As we celebrate Earth Day, I want to focus on something I’m very passionate about, notably the environment and how climate change is impacting our farmers and our farmlands. With all the erratic weather patterns British Columbia has been experiencing over the past few years, I felt there was no better time than to make BC my focus for this particular article (but I am not discounting other areas that have seen their fair share of challenges lately).
Perhaps it should first be noted that I’m a wine lover but not a student of wine. It’s not my intention to become a sommelier, but I have a keen interest and fascination with the concept of ‘terroir’ and how the environment, soil and water affect the wine that ends up in our glass.
I spoke with David Paterson and Scott Robinson – winemakers representing Tantalus and Little Engine Wines respectively – as well Rasoul Salehi, Managing Partner of sister wineries Le Vieux Pin and LaStella. Each shared illuminating perspectives on the impacts of climate change and what their winery is doing to address it.
Each agreed that there is little that small farmers can do to combat climate change, but every little bit counts and doing nothing is simply not an option. As consumers, we can do our part by continuing to go out and support our local wineries because as Scott Robinson notes, “these weather patterns have resulted in decreased tourism (in the Okanagan) which in turn dramatically impacts wine sales.”
VineRoutes: We are all hearing that we’re in a ‘climate crisis’. What are some of the most obvious (and some of the not-so-obvious) ways that this has impacted your winery?
Scott Robinson: Short periods of high heat will affect vine growth and berry development depending on timing of the heat event. This past year, the “heat dome” we experienced in the Okanagan in late June and early July occurred during flowering and fruit set. This resulted in poor set and ultimately less fruit. In the spring, early frost can cause bud death and therefore loss of potential fruit. In the fall, a frost during harvest can shut down the vines and the grapes must be harvested regardless of the ripening stage.
David Paterson: This was most evident for our growing region during the 2021 growing season where we experienced such extreme temperatures. Highs of 45 degrees C in late June and lows below -24 deg C in the winter. It has felt that the last few seasons we are seeing more and more extreme weather events. In short, plants don’t like that. We have seen three low crops in a row in the valley as a result of different weather/climatic events outside human control. Many other crops are also being affected in the same way, which is alarming from a food security perspective.
Rasoul Salehi: The impact is tremendous already and quite scary to think how much worse it can get. What we need to do in the vineyard and cellar and how we have to adapt and do so quickly is quite frankly a tall order and a pretty scary situation to be in.
VineRoutes: Another issue that is somewhat unique to British Columbia are the annual forest fires. Last year they were particularly significant. How have these affected the vineyards?
Scott Robinson: Aside from the obvious physical damage from fire, the effects from a forest fire are related to the stage of grape development when exposed to fire and/or smoke. This smoke taint may not be detectible by taste at harvest time. Often it takes fermentation to release the taint compound from the sugar. Smoke haze has been a major contributor to delays in ripening for some varieties as UV light is reduced. Increased humidity may occur during a haze which increases the disease pressure on the vines, notably powdery mildew.
VineRoutes: What are some of the ways you are working to mitigate these factors?
David Paterson: We are very beholden to Mother Nature and we are compelled to react to what we are seeing each season. We have replaced all of our irrigation systems to have a more targeted watering program. We have implemented cover crops throughout the vineyard to help with moisture retention and overall soil structure/health. We are having to rethink everything we are doing from the vineyard to the winery to react to these patterns.
Rasoul Salehi: Adapting pruning methods and the time of the year we prune. Adapting irrigation maps and watering schedule. Adapting canopy management to hide the grapes behind the leaves to be protected from the extreme heat while at the same time being quick to get out and remove leaves to expose them to the sun in years with forest fires.
VineRoutes: How has climate change or environmental factors impacted your production quantities?
Scott Robinson: In the vineyard we’re seeing reduced yields. Particularly this past harvest of 2021. Dues to the severe heat events, crop yields were down around 25% – 50% depending on variety and site. If you include smoke taint damaged fruit, then this reduction may be more.
David Paterson: The string of extreme cold overnight temperatures at the end of December has really affected the budding potential on our site. We have taken samples across the property for bud dissection, and unfortunately, it is not looking very favourable for the 2022 growing season. So, we are having to look elsewhere in the valley for fruit to supplement our production. This is a new model for us, but it is becoming essential for the sustainability of our business.
VineRoutes: How, or have environmental issues affected the taste of your wines?
Scott Robinson: Smoke taint can be a concern and we are fortunate to have been minimally affected by this. Excessive heat events can reduce berry size and ultimately concentrate the grape flavours; this is actually beneficial for the style of wines we produce. An early frost during harvest may inhibit full tannin ripeness in some red varieties, thus our low cropping techniques ensure we have full physiological ripeness in the event of this occurring.
David Paterson: I don’t think this has had an effect yet. We have picked a little earlier in the season to maintain our style, but I think we are a long way off being forced to change style. We just have to grow and make wine slightly different over time to achieve the same goals.
Rasoul Salehi: This is hard to address as the environmental changes have affected different grape varieties differently. As a whole we are seeing wines with lower acid, higher alcohol and fruit profile getting riper while at the same time seeing under ripe elements that are coming in tandem with overripe elements.
Add the wineries of BC to your next vine route, make it a staycation or a vacation if visiting from other provinces. Buy local and you’ll ensure that our wine industry not only survives but thrives.
-Priya Rao is a VineRoutes contributor and is the co-founder of the duo, The Social Herbivore