Inside the war room at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, research assistant Mary Jasinski is slicing open grape buds with a razor blade searching for signs of life. It’s a laborious task and in a winter like 2015, with its bitter cold over a sustained period of time, it can be disheartening: there’s barely a heartbeat deep inside the nuclei of those brittle little buds.
Brock University’s VineAlert program has been anything but a ray of sunshine for grape growers in Ontario the past two gruesome winters. The grape bud hardiness alerts, a crucial and important warning system that tells growers when temperatures are approaching levels that can be harmful to grape vines (-20˚C and colder), are followed by bud survival rates — a grim tally of predicted death rates for buds across all appellations in Ontario. It’s an indication of the crop to come, but the not the definitive answer for the quality of the final wines — that’s determined by the overall growing season.
Jasinski works with the precision of a surgeon, methodically slicing open samples from vines taken just days before in Lake Erie North Shore. She’s counting live buds after the last major cold spell of the winter in early March to calculate the latest survival rates. The numbers are shocking: Less than 10 percent bud survival rates for Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, with 16 percent survival for the usually dependable Cabernet Franc and only 30 percent survival for king of cool-climate grapes, Riesling. Syrah, poor Syrah, was nearly rendered extinct during the 2014 winter and was, sadly, hit hard again in 2015.
“We’re really growing on the edge here,” says Jim Willwerth, the senior scientist in viticulture at CCOVI at St Catharines’ Brock University. “I don’t know what the impact will be after two bad winters. There’s a lot of anticipation out there.”
For Ontario grape growers, the extremely cold back-to-back winters of 2014 and 2015 are uncharted territory. The closest anyone can remember are the 2003 and 2005 vintages, both of which resulted in short crops and limited VQA wines for consumers.
“We just have to wait and see. There will be some negative impacts, more vine damage, that we wouldn’t normally see,” Willwerth says.
The winter of 2014, in Ontario, saw an extreme cold “polar vortex” settle over the province’s vineyards, devastating several varieties of grapes. Hardest hit were Syrah, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
There was no doubt Niagara fared better than Lake Erie North Shore, where damage was widespread with some wineries reporting 100 per cent crop loss, especially with varieties such as Syrah and Merlot and the Finger Lakes, which was declared a “disaster area” by the US Department of Agriculture.
The harvest in 2014, according to Ontario Grape Growers of Ontario CEO Debbie Zimmerman, ended up with 52,000 tonnes of grapes harvested, far better than what many feared but 3,000 tonnes less than the 10-year average of 55,000 tonnes, and a gigantic drop from the record-breaking 2013 haul of nearly 78,000 tonnes. By comparison, 26,000 tonnes of grapes were crushed in the short-crop year of 2005.
Zimmerman says many factors have changed since the disaster in 2005. The key difference is the emergence of wind machines, now hovering over half the crops in Ontario, which can raise the temperature in the vineyard enough to provide warmth to effectively protect buds from widespread damage. Also key has been matching the right vineyard site to the varietals most susceptible to winter damage.
That’s a lesson Rosewood Estates Winery on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara learned the hard way.
The Rosewood family bought the land for their winery in 2000 and began planting Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc in 2003 with Semillon and Riesling following closely behind. Pinot Noir was added in 2004 with more Riesling planted in 2008.
“We planted these varieties because he (Rosewood patriarch Eugene Roman) wanted to grow what he likes to drink,” says William Roman, Eugene’s son and operations manager at Rosewood. “He loves Merlot and that’s why it is so painful pulling it out of the ground.”
Rosewood lost a third of its vines over the past two harsh winters and has had to reinvent its core identity, which included beautiful Merlots spread across different tiers and blends, personable Semillons and Bordeaux-style white blends (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc). Those grapes are no more at Rosewood, laid waste by bitter cold, leaving William and his family to rethink its core brands and remake the production from the ground up.
“It’s dog eat dog out there,” says William. “Everyone wants to be different here. But offering so many styles of wine is not the way to go. We have to focus.”
