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Category Archives: Vineyard

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Biodynamic Farming: Cover Crop

Organic farming is a prerequisite for biodynamic certification. However, biodynamics is much more prescriptive than organic certification. We are strong proponents of biodynamics because it codifies good farming practices. The aim is not just to forgo chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but also to foster a self-regulating ecosystem. This means minimizing any and all interventions in the vineyard.

Our transition to organic and biodynamic farming means more work by hand in the vineyard. To eliminate the use of herbicides, we use hand hoeing for weed control. However, certain plants, known as “cover crops” are kept and allowed to grow naturally. Cover crops are a natural source of nutrients, which can be tilled into the soil during growing season. Grapevines have low nutrient requirements, so we are careful to ensure that the vines are not overstimulated. By analyzing leaves from each individual block, our vineyard managers can precisely determine nutrient requirements block-by-block, and vineyard-by-vineyard. Rather than eliminating the surrounding vegetation, we want our vines to co-exist in harmony with the natural environment around them.

Yarrow, or Achillea Millefolium, for example, grows plentifully in vineyards in the South Okanagan. It has been used as a part of healing remedies for centuries and helps to loosen the soil where it grows, allowing the roots of other plants to penetrate the soil more easily. According to our Vineyard Manager, John Pires, “Yarrow is also good for preventing Cutworm; it is our friend.” Cutworms are the larvae of various species of night-flying moths and the Yarrow drives them away, preventing the Cutworms from eating and damaging vines.

Canada Bluegrass is another species of plant used as a cover crop. Also known as Poa compressa, Canada Bluegrass grow well in dry, well-trafficked areas. The roots of Canada Bluegrass have creeping root stalks that have soil-binding characteristics, which make them very useful for erosion control. It requires a lot of sun to grow, which makes it perfectly suited for the Black Sage Bench.

White Clover, or Trifolium repens, is also found in our vineyards. It is a good companion to the other surrounding plants as it has the ability to fix nitrogen, meaning that it converts the metabolically useless di-nitrogen into useful ammonia. Much like Yarrow, White Clover has historically been used in medicinal treatments and is grown and cultivated for many purposes.

Just as our winery is coloured to blend in with its surroundings, our vineyards coexist with the flora and fauna of the South Okanagan so they can work in unison. This helps to keep the surrounding environment healthy and balanced, and our vineyards more sustainable.

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The Black Sage Bench vs. The Golden Mile Bench

Within the Okanagan Valley, there are official (and unofficial) sub-regions that help us understand the geography of the region. For example, Okanagan Falls and Naramata were recently officially approved and have been added to the list. Two of the most prominent regions in the South Okanagan are the Golden Mile Bench, located on the western side of the valley, and the Black Sage Bench opposite it. The two sub-regions may only be roughly 6 kilometers apart, but the differences in soil, climate, and sunlight hours between them result in remarkably different styles of wines. And, of course, how the Okanagan Valley was originally formed plays a large part of it.

The Black Sage Bench

The Black Sage Bench is located on the east side of the Valley, with hot afternoons and long days. It’s not a surprise then, that it’s known for Bordeaux red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Syrah. With well-draining sandy soils, deficit irrigation allows us to carefully control the amount of water each vine receives, resulting in concentrated, intensely flavoured fruit. However, this often means reduced yields. For example, in 2017, Phantom Creek Vineyard produced less than 2 tonnes per acre. But the results are worth it. 

Terroir

Soil: The Black Sage Bench mainly consists of sand, with small pockets of gravel. With little to no access to water outside of what is provided through deficit irrigation, vines produce less foliage and lower yields, resulting in intensely flavoured grapes.

Climate: Considered Canada’s only “pocket desert,” the Black Sage Bench averages around 2040 hours of sunshine per year with less than 20 centimetres of rainfall. The average temperature during the summer is 29 degree Celsius, making it warmer than the Golden Mile Bench.

Light: The Okanagan is known for getting more sunlight hours than almost any other wine region in Canada. And, as it is west facing, the Black Sage Bench receives an exceptional amount of sunlight. For example, the steep aspect of Becker Vineyard receives approximately 16 hours of sunlight in the peak of summer.

