A rainy September was stressful for winemakers

Worries of grape rot, frost

An abnormally rainy September in the South Okanagan was more than just an annoyance for the many winemakers who were hoping to harvest, but were stuck frantically hoping their grapes wouldn't start to rot before they could ripen. 

It made for a much more stressful month than many are used to. 

"Rather than sitting back and watching them ripen, we were really hands-on and in the vineyard every couple of days to monitor what was happening, making sure we really had the time to let it ripen longer," said Dylan Roche, co-owner and co-winemaker at Roche Wines on the Naramata Bench. 

"Usually we do rely on September for optimum ripening period, and this year, we didn't get the heat and sunshine we usually do, so if you needed to leave your grapes out longer than usual, there was a risk of rot."

Rain before harvest can cause the skin of grapes to split due to excess moisture soaked up inside and cause rot, which can spread fast in damp conditions and decimate a crop if left unchecked. But it's a delicate line to walk, since harvesting too early before the grapes are ripe would be just as ruinous for the year's wines. 

Some of Roche's grapes began to show signs, so that meant taking frequent passes through the vineyard cutting anything out that was affected before it spread. 

He said his thicker-skinned grapes are doing great, but has heard from other vineyards that more delicate varieties of grape like pinot gris and pinot noir have been troublesome.

Melissa Smits, winemaker at Intersection Estate Winery in Oliver, has heard similar concerns. 

"We have mostly merlot on our property, so it tends to be a reliable variety and tends to have a really nice balance to it anyway, so the water doesn't affect it as much as some others," she said.

"But I know people with thinner-skin type varieties were really concerned, like pinot and chardonnay, were concerned because bunch rot can set in really easily in those conditions, and can spread really easily ... they look like they may be in trouble if people didn't intervene."

Her own harvest was delayed by a few weeks but now is mostly completed. She said the conditions were weighing on many in the wine community. 

"I would be more concerned about sunlight really, because all the overcast conditions," she explained. "If the rain was here just on its own that would be one thing, but we also had really dark conditions."

Northward in Summerland, Tyson Felt of Heaven's Gate Estate Winery is breathing a sigh of relief about his harvest.

"All the rain, and the sugars weren't going up in the grapes, it didn't seem like it was going to work out," Felt said. "Surprisingly, with the way things have gone and how it was looking, it turned out to be perfect."

He knows he is one of the lucky ones.

"I've talked to others, I think the ones who are still hanging on are worrying about rot with the rain and the birds," he explained. 

And even for those who are well on their way to completing harvest, it's a tricky time of year. Blue skies and sunshine have been the norm so far in October, but many have their eyes on the dipping thermometer. According to Environment Canada data, the Penticton weather station recorded below zero temperatures overnight Thursday. 

"We're kind of in the eye of the hurricane, meaning that we're looking after what we have in the winery, but we're waiting for more days like today [clear and sunny] to go by to push the other varieties forward in terms of ripeness ... now what we are more worried about is frost," Roche said. 

If the weather turns cold too fast, it could freeze the ripening process in its tracks, potentially rendering grapes that survived the rainy September useless anyway. 

"The threat of mould is done, and now we're playing the game of, 'Can we ripen the fruit before the frost?'"

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