high-quality wine grapes as they bring in the harvest from vineyards, said Miles Prodan, CEO of Wine Growers British Columbia.

The Okanagan Valley, stretching across more than 250 kilometres, is home to 86 per cent of B.C.'s vineyard acreage.

WATCH | Winemakers expect flavourful wine after warm summer: 

Hot summer producing low yields, flavourful wine, B.C. winemakers say

3 months ago
Duration 2:01
Winemakers in B.C.'s Okanagan region say the record-breaking temperatures over the summer produced a small amount of grapes, but should lead to flavourful wine. 2:01

Region endured wildfire smoke in summer

This past summer, the valley was blanketed in smoke for days on end from the many wildfires burning in the region.

Fire smoke can taint the flavour of wine when airborne compounds from burning trees and soil settle on grapes still on the vine.

Prodan said he's not hearing from winemakers that they're worried about fire smoke tainting the wines in 2021 vintage.

"The interesting thing about the smoke taint is it really varies on the concentration of the smoke, where the smoke originates from and what step in the growth process the grapes are on," he said.

Thick wildfire smoke engulfs the city of Kelowna and surrounding vineyards in July. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

A fire burning next to a vineyard, with ash falling on the vine and grape clusters, is much more worrisome than smoke just hanging in the air throughout the valley, Prodan said.

Winemakers also have ways of dealing with smoke compounds during and after fermentation, Robinson said.

"At Road 13, we didn't see such extreme smoke taint that it would affect not bringing in a vineyard block, so ours were very mild cases," he said.

"It's something that we can definitely work with and still get a very good quality product, for sure."


Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan