Monthly Archives: May 2017

Dry Farming and Deficit Irrigation

Dry farming is not an option on the Black Sage Bench. As a result, principled and precise deficit irrigation is critical.

Why We Irrigate

There are a number of factors necessitating irrigation in the South Okanagan. First, there is relatively low precipitation. The “Okanagan Desert” nickname exists for a reason. The town of Oliver averages approximately 300mm of precipitation per year (250mm of rain); vines generally require at least 500mm. This helps to explain why the South Okanagan only became an agricultural zone after the introduction of an irrigation canal in the 1920s. Orchards, the focus at the time, also needed more precipitation than the valley could provide.


The Okanagan River is now the primary source of irrigation water in Oliver

To put the South Okanagan in a global context, 300mm of precipitation is less than Napa Valley, Walla Walla, Central Otago, the Douro Valley, or even Santorini. The Limari and Elqui Valleys in Chile have less than 100mm of annual rainfall. However, recent drought conditions meant many vineyards were “left to die” without irrigation.

And to make things more challenging in the Okanagan, the majority of precipitation falls in the winter and spring as opposed to the hot summer months.


Average precipitation, showing rain and snow fractions, in Oliver from 1961-2000
Source: Toews, M.W. and Allen, D.M., 2007, Aquifer Characterization, Recharge Modeling and Groundwater Flow Modeling for Well Capture Zone Analysis in the Oliver Area of the Southern Okanagan, BC, page 41.

This isn’t uncommon. Mediterranean climates like Santa Barbara and Napa also have rainfall predominantly in the winter. There are select sites in Napa like Dominus that are suitable for dry farming. The key is heavier soils such as clay that can retain water throughout the growing season.

The confounding issue on the Black Sage Bench is that the soil, largely sand and gravel, is well-drained with very little water holding capacity. In other words, the soils do not retain much, if any, moisture.  Even after a wet spring, the soil pits we dug with Dr. Paul Anamosa did not have any pooling water.

Older vines will have more established root systems, reducing their sensitivity to heat and water stress. However, the water table sits at a relatively low elevation on the hillsides of the valley and, consequently, out of reach for even the most ambitious roots. According to John Pires, there is over 100 metres of sand between Sundial Vineyard and the water table. In short, irrigation is still required regardless of vine age.

Precision Deficit Irrigation

Quality producers, those likely to dry farm in the first place, are also the most likely to use precision deficit irrigation. We’re not guessing when we water the vineyard. Irrigation can be abused, but it need not be. Not only is there a financial and environmental cost to excessive irrigation, but there’s also negative quality implications. Carefully restricting water to each vine produces small berries with a higher skin-to-juice ratio, resulting in expressive, concentrated wines.


Pressure bomb testing

We use technology such as portable pressure bombs to take plant-based measurements, specifically analyzing the moisture content of grapevine leaves. This is done on a block-by-block basis, so we can manage irrigation with greater precision. Not all blocks in the vineyard will have the same irrigation requirements, varying by soil, topography, rootstock, clone, and grape variety. We’re sparing in our water use and selective regarding when it is applied. For example, we have not yet opened the valves this year. The overriding principle: water only when needed.

Drip irrigation is used to reduce water usage and minimize water loss to evaporation. Overhead sprinklers, which spray water into the air over the entire vineyard, use 80-100 m3/hour/ha of water versus 10-20 m3/hour/ha for drip irrigation – a decrease of up to 90 percent.1 In short, drip irrigation allows us to use water to its maximum advantage.


Drip irrigation line at Phantom Creek Vineyard

And we certainly push the vineyard – sometimes too far. Last year, a relatively cool growing season, we had to drop the crop of some vines at Phantom Creek Vineyard due to water stress. Precision also means taking risks, and not being overly cautious, in trying to reduce our water usage.