Signature Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah

The Golden Mile Bench

On the opposite side of the valley is the Golden Mile Bench, British Columbia’s first official sub-appellation. Although nearly due west from the Black Sage Bench, the soil and climatic conditions are dramatically different. Located on the western slopes of the valley, the Golden Mile Bench perfectly captures the radiant early morning sunrise. However, Mount Kobau shades the sub-region from the extraordinary warmth of the summer’s late afternoons. This, combined with complex, gravelly soils, results in exceptional, structured wines that balance ripeness with fresh acidity.

Terroir

Soil: Gravelly Sandy Loams (rich soil made from a combination of sand, clay, and other organic materials)

Climate: Even though the Golden Mile Bench receives less sunlight hours than the Black Sage Bench, it still collects plenty of sun. This level of sun, mixed with cooler afternoons, provides the grapes with an environment to ripen fully while also retaining acidity and freshness.

Light: As the Golden Mile Bench faces East, during the summer it receives sun from the moment the sun rises to when it sets behind Mount Kobau in the evening. Though the Golden Mile Bench doesn’t receive as much sunlight as the Black Sage Bench, it receives more than enough to ripen Bordeaux red varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Signature Varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay

Which Bench is Better?

There’s no right answer – it all comes down to personal preference and style. The wines from the Black Sage Bench can be rich and opulent, whereas the Golden Mile Bench produces mineral-driven, structured wines. In short, both benches have the potential to produce delicious, outstanding wines.

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Trialing Palissage

Grapevines grow upwards towards sunlight. But this isn’t necessarily obvious when you walk through a vineyard. Each shoot is uniform in length; generally, no taller than 6 feet.

Canopy Management 101

There’s a reason for this: to prevent one vineyard row from shading the next. Uniform sun exposure means fruit will ripen at an even pace within the same block. We don’t want to worry about fruit from one vine being overripe while the next is green and unripe. We’re aiming for uniform ripeness.

Palissage.jpgThe magic ratio is 1:1. In other words, the height of the canopy (or shoots) should not exceed the width of the row.  The solution is often to cut the tips of the shoots, what’s known in the industry as hedging or shoot-tipping. This isn’t done with pruners, but rather with what’s best described as a chain-saw attached to a tractor. (It is more sophisticated than a mechanical version of Leatherface, though.)

However, hedging eventually perpetuates the problem it is meant to solve. Shoot-tipping stimulates additional shoot growth (specifically laterals), resulting in more shading. This then leads to another round of hedging, stimulating even more – well, you get the idea.

What’s Palissage?

Which brings us to palissage. With this technique, shoots are trained back down into the canopy by hand – not trimmed. Palissage is much more time consuming, but advantageously slows down shoot growth, reduces the number of laterals, and focuses the vine’s energy on ripening fruit. And no tractor passes are required, reducing our carbon footprint.

We’re trialing palissage for the first time this year on both Phantom Creek Vineyard and Sundial Vineyard. Thus far, we’re encouraged with the results. According to Ross, palissage-treated vines at our estate vineyards show better overall balance when compared to hedged vines due to reduced vigour and lateral growth. It may also have the added benefit of retaining higher acidity levels, providing more freshness and vibrancy in the resulting wines.

But let’s not forget another reason for hedging: aesthetics. Vines are often carefully manicured, with no leaf out of place. So, don’t be surprised if our vineyards look slightly different. There’s a natural reason.

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.

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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.

Oliver_Average_Precipitation.png

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

Cumulative_April_GDDs

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.

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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.

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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

The Soil Doctor

We are fortunate that our activities on the Black Sage Bench have piqued the interest of renowned soil consultant Dr. Paul Anamosa, who has analyzed and evaluated vineyard soils in many prestigious wine regions. This week, Paul is leading a digging expedition to assist with the development of two new properties on the Black Sage Bench. The plan is to dig two pits per acre, each five feet in depth, to evaluate soil texture and structure as well as nutrient availability. In short, we’re trying to answer: what’s the soil like?

Soil_Analysis-18

Broadly speaking, soil analysis matters for two reasons. The first is to identify plots that share common soil characteristics. We can then design the vineyard so that the soil in each block is as uniform as possible. This, much like using only one clone, best ensures vines will ripen at an even pace. As Dr. Anamosa maintains, “Great wines are not made with grapes that have a broad variance of ripeness.”

