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Wildfire smoke is seen from the Burrowing Owl Winery, in Oliver, B.C., on July 20, in this image obtained from social media.vogon_poetry_society/Reuters

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After a summer marked by hot weather and out-of-control bushfires, particularly near Osoyoos and Lake Country, that added unexpected challenges to the growing season, grapes are being harvested across British Columbia, with some wineries celebrating their earliest start to the season. The 2021 vintage is under way already.

While it’s common for grapes earmarked for sparkling wine to be picked in August in some parts of the Okanagan, Martin’s Lane started picking pinot noir at Fritzi’s Vineyard in Kelowna last week for one of its flagship pinot noirs. The first grapes gathered by Martin’s Lane were harvested five days earlier than in 2016 and 20 days earlier than 2020.

Martin’s Lane winemaker Shane Munn says the growing season for the 2021 vintage came in two distinct parts. The first saw warm weather from budburst to veraison, when grape vines stop producing vegetative growth and concentrate their energy on ripening the fruit. The warmer temperatures and drier conditions created the conditions for more than 250 wildfires across the province, spurring evacuations and the closure of wineries, such as Nk’Mip and Phantom Creek Estates.

Munn explains the second half featured more moderate temperatures and clear skies when the smoke choking much of the valley from various wildfires cleared as the grapes developed sugar, flavours and colour.

Winemakers throughout the province are evaluating their crops as best they can, looking to identify grapes that have been adversely affected by the smoke. They are doing micro-vinifications as well as testing juice to see if the flavour has been tainted by the smoke. (Early reports have seen some of the first wines from early picked grapes for sparkling wine rejected for smoke taint. In some cases, the smoky character doesn’t present itself until later in the wine’s development.)

Research is under way in many wine regions around the world where wildfires are a common threat to effectively test grapes before wineries go to the expense of harvesting, fermenting, aging and bottling wines only to find out they cannot be sold. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to check for smoke taint currently.

“Winemakers need to be optimistic,” Munn says. “There’s really little we can do, especially with pinot noir, then hope for the best.”

Martin’s Lane produces small batch wines made from pinot noir and riesling, grown in a handful of vineyards operated by Sebastian Farms, the holding company that owns the vineyard for the wineries controlled by von Mandl Family Estates. Mission Hill and CedarCreek are part of the collection.

“It’s a strange year, a more challenging year,” Munn says. “Ordinarily we would harvest pinot noir and riesling from our warmest sites and then move to the next and then the next … This year, we will harvest all of the pinot noir and then three or four weeks later bring in the riesling.”

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