Looking Forward

Our aim is, ultimately, to become self-reliant with regards to our water usage. We’re currently preparing to drill an exploratory well on one of our properties. There is no guarantee of finding a suitable, long-lasting aquifer, but it’s an important step to control our access to water. And water is critical, since we know dry farming is not an option on the Black Sage Bench.

It’s Complicated: Sub-Regions

There is a sense that a mature wine region must have established sub-regions or sub-appellations. France, of course, is inevitably the model.

It's Complicated: Sub-Regions

Appellation systems like France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée are hierarchical – a rank order that has been established over centuries. For example, nestled within Burgundy is the Côte de Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet, and then Montrachet. The more precise the geographical delineation, the higher the quality level. At least in theory. Italy goes a step further, layering in a classification system for each region. In Chianti, wines can be labelled as Superiore, Riserva, or Gran Selezione, in increasing order of quality, based on meeting certain standards. Again, in theory.

An appellation system not only suggests a quality pyramid, but also intrinsically emphasizes the diversity of the region. For a sub-region to exist, it has to be different from its neighbour. This is important for regions that are perceived as monolithic. Napa Valley Vintners uses sub-regions to promote Napa as more than just Cabernet: “[the] great diversity within the Napa Valley allows a wide range of fine wine grapes to grow well.” Sub-regions are an intuitive way to frame this story and influence consumer perception.

The diversity implied by sub-regions can also provide depth and nuance. This may be important for regions that have developed a signature variety, such as Argentinian Malbec or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. By promoting its three sub-regions, Marlborough is seeking to elevate its brand and pricing as well as counter laughable claims that it has “no terroir”.  The logic is easy to follow: if Sauvignon Blanc tastes different from one sub-region to the next, then it has to be vineyard-driven.

(The Lack of) Sub-Regions in the Okanagan

Currently, British Columbia is legally divided into five recognized Designated Viticultural Areas. The Okanagan Valley is the largest, with 84 percent of the province’s total vineyard acreage. It is in a unique position: the current appellation system does not capture the diversity of the Valley.  That’s because there is only one official sub-region to date. As a result, the vast majority of wines are simply labelled as “BC VQA Okanagan Valley.”

The challenge is that “BC VQA Okanagan Valley” doesn’t tell you much about what’s in the bottle. The Okanagan stretches over 250 kilometres north to south. The result is considerable diversity – both in terms of climatic conditions and soil types – from one end of the valley to the other. Napa, as a point of reference, is only 50 kilometres in length.

This diversity means the style of a wine will depend on the source of the fruit. A Chardonnay from Osoyoos will be soft and rich with exotic tropical fruits; one from Lake Country will be fresher and more citrus fruited. But both will be labelled as “BC VQA Okanagan Valley.” Sub-regions may provide the consumer with more informed expectations.

Certain grape varieties are also better suited to some areas than others.  Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the landscape in Napa, having one signature grape variety for the Okanagan is simply not realistic. Plantings change from north to south and east to west. However, sub-regions inherently have the uniformity to support a meaningful signature variety. Riesling from East Kelowna or Syrah from the Black Sage Bench could be the next Torrontés from Cafayate.

The Problem with Sub-Regions

However, some sub-regions are simply not meaningful to consumers.

Exhibit A: Cafayate.

Cafayate Torrontés and Napa Cabernet

This is especially problematic when a sub-region is supposed to indicate a higher quality level. Take the example of AOC Corbieres-Boutenac. This relatively new AOC is a sub-region of AOC Corbieres, which is itself a sub-region of AOC Languedoc. Confused? You’re not the only one: AOC Corbieres-Boutenac has little to no search traffic, and AOC Corbieres only fares slightly better. Maybe it’s not surprising that some Languedoc producers would bid adieu to its sub-appellations.

Google Trends and the Languedoc

Sub-regions, in short, are a brand – and some are more successful than others. Robert Joseph argues:

Wine appellations are like football teams. There are a few world-famous teams like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, of whom even people with only a passing interest in the sport will probably have heard.

The remaining appellations are largely irrelevant except to the most feverish wine geek.

