Category Archives: Winemaking


Vintage 2017

As I write this, we only have a small number of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere blocks left to harvest. That means the finish line for the 2017 vintage is in sight.

Hand Harvesting

Hand harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon from Phantom Creek Vineyard

This year’s growing season got off to a slow start with bud break occurring nearly two weeks later than average. The cool, wet spring meant challenging conditions during flowering, resulting in poor fruit set and relatively low yields throughout the valley. Although producers may curse the reduced volumes, the good news is the quality appears to be quite high.

The summer was warm, but not excessively hot. Nights were cool. And the South Okanagan was exceptionally dry. Growers who practiced thoughtful deficit irrigation were able to harvest well-balanced fruit that combined ripeness with purity of fruit and freshness. The reduced yields and low precipitation resulted in small, concentrated berries that should produce wines of depth and intensity.

Merlot Bin

A bin of Sundial Vineyard Merlot

The 2017 vintage has been well-paced and organized. To date, pristine harvest conditions have meant that fruit could be picked as it was ready. There were no heavy rains or snap frosts to force our hand. Our picking decisions have emphasized balance first and foremost; flavour development is important, but so is freshness. With picking spread out, there’s a calm and focus in the cellar that is rare for this time of year.

Hand Sorting

The harvest crew around the sorting table

It’s still early to talk about the precise character of this year’s wines. The sparkling base wines have finished fermentation and are now resting in a combination of oak casks and stainless steel. They combine lively acidity, a requisite for quality sparkling wine, with delicate, subtle citrus fruit flavours. The wines will be bottled for secondary fermentation (what’s known as tirage) in summer 2018.

The white wines – Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Viognier – are slowly fermenting. We now just check on them every few days. Even at this early stage, the wines show exceptional varietal expression. If Ross did not have the winery locked and alarmed, there’s a Pinot Gris in oak cask that I’d be tempted to siphon into bottle and drink liberally. It is rich and complex – and distinctly Okanagan.

Pinot Noir Juice

Cellar Master Ryan McKibbon sampling Pinot Noir juice from the press

We have started pressing our first red lots. Today was Syrah from Phantom Creek Vineyard. No surprise: it is dense, heady, and a true expression of this historic vineyard.  Others have just started fermentation. So far, the reds have a bright fruit character, but with no shyness in ripeness.  The last remaining blocks will be harvested next week.

Maybe most exciting about this year for us: no commercial yeasts. Every fermentation in the winery – and we mean every – has been started and finished with naturally present yeasts. We tasted a number of 2017 lots this week. The wines have impressive complexity, but also are clean and pure. I think John Pires is right when he calls 2017 an archetypal Okanagan vintage.

Stay tuned.

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Deciding When to Harvest

Last week, we started taking berry samples from Phantom Creek and Sundial Vineyards. Each vineyard block is sampled individually. Even for the same grape variety, some blocks will ripen earlier than others. The fruit’s maturity will depend on the block’s unique mesoclimate as well as the clone and rootstock. Precise sampling allows us to harvest each block at its optimal ripeness.

Berry Sampling

The key is making sure the Ziplock bag full of berries is a representative sample of a vineyard block that may be several acres in size. To this end, berries are individually picked from different parts of the grape cluster. Berries that are sun exposed will be sweeter than those that are more shaded; the top of the cluster will always be more mature than the tail. The range of maturity within a cluster may be up to 1 to 2 weeks. Consequently, berries are selectively taken from the front, back, top, middle, and bottom of different clusters.

Berry Sampling

We’ll run the numbers on each block, specifically looking at sugar ripeness (measured in Brix), pH, and total acidity. Samples are taken once a week to begin with to monitor a block’s development. We also have the benefit of using phenolic analyses. As the block gets closer to optimal ripeness, the frequency of samples will increase and John and Ross will taste the fruit on an ongoing basis. The difference between underripe and overripe is often a narrow window.

John and Ross will also keep an eye on the upcoming weather forecast. A heatwave, like occurred recently in Napa, or unseasonable rain may move the harvest date forward. Optimal ripeness cannot be considered in isolation; it’s also relative to the vintage.

Sampling Pinot Gris

As the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for our inaugural sparkling wine starts fermenting at the winery, Ross and John are tasting Pinot Gris berries to determine when they should be picked. These rows in Okanagan Falls are tasting like they’ll be ready to be picked this week.

Managing Tannins Before Harvest

When it comes to red winemaking, there are few things as important as tannin management. Harsh, astringent tannins dry out the mouth, leaving one grasping for a glass of water over another pour of wine. Well managed tannins provide the structure to age a wine – tannin is a natural antioxidant – but with a silky, plush texture. Think of the difference between licking coarse sawdust versus a cashmere sweater. (Not that I particularly recommend either.)


