Canadian Wine Insider – May 2021

2020! An Exceptionally Good Year for Wine Growing Across Canada

By David Lawrason

The first non-oaked aged whites, rosés and light reds from Canada’s 2020 vintage are now flowing into the marketplace, an annual spring right of passage. The barrel aged whites and bigger reds come later. In British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the quality of the 2020 vintage is being very highly praised indeed.  But before getting into the details, some broader questions and observations are required.

Does vintage variation matter in Canada? Absolutely, it does more so than most other regions. Our vineyards lie in northerly latitudes where a shorter growing season, bracketed by potentially damaging late spring and early autumn frosts put commercial and quality considerations in peril. Where potentially brutal winter temps can wipe out a season, or a vineyard. Where increasingly extreme weather events during the growing season – hail storms in Ontario, fire storms and lingering smoke haze in B.C. and hurricanes in Nova Scotia – can wreak havoc.

All this certainly matters to winegrowers though their crucial lens of quantity, labour effort and dollars and cents.  But to consumers it is the quality of the wine that matters most. There is almost no vintage “choice” when buying Canadian wine off the shelf, and prices stay the same no matter the size and quality of crop – an issue I would debate anytime. So, the quality in your glass becomes the paramount reward or disappointment of a given vintage.

All that said, 2020 was an excellent year for grape-growing weather-wise in most parts of the country, a rare alignment in Canada. The key is there was a lack of extreme weather during the growing season and excellent harvest conditions, and that stability has winemakers calling 2020 an exceptionally good vintage.


Wines of British Columbia summarizes 2020 this way. “Overall, the 2020 vintage was a moderate year with growing degree days close to the long-term average and with wines showing excellent balance of natural acidity, moderate alcohol levels, excellent flavour concentration and ripe tannins”.  

Okanagan Valley

Digging deeper, three events conspired to reduce the crop size, which may hurt the wineries bottom line and put upward pressure on prices. But lower yields and smaller berries always bode well for more concentrated flavour and balance in wines. First, a late frost in November 2019 weakened some vines before going into dormancy. Second, a winter cold event of -20C in some places caused some bud damage. But most importantly a cool, wet May and June delayed the setting of the fruit and reduced the crop size.

Kathy Malone of Hillside Winery in Naramata, which grows a variety of white and red varieties, explains, “The lack of heat in the early and mid-season was quite impactful, in a good way. We didn’t have to be concerned about sugar levels going through the roof and high alcohol wines, which was especially important for the white varieties. It allowed lovely flavour development.”

By mid-July summer finally got underway with typically sunny but not extremely hot weather persisting right through the fall. As time passed week by week with same pleasant and moderate conditions – that also diminished summer forest fire threats and resulting smoke taint – hopes grew that ripening would catch up after the late start, and that if good conditions held into September and October, the harvest quality could be outstanding.

“It was a really good summer,” said winemaker Graham Pierce of Kitsch winery in East Kelowna that focuses on whites and pinot noir.  “September is always critical, but we were good there too, and got the flavour development we wanted. We got ripe fruit at lower brix (sugar levels), low PH and good acidity. I’ve never seen values quite like this in 20 years in the Okanagan. It was a great year for our pinot gris and chardonnay.”

And conditions did stay sunny and fairly dry right through Thanksgiving weekend up to October 23 when it snowed. By then many grapes had been harvested, but because there was no frost associated with the snow the vines kept working after the melt. Which was a good thing because the later ripening red varieties still needed more time.

“September delivered in spades,” said veteran viticulturalist Val Tait who focuses on red varieties at Gold Hill Winery in the southern Okanagan region of Osoyoos, “but the (later ripening) red varieties were still a good two to three weeks late. We picked merlot and malbec in mid-October where it’s normally late September. And although the cabernet sauvignon and cab franc showed good sugar levels, the physiological ripeness was stalled and we had to let them hang into November, five days after the first frost. But in the end I was happy. Sugars in the south were very high but the tannin ripeness was beautiful.”  She thinks cabernet franc and syrah will be her 2020 stars.

BC Vineyard
British Columbia – Mission Hill’s Paradise Ranch Vineyard in Naramata

Other Regions of B.C.

Many eastern Canadians may not yet be aware of any B.C. regions other than the Okanagan Valley, but as of 2018 there are five VQA regions east of the Coastal Ranges that share the Okanagan’s continental climate. They are all much smaller in terms of production, but very promising, and each a bit different. In 2020 they share they same basic weather pattern of a cool, wet, slow developing spring, then a great, even and warm summer and harvest period.

The Similkameen Valley is the largest, one mountain range west of the South Okanagan. It sits at slightly higher altitude and with steeper shade inducing mountains on both sides receives fewer hours of direct sun. The weather pattern in 2020 was as elsewhere with a great summer and fall. The main difference is that the spring was not quite as cool and wet, and fruit set fairly well, meaning quantity did not suffer quite as much. Said John Weber of Orofino, “We still had lower yields but excellent quality. I am seeing exceptional aromatics especially on our rieslings and gamay.”