A sub-region’s brand can also have negative implications. Regardless of the producer, an appellation connotes a certain price and style. Put another way: your neighbourhood can impact the value of your home. This explains why some producers are working outside of their respective appellation system – even in France. Domaine Sainte Rose bottles its wines as “Vin de Pays” as opposed to a more specific appellation. In this case, the aspirations of the producer outweigh the limitations of the Languedoc brand, which has a reputation for value priced wines. “Unfortunately…Languedoc wines will only ever be able to command a certain price point, which is a crying shame as in many cases these wines are worth a lot more,” said the Domaine to Wine-Searcher.

Lastly, sub-regions risk weakening the brand of the region as a whole. “It’s better to be under one identity rather than splitting, and diluting the message,” said one Languedoc producer in Meininger’s. In the Okanagan, the problem is reduced through conjunctive labeling: the sub-region and region must be listed. However, each new sub-region creates more noise for the consumer. The quality hierarchy suggested by an appellation system also puts the sub-region and region at odds.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy for wine geeks and the trade to see the value of sub-regions. At the same time, does wine need to be more confusing for the average consumer? Engaged consumers will ask about a producer’s vineyards regardless of whether a sub-region is listed on the label. So, maybe we should have the answers without posing the questions. Let’s identify appropriate sub-regions, but not forget that Okanagan is the brand.

Photo Gallery: Planting Sundial

As we begin to redevelop Sundial Vineyard, the first vines are being planted by hand this week. It’s surprisingly fast work: it takes only five hours to plant and stake one thousand vines. The first block being planted is Cabernet Franc.

It will be three years until this block’s first, small crop. And 10-15 years until the quality is consistent vintage-to-vintage. Patience is required, but the wait will be worth it. There’s a lot to love about Cabernet Franc on the Black Sage Bench.

The Fallibility of Taste

The flavour characteristics of a wine are objective. It’s how we interact with wine that is not.

In a glass of Syrah, I may smell blackberry, black pepper, and violet. I could then analyze the aromatic compounds in the wine using gas chromatography and see if what I’m smelling is present. Blackberries are not added to the wine – a surprising misconception. However, if present, the wine will have the same aromatic compound as a blackberry. Saying “it smells like wine” doesn’t truly capture our immense sensory abilities.


The challenge is that people have varying sensory thresholds to different aromatic compounds. In extreme cases, one may not be able to sense a specific aroma. Twenty percent of the population can’t smell rotundone, for example, the compound for black pepper. In other words, our interaction with wine is subjective. This is why one person’s tasting note will differ from the next one.

But that still doesn’t mean we, as tasters, can’t be wrong. Finding dark chocolate in a youthful Riesling? In this case, it’s more likely you haven’t found the correct vocabulary to describe what you are tasting. This is a skill in itself. Hence the more common refrain, “it tastes like wine.”


This quote from Oz Clarke illustrates the effort required:

You must love flavours. Taste everything. Tap water, milk, coffee. Fresh baked bread, frozen peas, the breath of wind on a Spring morning, the new-laid tar by the roadworks, your Auntie Doris’s eau de cologne… Take every chance to revel in the joy of our senses – of sight, of taste, and, above all, of smell. When you do have to sit down and taste wine seriously, you’ll have the vocabulary and memory to make sense of those glasses of anonymous red and off-white liquid sitting sullenly in front of you.

At the same time, our sensory abilities are limiting. There’s good reason to believe that we cannot reliably identify more than four aromas from a glass of wine. Tasting notes that wax poetically about ten or fifteen different aromas not only are unhelpful, but also likely exaggerated. Some senses are also more accurate than others. We aren’t programmed to sense sweetness with any great precision. This is why there’s disagreement over what constitutes a “dry” wine in the first place.


And let’s not forget a very important sense: our eyes. Research has shown that a wine’s colour will influence what aromas we smell. Wine experts described a white wine that had been dyed red more accurately when it was presented in an opaque – as opposed to clear – glass in one study. Put another way: we are prone to tasting with our eyes.