Tannins shouldn’t feel like this

Managing Tannins in the Vineyard

Like almost anything to do with wine, tannin management starts in the vineyard. The level of tannin will depend on the grape variety as well as factors such as harvest date, temperature, and sun exposure. For example, the sundrenched Central Otago region in New Zealand, averaging 1973 hours of annual sunshine, results in deeply coloured, structured Pinot Noirs. The wines are distinctive for a variety that is generally pale hued with low tannin levels.

Phenolic or physiological ripeness is a loaded term that is often used during harvest. Although it may refer to a number of factors – there are thousands of phenolic compounds – it is commonly used in reference to skin and seed ripeness. The idea is that properly ripe fruit should have soft tannins. In some cases, this may necessitate long hang times prior to harvest to achieve the desired tannin profile.

But, interestingly, the level of skin tannin does not significantly change in the weeks before harvest. Rather, the level of anthocyanin – or colour – increases over the four weeks prior to harvest. In other words, anthocyanin is a critical indicator of phenolic ripeness.

Cabernet Sauvignon post-veraison

Cabernet Sauvignon post-veraison at Phantom Creek Vineyard

The Impact of Anthocyanins

To be sure, the colour of a wine does not relate to its quality. Think of Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, for example. However, anthocyanins do something else: they bind with tannins to form polymeric pigments, adding body and creating a softer tannin profile in red wine. This starts on the vine, but occurs mostly during fermentation and maturation. And this can be why it’s difficult to taste for soft tannins. The tannins have only started to be modified by anthocyanin before they’re harvested.

The other risk is going too far with hang time. Anthocyanin levels decrease as fruit becomes overripe. This is largely because anthocyanin continues to bind with tannin to form polymeric pigments. However, wines with very high polymeric pigment levels are overly developed and oxidative. Put simply, the resulting wines taste older than they should. Think of undesirable flavours such as stewed prunes or barley sugar. Again, it can be difficult to taste oxidative characteristics before the fruit has been picked. Jamie Goode argues that “by the time grapes taste ripe, they are overripe.” This is why using anthocyanin levels as a guide for harvest decisions can be incredibly useful.

Phenolic Analysis

As a result, phenolic analysis is increasingly becoming an important tool in making harvest decisions.

Phenolic analysis: an assay that measures compounds such as tannin, catechin, polymeric pigments, and total anthocyanins in grape juice and/or wine

Some Napa wineries, after using phenolic analyses, have found that they could actually harvest fruit earlier than they previously thought. This makes sense: it’s impossible to measure anthocyanin levels with the human eye. It also provides context for the vintage. For example, is it a low, medium, or high tannin year?

Green Grape Seeds

Green, or unripe, grape seeds

Phenolic analysis also helps to measure seed ripeness. It’s not uncommon to hear winemakers say they’re looking for brown or lignified seeds at harvest. The reason? Grape seeds impart a harsh tannin that is easily extracted in alcohol. High levels of seed tannin can indicate unripe or green seeds. This will impact harvest decisions as well as how the winemaker treats the fruit in the winery. Seed tannin typically declines over the four weeks prior to harvest, but this varies by grape variety. For example, Pinot Noir has naturally high levels of seed tannin.

Phenolic ripeness indicators are one – but certainly not the only – piece of the puzzle in making picking decisions. And this information will also influence how the fruit is handled in the winery. Part two of our look at tannin management will consider how phenolic analysis can be used to influence winemaking decisions after harvest.

Follow our blog, Pressing Matters, over the coming weeks for an in-depth look at the 2017 harvest:

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.

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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Sorting, Seriously

You could say we take sorting seriously. After all, why would we make wine from fruit you wouldn’t want to eat?

Sorting refers to the diligent selection of ripe, healthy fruit

After being hand picked by our vineyard team, fruit arrives at the winery to be sorted. The triage starts by hand around a sorting table.


The berries are then gently destemmed and rigorously sorted using a Pellenc optical sorter. This cutting-edge technology rejects any berries that do not meet Ross’ specifications. For each lot, he adjusts the desired berry size, shape, and colour to best suit the character of the fruit from that vintage. The aim is to remove unripe or damaged berries as well as MOG – material other than grapes such as leaves and stems.


The optical sorter has an attention to detail that cannot be matched by the human eye, and ensures we’re using the best possible fruit from our estate vineyards. A camera continuously scans and analyzes every berry at a rate of up to 2,000 berries per second. If a berry is rejected, a shot of compressed air tosses it into a rubbage bin. The time between a berry being scanned and rejected: just 30 milliseconds.

Because you don’t want this in your wine:


Photo Gallery: Spring Racking

We’re currently racking all of our 2016 barrels for the first time. The purpose of this racking is to take the wine off its gross lees – a combination of spent yeast cells and grape solids – barrel-by-barrel.

Racking: moving wine from one vessel to another

Karin transfers the wine from barrel to a temporary tank, cleans the barrel, and then moves the wine back to the same barrel. This approach is more time consuming, but allows us to evaluate the sensory profile of each individual barrel. We can then refine our selection of barrels – whether by cooperage, grain tightness, or toast level – for the next vintage.

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