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B.C. wine industry projecting 50% fewer wine grapes this year because of winter vine damage

British Columbia’s wine industry is projecting a significant reduction in wine grape production this year because of a prolonged cold snap over the winter that damaged vineyards right across the Okanagan Valley, the province’s main wine producing region. 

Initial projections by Wine Growers B.C. forecast a 39 to 56 per cent drop in wine and grape production this year as a result of a two day-long dip in temperatures below minus 20 C across the region in late December last year, according to CEO Miles Prodan.

“Up to over half of the grapes will not bear fruit this year and that is obviously a huge concern,” Prodan said.

“It’s quite extensive in terms of its range throughout the valley.”

Researchers have been examining the tiny buds on grape vines that remain dormant over the winter by dissecting them to and looking for signs of cold damage. 

A close up photo of the stem of a grape vine that has been finely cut at the bud, showing a partially brown area of a dead bud along with two healthy green buds.
A disection of a grape vine bud showing a partially damaged bud. The primary bud at the center turned brown and is dead while the secondary and tertiary buds are green and likely survived the cold damage. (Contributed by Ben-Min Chang)

Extreme cold freezes cells in vine buds

In some less hardy varieties or in areas of the valley where temperatures dipped closer to minus 30 C, up to 100 per cent of the buds are damaged, said grapevine physiologist Ben-Min Chang with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“When the temperature dropped [the cold] will kill the cells. Ice formed in those cells and actually burst those cells,” Chang said. 

“We are seeing a brown colour and that pretty much means the bud is now dead.”

Much of the damage is in the South Okanagan region, which is known for growing the vast majority of red wine varieties that require a lot of heat and sunlight to fully develop. 

A small handful of red wine grapes are held in a man's hand.
The B.C. wine industry is projecting up to a 55-per-cent reduction in grapes and wine produced this year because of two days of prolonged cold temperatures over winter. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

‘Some varieties are pretty much toast’

For Balwinder Dhaliwal, co-owner of Kismet Estate Winery, the cold damage is more severe and widespread than he’s ever seen in his three decades of growing wine grapes in the region.

“It looks really bad. Some varieties are pretty much toast,” Dhaliwal said.

“Some varieties are a little bit more winter hardy, like Cabernet Franc or the Pinot Gris, we are a still finding a little bit of live buds, but some varieties like Merlot are dead.”

It will take another four to six weeks until the full extent of the damage is known, Dhaliwal said.

A man wearing stands next to a stacked pyramid of wine barrels at Kismet Estate winery in Oliver, B.C.
Kismet Estate Winery co-owner Balwinder Dhaliwal grows 600 acres of wine grapes in the south Okanagan region. He says this year there is significant winter damage. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The worst case scenario is severe winter damage where the entire plots of vines need to be replaced. 

“That is going to be a nightmare. We’ll have to pull all the plants out and plant new vines that take three to four years to start producing again,” Dhaliwal said.

B.C. isn’t the only wine producing region in Canada that’s dealing with substantial winter damage to vineyards.

Last month, Nova Scotia pledged $15 million in emergency funding for the wine grape producers affected by an extreme cold snap and last year, Ontario’s Niagara region suffered significant grape vine winter damage.

Wine grape production down 30% in recent years

In B.C, the prolonged cold snap this past winter is part of a trend of extreme weather events impacting grape production in recent years.

It’s something Wine Growers B.C. have been tracking, according to Prodan, who says yields are down about 30 per cent over the past seven to eight years.

“We see heat domes in the summer, we are seeing smoke that can affect the growth [of grapes] if not ultimately the taste,” he said. 

“We can put that right at climate change.”

A bunch of lush, red wine grapes hang from a vine in an orchard.
B.C.’s wine industry contributes nearly $3 billion dollars to the provincial economy creating 12,000 jobs. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The situation has growers thinking about replanting their vineyards with varieties more tolerant of extreme temperatures.

Prodan points to a provincial replant program to help farmers replace their vines with more cold-tolerant varieties. 

“With climate change we need to reset the clock a bit. Now that we know what grows well where, we should be making sure those grapes are are in the ground.”

Impact on tourism in the Okanagan

For the 2023 vintage however, the impacts of the projected reduced volume of grapes won’t be felt by consumers for a few years. 

White wine varieties will come onto the shelves next year and reds a year after that.

A vineyard is pictured in the winter, with snow all around the vines.
Vineyards in Nova Scotia are still recovering after extreme winter temperatures in early February that devastated their crops. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Some wine makers, like David Paterson of Tantalus Vineyards in Kelowna, are worried the much smaller volume of wine produced could impact tourism in the Okanagan region.

“A big reason people do come here over other destinations is the wine industry here and they can go wine touring,” said Paterson.

“If we suddenly don’t have any wine to sell because of the short crop, that’s going to have a trickle-down effect to jobs in  restaurants, jobs in hotels because why is the tourist going to come here if they can’t then go and do the the tourism that they want to do?”

The B.C. wine industry has a $3-billion impact on the province’s economy, generating more than 12,000 jobs.

But as Prodan points out, that assumes there are a lot of B.C. grown grapes to produce wine. For this season that likely won’t be the case. 

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