The final red fermenters at our winery are being pressed off as I write, and vintage 2012 officially comes to an end. All that is left is cleanup, fixing equipment you didn’t have time to fix in the flurry of harvest activity, rolling up bird netting, blowing out of irrigation lines and giving the staff a bit of a break before we get back to setting the plan for vintage 2013. Working in a cyclical industry, the end of harvest gives everyone the time to pause and reflect. Most people reflect on New Year’s Eve, but it has been my experience that people in the wine industry do it when the grapes are all safely indoors—having been transformed with the use of yeast (and some pixie dust of course) to wine.
This was my nineteenth harvest in the Okanagan Valley. Nineteen years of “I’ve never seen that weather pattern before.” Nineteen years of “…that seems so different from what we’ve seen in that block before,” and nineteen year of saying, “I’ve never heard an employee say that before.” Nineteen years of change. I often say that in every vintage there is certain to be several things that I have never seen before and vintage 2012 is no different.
The year began with a mild winter —in the south Okanagan our coldest day of record was -16Cº— and although that is indeed cold, it is not cold enough to cause any concerns for the vines or the bud viability in the spring. Above average temperatures in May led to a good, even budburst, but in June growers lamented cool weather and higher than normal rainfall amounts resulting in a less-than-perfect set for some varieties. Heat in July wiped away some grower’s frowns as they breathed a collective sigh of relief that weather patterns seemed different from recent summers where temperatures did not climb into the 30s very often.
Any frowns still on the faces of grape growers melted away in the fall months when we had absolutely superb weather—until mid-October. We had not seen a drop of rain since mid-July, but the rain systems began to move in from the coast in mid-October. Unlike previous years where these storms roll in and then promptly roll out, this year they never really went away. We spent the last part of vintage 2012 dodging the weather to get the entire crop in.
And how did this affect the grapes? They came in very clean, in great condition and disease free. With the beautiful fall sun we were able to ripen varieties fully before harvest. It was our experience, though, that there was quite a lag between the sugar ripeness (it kept climbing steadily and quickly) and the slower time it took for the flavours to develop. We were waiting longer than normal to pick some blocks because, although the numbers were perfect, the flavours still needed more time to develop. I am not sure if I felt this way because I am getting more impatient in my old age or if the phenolics (flavours) really did take a lot longer to develop!
I know there were many times during the vintage where I would walk the rows with our viticulturist, Andrew Moon, and we were certain that the grapes would be ready in a week only to find that when we went back out a week later we were postponing the pick for an additional week.
When the grapes did finally come into the winery we were rewarded with intense fruitiness and fullness of flavour. Walking though the cellar during fermentation with the complexity of aromas bombarding your nose made the wait and all the row walking worthwhile.
Vintage 2012 has ended and is unique from every other vintage that has preceded it. As winemakers we now focus on how we can preserve the best parts of what nature gave to us and “not screw it up” before we hand it over to wine lovers to enjoy.
A part of me is beginning to wonder if change really is the only constant when it comes to our vintages. Maybe something else is at work. Maybe Henry David Thoreau had it right many years ago when he wrote: “Things do not change; we change.” Could it be that the vintages are more similar than we like to admit, but it is really the experiences we bring to the year that are ever-changing? ■
Sandra Oldfield, winemaker and owner of Tinhorn Creek Winery in Oliver. Follow her blog at www.sandraoldfield.com, or on Twitter at #CabFrancTuesday.