Our perception can also be skewed by expectation. The price, label, and context may all influence how we taste a wine. This happens subconsciously, too: a 2007 study found  “that increasing the price of a wine increases…activity in [the]medial orbitofrontal cortex,” which corresponds to our experience of pleasantness. We don’t just think we’re enjoying the wine more, we actually experience increased pleasure.

Maybe all of this helps to explain why drinking wine engages more of our brain than any other behaviour. And, ultimately, the fallibility of taste and why blind tasting is so challenging.

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Bud Break is (Finally) Here

It’s been a cool, wet spring, which delayed bud break until last week for most varieties. This is a change from recent years, when warm spring temperatures resulted in bud break occurring in early-to-mid April. According to John Pires, this year represents a return to more typical Okanagan weather conditions. He should know: he’s been farming Sundial Vineyard for nearly twenty years.

Cumulative Growing Degree Days at April 30: Osoyoos


Growing Degree Days (GDDs) are a measure of the heat accumulated over a period of time. In short, more GDDs equals warmer temperatures. As of May 9, Phantom Creek Vineyard has 68 GDDs.

Bud break starts the stopwatch for each year’s growing season. The challenge in a continental climate, such as the Okanagan, is not knowing when this stopwatch will be stopped. Autumn frosts may quickly – and dramatically – end a growing season. This happened during the 2009 vintage, when frost hit as early as October 9th. The benefit of early bud break is extending the length of the growing season, enhancing the potential for fruit to reach optimal ripeness.

Elsewhere, this year has illustrated the risks of early bud break. After an atypically warm spring, Bordeaux recently suffered a devastating spring frost that damaged 70 percent of its vineyards. Some vineyards have lost their entire crop for this year. Growers may try to protect their vineyards with smudgepots or wind machines, but there’s not much that can be done at severe temperatures.


Frost damaged vine. Image source: OMAFRA.

So, what should one make of the 2017 vintage, then? It’s much too early to prognosticate. However, the 2009 vintage is, again, illustrative. On some sites, bud break was delayed by as much as two weeks. However, a hot summer with warm temperatures into September ensured fruit was properly ripe before frost hit. And the proof is in the bottle: 2009s from throughout the Okanagan are outstanding.

In other words, being slow out of the blocks doesn’t have to negatively affect performance.

Wine enthusiasts: don’t miss Wine Summit Lake Louise at the Post Hotel & Spa from June 1-4, featuring Château Angélus, Castello Banfi, Leeuwin Estate, and Paul Jaboulet Aîné among others. Look for Ingo’s recap later in the month. More information can be found by clicking here. 

Fermenting Reds in Barrel

When I hear “barrel fermentation,” my first thought goes to a high-quality Chardonnay. But increasingly that is changing. Once uncommon, ambitious wineries are now doing the same for red wines.

Fermenting red grapes in barrel is laborious and time consuming. The head is popped off, and the barrel is filled with a meagre 250 kilograms of fruit.

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After replacing the head, the barrel can be rotated by hand on a specialized rack to gently achieve the desired extraction. No punch downs or pump overs. The head is then removed again to empty the barrel for pressing. Imagine doing this for nearly 100 barrels over harvest – it’s a daunting task.

So, why do we bother? Texture, complexity, and integration. Barrel fermentation provides a rich, plush texture with layers of dark fruits and well-integrated oak. And it is especially suited to fruit from Phantom Creek Vineyard. This vineyard produces wines with the intensity and concentration to harmoniously balance the oak. The result: the wines are uniquely approachable in their youth, but with the density and depth to improve in bottle.

We use a combination of oak barrels, large oak vats, and stainless steel tanks to best suit the characteristics of each individual parcel of the vineyard. The small volume of a barrel also makes it ideal for research and development.  In 2016, we worked with 61 distinct micro-lots, averaging just one hundred cases in volume. This ultimately provides us with a full palette from which to make our blends.

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