The new VQA region of Lilloet in the upper Fraser Valley is fairly far north but is renowned for its mid-summer heat. I was there in July 2017 the day before the fires went viral in nearby Cache Creek west of Kamloops, and at 5pm it was over 42 degrees. The 2020 season was very similar to the Okanagan with the cool, crop reducing spring and fine summer and fall promoting even ripeness and balance. Heleen Pannekoek of Fort Berens winery reflected. “The wines have good flavour, moderate alcohol levels (which is nice!), and somewhat lower acidity than we are used to,” she said.

To the east of Lilloet and Kamloops, the Thompson River Valley reported a cold winter and damage to a number of varieties before moving on to a growing season similar to that in the Okanagan which lies about 100kms to the south. Next door, the situation was very similar in the Shuswap VQA region. Both these regions are at the upper latitude for vitis vinifera viticulture in Canada at 50.6 degrees North.

In southeastern B.C. on the 49th parallel boundary with the USA sits the new region of The Kootenays, with five wineries near the town of Creston. Despite being at the same latitude as Osoyoos in the South Okanagan it is higher and cooler. In 2020 it experienced the same general weather pattern with the slow start but did not get as much heat during the summer and fall to help the grape’s catch up. Wes Johnson of Baillie-Grohman reports that bloom didn’t start until late June-early July, and that they did not even attempt to make chardonnay in 2020.

There are three coastal VQA appellations – Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands and Fraser Valley – all of which experience a cooler, more humid growing season than the interior.  Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands were bit cooler than the five-year average, while Fraser Valley was slightly warmer. The vintage will have produced typically light, fresh wines, favouring white varieties.


The introduction of the Ontario VQA Vintage Report reads as follows: “2020 was a remarkable year for weather and wine in Ontario. All winegrowing regions were treated to excellent weather conditions, with just a few small exceptions, throughout the growing season. The wine outlook for the 2020 vintage is very exciting with many producers reporting a very high-quality grape crop.”

Niagara Peninsula

This is almost an understatement as many winemakers in Ontario, not just in Niagara, have already published comments that is the best vintage of their careers.  And what is most interesting is that the growing season was very similar to what B.C. experienced, especially in terms of the slow start in the spring and almost perfect September-October harvest weather.

Also like B.C. there was some exposed bud damage during a cold event in November 2019 which lowered yields in some places. The winter was relatively mild so there was no vine loss from winter freezes. Warmth came around early in March, but April and early May were notably cool and wet, delaying bud break and reduced yield. There was even some frost threat in early May requiring protections in places, but there were not significant losses.

Ontario rebounded faster than B.C. with fine, hot summer weather through June, July and August, punctuated by classic southern Ontario thunderstorms and a couple of hail events. By and large Niagara’s notorious humidity was kept at bay meaning the grapes stayed healthy as they ripened merrily along.

And then came the ‘home run’ harvest. According to the VQA report, “Sunny and dry conditions continued throughout September and October providing ideal weather for the full and complete maturation of grapes and their harvest. Some winery growers reported a slightly earlier than average harvest – end of August, for sparkling varieties. Overall, the dry conditions in September and October resulted in grapes harvested in good condition with good fruit concentration.”

Hidden Bench, on the Beamsville Bench, was more animated. “We have never experienced fruit at the physiological and sugar ripeness levels we achieved and with incredible fruit integrity that allowed us to sort more quickly than is typical throughout harvest. The 2020 vintage has provided our vineyards on the Beamsville Bench with incredible fruit which we anticipate will yield a benchmark vintage with full bodied, age worthy wines of note,” said winemaker Jay Johnston.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake sentiments were also running high. Craig MacDonald, chief winemaker for Andrew Peller and Trius, put it this way: “Our Clark and Carlton vineyards within Four Mile Creek produced some of the most compelling red wines I had ever made in my career. Top to bottom the quality is flawless and like (other hot years) in 2002, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2016, the 20’s feel every bit as concentrated yet more balanced, layered and have a delicacy and elegance amongst the brute force of a hot dry NOTL summer.”

Ontario Vineyard Niagara
Ontario – Malivoire on Beamsville Bench

Other Regions of Ontario

The same general weather patterns also were experienced in Prince Edward County, Lake Erie North Shore and the growing number of ‘central south Ontario” wineries stretching from Lake Huron to the Ottawa Valley.

In always more marginal Prince Edward County conditions were similar, if affecting a smaller crop due to cold event in November 2019 and the cool April and early May weather.

Dan Sullivan of Rosehall Run Vineyards provides his perspective: “Unlike other hot vintages like 2010, 2012 and 2016 there was no drought stress and the vines sailed into harvest on a tailwind of timely rainfall, dry weather and cool nights that held acidity. At this stage of development, the wines from our estate Rosehall Vineyard, I would cautiously say, are likely to be among the finest and longest lived we have ever produced. I think what sets apart the 2020 vintage is how uniformly great all varietals are and how they display perfect ripeness without excessive tannin or heat, it is balanced concentration that rules the day.”