Soil_Analysis-15.jpg

Second, Dr. Anamosa’s analysis will allow us to make more informed choices in the vineyard design on a block-by-block basis. Soil characteristics will influence factors such as row spacing, vine density, trellising, rootstock selection, and irrigation. Ultimately, we want to work with – not against – what nature has provided. “Moving and sculpting soil is great for airports, roads, and strip-malls,” says Dr. Anamosa – “not vineyards.”

SoilPit3.jpg

It’s a time-consuming process. Dr. Anamosa examines the physical structure of the soil in every pit. In total, he will evaluate 45 pits over three days. He then draws soil samples from different layers of the soil profile to be analyzed by an accredited lab.

Soil_Samples5.jpg

Soil samples from three layers (0-22cm, 22-55cm, and 55-120cm) in pit number 22

From our experience on the Black Sage Bench, we know these two properties are ideally suited to late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Dr. Anamosa’s analysis will help us fine-tune our planting decisions.

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Redeveloping Becker Vineyard

Redeveloping a historic vineyard is not an easy decision.

Becker Vineyard was initially planted in 1977 to over thirty different grape varieties as part of the Becker Project. Its potential for Bordeaux red varieties was later identified by Harry McWatters in 1993. That year, Richard Cleave was contracted to plant the property with some of the first Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc vines in the South Okanagan.

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Why redevelop a vineyard after 24 years? It’s more common than you’d think. The iconic Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in Napa is one year younger than Becker and will be replanted in phases beginning this year. But it’s not a decision we took lightly. The quality of the fruit from Becker continues to be exceptional. However, yields are progressively low and unsustainable.

The benefit of redeveloping Becker is the opportunity to update the vineyard design. Ross and John are currently working on the replant plan. Not only will this allow us to refine which grape varieties are planted, we’ll also be able to make changes to clonal and rootstock selections.

This is the replant plan to date:

Replant Plan for Becker

We’re starting this year with 2.2 acres of Cabernet Franc. From Black Sage Road, you can see our new hand-split cedar end posts and metal line posts in place. Now we’re just waiting on the vines.

The plan outlines not only what variety will be planted in each block, but also the clone and rootstock. For example:

CF refers to the grape variety, Cabernet Franc.

13 refers to the clone.

101-14 refers to the rootstock.

Over time, Becker will be almost completely replanted to Bordeaux red varieties, specifically Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. This means saying goodbye to some of the white varieties previously planted: Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Chardonnay. The sun-catching aspect of the vineyard, combined with the warm climate of the Black Sage Bench, makes it best suited to later ripening varieties.

 

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The differences in clone and rootstock between blocks will allow us to bring more complexity of flavours to the palette of the vineyard and optimize quality.

Clone: a population of vines derived from a single “mother vine”

Rootstock: the root system grafted onto the desired grape variety

Each block is planted with one clone to ensure uniform ripeness as some clones will ripen earlier or later than others. Planting a vineyard with multiple clones across different blocks then helps to build complexity, as each clone has a different sensory profile. Take the example of two Cabernet Sauvignon clones:

Clone 337: approachable, fruit-forward flavour profile

Clone 4: more structured with an herbal influence

The vineyard is harvested and vinified block-by-block. We’re left with many different micro-lots – over 60 in 2016, for example – providing us with a full palette from which to make our blends. With nearly a quarter-century of experience, we can also update the rootstocks we use so that they’re perfectly matched to each block. The focus is now on low vigour, low yielding rootstocks over higher yielding alternatives like SO4.

Replanting requires patience. We don’t expect to replant the last block until 2024. And then there’s three more years until the first crop from each newly planted block. But we can’t wait to share the results with you.

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The Geology of Phantom Creek

Maybe it should be the Black Sage Benches.

As a glacier retreated north through the Okanagan Valley approximately 10,000 years ago, a large piece of ice was left behind at what is now Vaseux Lake. This, combined with till and sediment, created a dam that resulted in the formation of a natural reservoir, which would later become Skaha and Okanagan Lakes. Streams emanating from the dam filled the south Okanagan with sand and gravel deposits (or outwash) over several hundred years. As a result, the valley floor was much higher than it is today at 550m above sea level.

