The 2017 growing season started with a longer and colder than usual winter. Temperatures remained above critical levels, so we did not see significant bud damage this winter. The winter did last longer with snow and frost persisting longer than normal. Early spring was very wet with a lot of precipitation. With frost in the ground, we saw some early surface spring run-off and for the first time in many years, our dry creek bed became an actual creek.
Bud break began in late April and we were in full bud break by early-May, which is in line with a normal growing season. Just after bud break, a cooler period delayed normal shoot development. During this period, we saw some pressure from rust mite that impacted the development of some of the primary buds. This cool phase lasted until mid-May, when the weather turned dry, hot and sunny. This lag in development resulted in a lighter canopy and a slightly delayed bloom.
Early June marked the start of a very dry and hot summer. The warmer weather helped speed up development and the vines were in full flower by early June, which is fairly normal. The heat and the sun continued throughout the summer, and we had no rain at all from June 10th through September 8th.
The hot and dry conditions in the early summer were great for grape development, but also led to major forest fires throughout the province. The Elephant Hill wildfire was the closest major fire and started south of Ashcroft on July 6th. Smoke from this fire moved into our region for about fifteen days in July. Although the summer was hot, we had no days above 37 degrees Celsius, perhaps thanks to the smoky skies that moderated some of the extreme heat spikes.
Veraison started in early August, which is normal. Fortunately, the smoke cleared in Lillooet at the onset of veraison, when the grapes become more vulnerable or susceptible to the impact of smoke. We took a number of measures in our winemaking process to reduce the risk of smoke taint. These measures included whole cluster pressing on most of our whites, limiting the time of skin contact of our whites, and whole cluster ferments and whole berry ferments on many of our reds. We have not been able to notice any smoke taint in our wines.
We did have some powdery mildew pressure from the smoke, but we were able to manage this well thanks to our spraying program.
Harvest started around the same time as usual when we harvested our Chardonnay on September 18th. Other varieties followed in short sequence, with Pinot Gris, Merlot and Pinot Noir all being harvested within two weeks from the start of the harvest. In all of our varieties, we saw strong sugar development early in September. This allowed us to pick based on phenolic development, and we were able to achieve great balance in our fruit. Harvest finished earlier than normal, after frost settled in the lower areas of the vineyard on October 13th. Riesling and Cabernet Franc were picked shortly after this event.
Overall, our yield in 2017 was down 30% compared to our average yields. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling were down 40%, Merlot and Pinot Gris were down 20%, and Cabernet Franc was down 10%.
The lower yield is likely due to a few factors. The lag phase, just after bud break, led to a slowdown in the flower formation. This lag phase also led to less productive secondary shoots replacing damaged primary shoots. This resulted in smaller bunches, with fewer berries per bunch, and smaller berries.
The lower yield led to an acceleration in sugar development and a relatively shorter harvest. In some instances, we had the opportunity to let the fruit hang a little longer for the phenolics to develop. The result was ripe and expressive fruit.
The flip side of a low yield is that generally the quality is very high. With fewer grapes on the vines, the flavours are concentrated in fewer berries and become more intense. This means that we have high expectations for the 2017 vintage and expect rich and concentrated flavours.
In a lot of ways, this was one of our most challenging vintages. After a few abundant vintages, we are now dealing with a smaller vintage. As farmers, we have to deal with the impacts of fluctuations in seasons and a variety of other new challenges.
Every year, we continue to learn. Sometimes our learning is unplanned and chaotic, but we try to lay out a number of experiments each year. These experiments are aimed at trying to understand which vineyard and winemaking practices are best suited to our local terroir. In 2017, we embarked on the following trials:
- Pinot Noir: For the first time, the Pinot Noir was 100% whole cluster fermented and 100% spontaneous ferment. In previous years, we experimented with whole cluster ferments on smaller lots. This process doesn’t break up the berry as much, and results in a wine that is more fruit forward. We also learned in our previous vintages that the wild yeasts in our area work well for fermenting Pinot Noir. The native yeasts add complexity to the wines. The 2017 Pinot Noir features 100% estate grown fruit using two clones of Pinot Noir grapes (828 and 667). These two clones created the best fruit and therefore the highest quality Pinot Noir. It is beautiful complex and balanced.
- Merlot: To increase the concentration of flavours in our Merlot, our winemaker Danny Hattingh and vineyard manager Megan De Villiers worked together from the start of the season to decrease the berry size, through a number of vineyard practices, including deficit irrigation. Smaller berries have a lower juice to skin ratio, which delivers more concentrated flavours.
- Natural Ferments: The higher sugar levels in this vintage have the potential to create higher alcohol in our wines. We used spontaneous ferments in our Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot to reduce the alcohol percentage and to add complexity and terroir to the wines. Typically, wild yeasts are not as effective in transforming sugar into alcohol as the commercial yeasts.
In 2017, we also saw further developments in the Lillooet-Lytton grape-growing region. Our 2017 vintage features a small amount of Chardonnay grapes from Fraser Bench Vineyard in Lillooet and some Pinot Noir grapes from Frugal Vineyard near Lytton. Starting in 2018, we anticipate receiving Pinot Gris grapes from the Winch Spur Vineyard in Lytton.