In Lake Erie North Shore, Canada’s most southerly wine region, known for its late ripening red Bordeaux varieties, the pattern was similar with the summer reaching into hotter territory.

A report on a local CBC channel had this to say: “Compared to recent years, the region saw its highest number of heat warnings from Environment Canada this summer.” Co-owner of Harrow’s Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards Tom O’Brien said it created the set for perfect grapes. “This year has been amazing,” he said. “At times it was a bit too dry so I had to water more than normal. But for the most part, the dry heat was exactly what the grapes needed. What this means,” he said, “is that reds will be darker in colour and richer.”

with Nadia Fournier

Surprisingly, there are not encompassing on-line vintage reports from winegrower associations in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, at least that I could find.  So I have asked resident colleagues and fellow National Wine Awards of Canada judges for their assessments, and both report

Nadia Fournier lives in the heart of Quebec wine country in the Eastern Townships and has been instrumental in helping define Quebec regions and regulations in recent years. She has kindly offered this overview:

“The 2020 vintage in Quebec was very good overall,” she reports. “There were at least 185 days without frost; and over a week more in the southern part of the province. It started with an early spring. Weather in late June and July was hot and dry. August brought just enough rain to increase the volume of the berries. Harvest started earlier than in 2019, but following the average of the last decade. The wines I’ve tasted so far have a very good natural balance, and the flavours are expressive, with plenty of ripe fruit.”

Quebec Vineyard
Quebec – Ste. Petronille on the Ile d’Orleans

with Heather Rankin

For the 2020 vintage news in Nova Scotia, I turned to Heather Rankin, a veteran National Wine Awards of Canada judge and co-owner of Obladee Wine Bar in downtown Halifax, which, by the way, is one of the coolest wine bars in the land.

“2020 was a banner year for weather and wine in Nova Scotia,” Heather reports. “The long, gradual growing season combined with consistently warm, dry conditions through to harvest resulted in one of the best (and warmest) Nova Scotia vintages on record.

“The growing season got off to an early start thanks to a mild winter and warmer than normal spring with bud-break and bloom taking place about five to ten days earlier than usual in many areas. A hot, dry summer followed with record heat units – many days exceeding 30 degrees C – and well-timed rains which continued through to harvest with a drier than normal September and October.

“There was moderate disease pressure from some humidity, but nothing of any major concern. In September, tropical storm Teddy (downgraded from hurricane) prompted some growers to harvest early, but those that chose not to did not sustain any real damage from the storm. Most white and red grapes – hardy hybrids and tender vinifera – were harvested at optimal ripeness with good acid retention. The 2020 white wines are deeply aromatic with exceptional sugar to acid balance. There is a welcomed softness and ease to the reds. While the wines are drinking well now, this would be the year to cellar some of the white vinifera and red bottlings.”

Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia –  Luckett Vineyard overlooking the Gaspereau Valley

with Zach Everett

Zach Everett and family own Magnetic Hill Winery atop the very hill that has become such a major tourist attraction in Moncton. Like other growers in the province he is doing great work with winter hardy Minnesota hybrid varieties.  He provides this report on 2020, it’s quality yet again uplifting spirits and creating the potential for excellent wines:

“New Brunswick vineyards and wineries enjoyed a very mild and relatively storm and snow free winter. An early, mild and dry spring started the season on the right foot. A June heat wave that broke 100 year max temperature records in most regions of the province created great flowering and growing conditions for a very large crop with the most days over 30C ever in June. The rest of July and August remained hot, dry and sunny with less than half of the typical rainfall all spring and summer long.

“The season was progressing almost perfectly until tropical storm Teddy presented a challenge on the 20th of September. It forced some producers to pick certain varieties earlier than optimal, but the risk of damage and crop losses were too fresh in the memories of the major damages caused by hurricane Dorian in NB and NS in September of 2019. All in all, harvest started 2 weeks earlier than typical and proceeded at a more leisurely pace until mid-October. Harvest ended with great quality and tonnages on average province-wide.

“2020 has produced very expressive and balanced wines. A much needed boost after the devastating frost losses of 2018 and the cold and wet growing season of 2019.”

Looking Ahead

And that’s a wrap, for now. Normally at this point I recommend certain wines related to the subject at hand. At this point I have simply not tasted enough 2020’s from across the country as release is just underway. When the first reds and barrelled whites hit the market in the months ahead I will be re-visiting the vintage. And certainly we will get a really good look during the National Wine Awards of Canada which are taking place in Penticton B.C. the first week of October.

For now, it is really exciting for Canadian wine producers and consumers to be able to look forward to what could very well be the best pan-Canadian vintage on record.

David Lawrason, VP of Wine

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