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Is climate change creating opportunity for the Island wine industry?

‘On the whole global warming is bad for humanity, but not so bad for our local grape industry’
Grapes grown at the Symphony Vineyard in Central Saanich. (Ella Matte/News Staff)

When people think of British Columbia’s wine industry, most can’t help but think of the impressive world-class wine from the Okanagan Valley.

However, due to climate change, the future of B.C’s wine industry has the potential to shift to producing more of that famous wine on Vancouver Island.

In recent years, the Okanagan’s crops have suffered not only from the intense heat from summer wildfires, but from the equally punishing winter cold snaps.

Lamont Brooks is an owner of Symphony Vineyard in Saanichton. He’s also on the Wine Islands Growers Association (WIGA). A part of his job on WIGA is to issue a climate summary every month, updating a spreadsheet that gets sent out to all the island growers during growing season from April to October. According to Brooks, for the sake of the grapes, climate change “is mostly a good thing.”

Vancouver Island used to never have an extensive wine industry and it wasn’t until the last 10 to 20 years when that started to change, Brooks said.

The reason it was so difficult for the island to grow grapes until recently is because there was “not enough heat to ripen the grapes,” said Brooks.

“They’re like heat clocks – they don’t care about how much time has elapsed. What they care about is how they accumulate heat during the summer. Even now we can’t grow the big reds like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or shiraz, they just wouldn’t get ripe because there is not enough heat here. It means the grapes will reliably get warmer every year and it even might allow us to start planting more big red wine varietals down the road.”

The Okanagan has been struggling to produce those red wine varietals, especially shiraz and merlot, because of the climate extremes.

“This past Dec. 22 in the Okanagan they had a cold snap it went down to -29 C or -30 C and they lost a big portion of a lot of buds and a lot of vines in that cold snap,” said Brooks. “Those extra cold snaps are also due to climate change and then of course this summer with the wildfires and smoke it’s a bit of a double whammy for them this year. We’re very lucky on Vancouver Island. We don’t get the big smoke and we don’t get the terrible cold snaps in the winter either.”

Vancouver Island has received minimal smoke that would affect vine growth. The smoke can be detrimental to crops. If heavy smoke comes and the crops are going into veraison – when they’re trying to ripen and soften during late summer – they try to absorb the smoke.

“It’s been a very difficult season for our colleagues in the Okanagan,” said Brooks. “If we start getting smoke around this time in late August, that would be a big deal. It can be a really tough wine-making problem, but we’re pretty much free of that issue on Vancouver Island. Being by the ocean, those Pacific systems tend to protect us from the smoke. On the whole, global warming is bad for humanity, but not so bad for our local grape industry.”

About the Author: Ella Matte

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