Outwash Plain

Example of an outwash plain in Godley River Valley, New Zealand

However, ice is not an ideal material for a dam. At least four catastrophic failures occurred, resulting in violent flooding that eroded and cut into the existing deposits. This created four distinct terraces on both sides of the valley, and dramatically lowered the valley floor to 275m. With each flood a new, lower terrace was formed.

South Okanagan Terraces

The star marks the approximate location of Phantom Creek.

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 27.

Today, the Black Sage Bench encompasses two of these terraces. The upper terrace (350-430m elevation) is the third carved by flooding. An outcrop of bedrock sheltered this terrace from further erosion, which explains why it has remained relatively wide. The lower terrace (320-350m elevation) is the fourth and last, and is much narrower in comparison.

The upper terrace, roughly to the east of Black Sage Road, is slightly more moderate with greater sun exposure. In comparison, the lower terrace is closer to the hot valley floor, and produces wines with more weight and intensity. Wines from both terraces are characterized by the distinctive aromatic flora of the area such as desert sage.

Phantom Creek and Sundial Vineyards

Phantom Creek and Sundial Vineyards on the Black Sage Bench.

In our case, Phantom Creek Vineyard is located above the valley floor on the lower terrace of the Black Sage Bench. Sundial Vineyard is largely on the upper terrace, closer to the Okanagan Highland foothills. The two vineyards are separated by just over 100 metres, but the resulting wines could not be more different.

Thanks to Audrey Perry for her work in researching the geological history of the Black Sage Bench and Phantom Creek Estates. This article draws heavily from her report.

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Pruning 101

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Pruning on a gorgeous spring day with the Okanagan Highland foothills in the distance.

So, why do we prune? To state the obvious, it’s important to remember that a grapevine is a vine. When you find grapevines in nature – and you do throughout Canada and the United States – they’re often crawling up fencing, houses, or trees. This is not what you see when you drive past a vineyard.

Left on its own, a vine will continually grow. This is problematic in a vineyard for a number of reasons. For example, vines will begin to shade one another, resulting in uneven fruit ripeness. Pruning is one of the means by which to limit the growth of the vine.

DSC_0046_PS

Ernesto removing last year’s canes, which will be tilled into the vineyard.

When we prune, we’re removing much of the growth from the previous year as well as establishing how the vine will grow in the upcoming season. This is critical because it is the first chance to set the balance and yield of each vine. On a vine-by-vine basis, we’re determining how many buds to retain, which will determine how much fruit is produced.

To Cane or Spur Prune

Vines are typically pruned in two different ways: cane or spur pruning. The former keeps one or two canes from the previous year, which are tied down to the trellis wire.

Cane Pruning

Cane pruning

Spur pruning retains short canes, or spurs, on older wood called a cordon.

Spur Pruning

Spur pruning

At Phantom Creek, we typically use cane pruning. This is more laborious and time consuming, however we believe it is ultimately better for the health of the vine. With fewer cutting wounds and less old wood, there is reduced potential for disease or virus. Grapevines are similar to people in a lot of ways. Cane pruning also helps to keep yields low and vines in balance.

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Ignacio cane pruning Block 1E, Cabernet Sauvignon, on Sundial Vineyard. Our vineyard team uses electric pruners to save time and prevent repetitive strain injury.

However, we’re not dogmatic. Some vines we may decide are best spur pruned for the upcoming growing season. We are also testing a spur pruning trial on a block of Syrah on Sundial Vineyard. This trial is based on our Vineyard Manager John’s recent visit to Côte Rotie, where he saw winegrowers retaining fewer spurs closer to the head of the trunk. The thought is that this technique may promote more balanced fruit ripeness.

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A spur pruned Cabernet Sauvignon vine on Phantom Creek Vineyard.

As we finish pruning both Phantom Creek and Sundial Vineyards, it is a sign that spring is (finally) approaching. And we can look forward to budbreak and the start of the growing season in the weeks to come.

Have questions about pruning? Reach out to us on Twitter (@phantomcreekest) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/PCEWine).