That focus for Rosewood will now be on the core grapes that have proven themselves through the worst winters Mother Nature can throw at them — Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
No more Merlot. No more Semillon. No more Sauvignon Blanc. No more Gewürztraminer. The family enterprise, which also includes honey-based wines from local bee production, will replant its vineyards to Pinot Gris, Gamay, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and get back to the basics of what Niagara, and for Rosewood, the Beamsville Bench, does best. Whatever else Rosewood needs; say Merlot for its standalone Lock, Stock and Barrel Bordeaux-style red, it will source from trusted growers in Niagara who have found the few sweet spots left to grow that tricky grape.
If nothing else, the bitter polar vortex in 2014 followed by relentless sub -20˚C temperatures in 2015 have brought many wineries back down to Earth and forced them to focus on core varietals.
It’s a concept that growers in Prince Edward County built their region on and have strictly adhered to with great success.
“Nature imposed a certain kind of style on us,” Dan Sullivan, Prince Edward County winemaker and owner of Rosehall Run, says. “It’s not for the faint of heart out here.”
Sullivan is growing grapes and making high-quality wines in Ontario’s coldest climate for vinifera grapes. The winemaker cut his teeth in Niagara, but saw the potential in the County. “I wasn’t prepared for how viciously cold it can be.”
Sullivan, like most winemakers in the region, focuses his portfolio on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — gorgeous Pinots and mineral-laden Chards that are a showcase for the County’s unique terroir.
To achieve success and make grape growing viable, each fall the majority of wineries go through the labour-intensive (and expensive) chore of burying their vines and covering them with soil to protect them through the extremely cold winters.
There is no doubt that vines in the County, at least vinifera vines, would not survive without this step.
“I’m fully confident that what’s underneath the snow is completely viable,” says Sullivan, who doesn’t lose sleep during extreme cold alerts or fret over grim bud survival statistics. Brock scientists take their samples from vines that are above the snow line and paint a more depressing picture than what actually is occurring below the snow line, he says.
While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the mainstays of the County experience, Sullivan beefs up his growing portfolio with fruit sourced from Niagara and is still experimenting with other varieties — Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc — that can grow in the cooler climate with the modifications applied in the region such as burying vines in the fall.
“What kind of a case can you put up for a variety? If you can build that into a business plan, maybe it makes sense,” Sullivan says.
Back in Niagara, growers are assessing the damage from two straight winters of bitter cold. While the tender varieties of Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer were the hardest hit in 2014, the protracted cold of 2015 produced some bleak numbers across a wider swath of land, especially along the Niagara Escarpment. Most varieties, not just the usual suspects, were indicating bud survival rates from Brock’s VineAlert program well below 50 per cent.
Craig Wismer, manager at Glen Elgin Vineyard Management, one of Niagara’s top growers, does his own sampling and takes a different view of bud damage and where it’s going in 2015.
According to his sampling, bud survival numbers in the Wismer Vineyard on the Vineland Bench show 60 to 70 per cent survival rates for Riesling and Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir and Gamay at 80 per cent and higher. That’s in stark contrast to Brock numbers that show 30 per cent for Chardonnay, 27 per cent for Riesling and 37 per cent for Cabernet Franc in the Vinemount Ridge and Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellations.
Wismer admits that with the extreme back-to-back cold winters “no one has seen anything like this” but stresses bud survival rates should be viewed as signal of how to prune vines in the spring to increase chances for a healthy crop.
“It’s not for the faint of heart out here.”
With a 50 percent survival rate Wismer will double the canes per vine to increase crop load.
Brock scientist Willwerth agrees with that.
“Most importantly,” he says, “it is still too early to relate bud survival to predicted crop size and the spring and early summer will tell the true story. There is cold injury out there and all regions will be impacted at some level. Bud survival numbers do not necessarily equate directly to crop levels.”
Willwerth and Wismer both say pruning strategies can mitigate some damage by leaving extra buds and canes, for example.
“There are many factors to consider that will ultimately impact 2015 crop sizes. Vineyard site, topography, variety/clone, vine health/previous winter injury, viticulture practices, vine age as well as use of wind machines (or other protection methods) and pruning strategies will all impact the size of the crop at each location,” Willwerth says.
Wismer, who farms 120 acres of estate vineyards and manages another 500 acres for other wineries, has seen the hardest hit vines, such as Merlot and Syrah, ripped up because of the two bad winters. But he also knows it’s likely not the last we’ll see of these varieties in Niagara.
“I’m sure it will come back,” he says. “A few good winters and will people will forget all about the bad winters.”