B.C. Wine Culture

The ducks enjoy the sustainable setting at Okanagan Crush Pad. Lionel Trudel photo

Why so many B.C. wineries are turning organic, and what it means for wine lovers.

Just over a decade since Canada regulated organic food products, maybe you’re turning to organic wine to reduce your intake of synthetic chemicals. Or maybe you just want to help save the American kestrel.

The population of these colourful falcons is dwindling almost everywhere—except at some of Mission Hill’s Osoyoos-area vineyards. Assistant viticulturalist Grant McKinnon recently erected nine kestrel nesting boxes, hoping they’d encourage the population to grow and help provide natural bio-control for pests feasting on wine grapes. “I am happy to report that two boxes were successfully nested with a total of nine fledglings,” he says.

It’s a perfect example of how organic wine can be a win-win.

Although organic regulations limit the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides (as well as most of the 80-some additives that can go into conventional wine), it’s not just consumer demand for cleaner food and drink that is pushing British Columbia wineries to go organic. Stewardship and restoring ecosystems are the bigger picture.

I truly believe in five years’ time B.C. could be 50 per cent organic wine.

“We need to leave the land in a better place than when we found it,” says Darryl Brooker, president of Mission Hill Family Estate. The Okanagan’s largest vineyard owner is in the process of converting all the company’s land and wineries to organic farming certified through Ecocert. “I truly believe in five years’ time B.C. could be 50 per cent organic [wine],” says Brooker. The company’s CedarCreek Estate Winery will have its first organic harvest this fall and plans to release organic whites next year.

Mission Hill Family Estate’s vineyards are all being turned to organic farming. Photo courtesy of Mission Hill Family Estate

Organic growing has its challenges. Even in the Okanagan, where cold-snap winters lower the risks of disease-causing vine pests, Okanagan Crush Pad, certified organic since 2014 under the Pacific Agricultural Certification Society (PACS), recently noticed leaf hoppers attacking its vines. Operations manager Julian Scholefield says, “For the price of an organic spray, we could buy insects instead and just let them go.” So far, thousands of ladybugs (from thebuglady.com) seem to be doing the job.

We have bigger clusters, bigger berries, bigger bunches of grapes. The fruit is clean, the flavours are full-bodied and delicious.

“You have to farm differently,” Scholefield says. When OCP started farming organically back in 2011, labour costs immediately increased and crop yields decreased, at least initially. “That first year, the vineyard didn’t like it very much. It suffered from losing the ‘chicken nugget diet’ it had been on,” he laughs, comparing chemical fertilizer to human junk food. “Then suddenly we said, ‘Here is your salad!’ ” Today, crop sizes have rebounded and, he says, “We have bigger clusters, bigger berries, bigger bunches of grapes. The fruit is clean, the flavours are full-bodied and delicious.”

On Vancouver Island, Blue Grouse Estate Winery is preparing to begin the three-year transition to organic. Leanna Rathkelly photo

Weeds also grow better organically, though. Organic farming in the humid, maritime Cowichan Valley region, where grasses and clovers can continue to grow year-round, is a different challenge, says vineyard manager Michael Abbott at Blue Grouse Estate Winery. “The soil needs to be dry in the spring before I can get out there in a tractor to clear all these weeds that have been growing all winter long.” Blue Grouse is already following many practices required in its three-year transition period to organic, expected to start in 2020. “It takes three years for chemicals to work their way out of your soil system, even though you’re farming organically the whole time,” Abbott says.

To encourage biodiversity, Blue Grouse has introduced more than 20 acres of cover crops, with a focus on flowering plants that appeal to residents of its 30 beehives. By harvesting an annual honey crop, “now we’re able to get a two-for-one with the same ground,” says Abbott, who has a degree in ecology and calls organic farming not just a solution but a lifestyle.

The road to organic has an offshoot of wine-tourism interest, too. Mission Hill’s Brooker says visitors to the wineries are intrigued by everything from the use of compost and manure from neighbouring farms to the mobile chicken coops that bring natural pest control to vineyards in need. “You see their interest when you start talking about what we’re doing in our vineyards on the path to certification… they ask so many more questions.”

Increasingly for B.C. wineries, the answer is organic.


WHAT IS “ORGANIC WINE”?

Label terms like “organically farmed” or “made with organic grapes” have no legal standing in Canada. To be “organic wines,” the grapes, vineyard and winery must all be certified, and rigorously inspected (sometimes by surprise visit) by one of several accredited groups.

We’ve all heard anecdotally of wineries that say they follow organic practices, but don’t pursue certification. So why go certified organic? “Certification holds everybody accountable at the same level,” says Mission Hill president Darryl Brooker.


GO NORTH: CLIMATE CHANGE AND WINE

This past spring, when B.C. wine authority John Schreiner gave a 100-point score to CheckMate Artisanal Winery’s 2015 Little Pawn Chardonnay, winery owner Anthony von Mandl thanked Mother Nature, calling it a “climate-change enabled” wine. Hotter California weather means that ideal growing conditions have “shifted north for Chardonnay,” said von Mandl, citing a consult from Oregon-based academic Dr. Gregory Jones. 

While scorching weather is reducing yields in parched wine regions from Australia to South Africa, some of B.C.’s most recently named regions—Thompson Okanagan, Shuswap, Lillooet—are on the northern edge of grapevines’ known extremes. Dr. Jones told a full-house B.C. Wine Institute forum last year that one degree of annual average temperature change will alter which grape varieties can successfully grow in global regions.

While warming can be good news for a growing industry in cool-climate zones like B.C., it can spell trouble for dry-farming—and for wildfires, which have become something of an annual occurrence in the Okanagan. 


ORGANIC IN THE GLASS

Haywire Switchback Organic Pinot Gris 2017
(Summerland/Okanagan Valley, $26.90)
Bright but creamy, lush stone fruit.

Blue Grouse Estate Ortega 2018
(Duncan/Cowichan Valley, $23)
Delicately mineral, floral, juicy citrus.

Mission Hill Winery Whispering Hill Organic Merlot 2014
(Okanagan Valley, $20)
Red berries, fresh and juicy, minimal oak.

Follow us on Instagram

Instagram has returned invalid data.