The Challenges of Coastal Winemaking

The Challenges of Coastal Winemaking
By Mark Simpson Sep. 30 2005

This September I had the opportunity to ride my bike across the Fraser Valley in the BC Lung Association Trek for Life and Breath. We rode for 100 km from near the Peace Arch border to the hills above Cultus Lake and back. During all that time in the saddle, I had to some time to think about and observe terrain and terrior in this rapidly evolving wine region. One of my first stops on the first day of riding was Lotusland Vineyards in Abbotsford. I met proprietor David Avery in the wine shop and we quickly got into some fellow winemaker shop talk. One of David’s first questions of me during this chat was “how much do you know about coastal viticulture”? This question stuck in my head and became the genesis of this article.

I set out to interview some key winemakers and look for some common themes in Coastal viticulture. A trip back to Lotusland gave me the opportunity to talk with David and his wife Liz in more depth. Organic farming is the philosophical base of this winery. The principles of organic farming are a story unto itself, but suffice to say it adds an extra layer of challenge to growing wine grapes in the Fraser Valley. Planting the right varieties for the soil and weather was the David’s recipe along with some spirited experimentation. The lower heat units and shorter growing season are better suited to Germanic varieties such as Sylvaner, Zweigelt, Gewurztraminer and Burgundian varieties like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. At Lotusland, a modified Hudson River Umbrella trellising system is practiced (developed in New York State) where shoots are trained over and down from the top wire. Canopy shade is not a vital in Abbotsford as compared to a vineyard in, for example, Osoyoos, where the consistently higher temperatures can cause more sun damage to the fruit. In fact the key themes in all of the wineries I talked to where maximizing sun exposure and keeping an open canopy to allow natural moisture removal. Picking ahead of the fall rains is also very important to David as his organic practices leave him with fewer options for protecting against botrytis and mildew. Typical harvests start in mid September and run until around Thanksgiving. In drier falls, the fruit can be left until early November, as frosts are relatively rare on this sun belt along the US –Canadian border. One of David’s themes is to not always follow the conventions or believe everything you hear and to push the envelope. Great successes can come from this kind of thinking along with its share of hard knocks, but experimentation is the essence of great winemaking.

My next visit was with Corey Coleman of Township 7 Vineyards and Winery. Their business model consists of a Langley and Naramata Vineyard, along with some purchased Okanagan fruit. Their Langley property is focused on production of a method traditionelle sparkling wine made from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. Typical specs for these grapes at harvest are 19.5 to 20.5 brix, Total Acidity 10- 11 grams/L and pH s around 3.20. These are certainly challenging numbers for red wine making but great for the crisp acidity and zest of a sparkling white wine. Corey’s key viticulture practices for his Langley vineyard are: maximizing air flow through the canopy, lower cordon wire trellising with vertical shoot positioning, regular ground cover management to maximize heat into the soil and diligent sulphur sprays to control mildew. Corey also noted that this area is the best place in the GVRD to grow grapes with good quality, gravelly soil and no need for irrigation or soil fertilization. He also made a very interesting point about the relative lack of pests, which he attributed to the biodiversity of the Fraser Valley with many different crops interspersed with lots of trees and pocket forests. To visualize this, imagine how easy it is for a flying insect to get around on the north-south orientation of the Black Sage bench from Oliver to Osoyoos.

Just down the road at Domain du Chaberton, winemaker Dr. Elias Phiniotis is focused on winemaking in the Alsace/Mosel style with their local grapes, supplemented with Okanagan fruit for their red wine programs. With a few vintages under his belt, Elias noted that our weather is getting warmer year over year in the Fraser Valley, which is a good thing for wine grape growing. He is experimenting with some Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir vines. His current project is a carbonic maceration cold soak (skin contact of crushed grapes under carbon dioxide counterpressure) with Fraser Valley Gamay Noir grapes. I will follow the progress of this project with great interest, as I am a big fan of medium bodied early drinking reds such as Beaujolais Nouveaux and Cote-du-Rhone Rosé’s. Elias echoed some of the themes of his colleagues, such as careful attention to moisture management through pruning and leaf thinning and managing harvests carefully around our inevitable fall rains.

Saturna Island Vineyards is the largest vineyard operation in Coastal BC at 62 acres. David Heard, their Vineyard Manager noted that that the Gulf Islands have a drier, longer growing season than his colleagues across the pond. I have, over many kayaking and bike trips in the Gulf Islands, enjoying this rain shadow effect, where is often sunny in the Islands and cloudy or raining in Vancouver, especially in the spring. In fact this dry spring leads to some drip irrigation needs for thirsty vines in May and June. Mid summer is the time for some sulphur and botrytis sprays to combat the moisture laden morning fogs common to this ocean environment. David is experimenting with some Merlot vines, along with the core program of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Gewurtraminer. Saturna Island Vineyards has recently added Daniel Lagnaz, formerly of Mission Hill, to their team, which bodes well for their future releases.

As I noted some common themes between these Winemakers and Viticulturists such as attention to terroir, careful vineyard management and precise winemaking, I couldn’t help but get excited about the possibilities for this emerging wine region. Along with the fact that the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island are great places to visit, there are serious wine people evolving current businesses and creating new ones. With the advances in the science of grape growing, different skin contact regimes and most importantly, a passion for experimentation, we can expect great things from BC winemaking. Get on your bike, kayak, tractor, etc. and check it out for yourself!

Mark Simpson

Mark is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Consulting.
Saturna Island Estate Winery October 2010 058


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Mark Simpson is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Group.