A freezing winter night left its mark on Niagara vineyards

The fate of this season’s harvest was decided one evening in mid-January when a blanket of freezing cold settled over Niagara.

Vines covered on Westcott Vineyards with thermal blankets survived, but for other parts of the Jordan Station vineyard, there was “quite a lot of bud damage,” owner Carolyn Hurst said. He saw his crop load reduced by 50 or 60% for the year and lost about 25% of his vines in total.

One night, with significant consequences.

In agriculture, that’s often all it takes.

“I think people are still evaluating (what) the impact of that has been,” Hurst said. “It is difficult to make harvest estimates. They tend to be more optimistic at the start, then as the season goes on the numbers go down.

“But it’s safe to say that the harvest will be less than last year across Niagara. »

Mother Nature made her unfortunate appearance on January 15, with pockets across the region experiencing temperatures of -26 degrees Celsius. The lethal threshold for buds – especially weather-sensitive varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot (which is primarily what Westcott grows) – is around -20 degrees to -23 degrees Celsius.

“It seems like you have those quiet nights when the cold drops. So even the wind turbines, which are designed to turn on (didn’t help),” Hurst said.

It had “heartbreaking” impacts.

Younger vines, Hurst explained, have a better ability to “sprout up suckers,” which then grow into new canes. Older vines, however, do not – so the damage would be greater, forcing vineyards to replant vines, which can take four to five years to produce a new crop.

“The ones where the whole vineyard got hammered…they just went ahead and took some vines out. There’s a lot of stuff like that going on in Niagara right now,” Hurst said. “I think a lot of people are suffering in silence right now. Perhaps the stoic nature of the producers.

Paul Speck, president of Henry of Pelham Estate Winery, said while his harvest – particularly pinot, sauvignon blanc and merlot – is down, it’s “manageable”, with his biggest variety, baco noir , which is resistant to cold temperatures.

Fortunately, he added.

“It’s very, very winter hardy, so it wasn’t affected,” Speck said. “It happens, it’s agriculture. It’s Mother Nature. We have things like wind turbines and they work, but when you have an event like that that’s really unusual, there’s not much you can do.

Niagara Vineyards harvested a big crop last season, including Henry of Pelham – “we had too many grapes, we ran out of space,” Speck said – which will help sustain the vineyard for the rest of the year.

“In 2023, we really need a more normalized harvest. But in these winter events, it takes a few years on the most severely damaged vines, it will take us a few years to bring them back to full production. So it’s going to be tight for the next two years,” he said.

Allan Schmidt, vice president of Wine Growers of Canada and president of Vineland Estate Winery, said the smaller harvest this season will cost the industry “millions of dollars in reduced revenue for winemakers.”

Running out of product now is especially difficult as people begin to re-enter wineries after a two-year absence due to the pandemic. But it’s also hard to know that the one-day winter event may not be the end of it.

“We may even be hit harder in August or September – we may have a drought like we did two years ago, which further reduces the harvest. So the damage that we see there now, we don’t limit ourselves to that. It could get worse,” Schmidt said.

The rain Monday morning felt like a huge exhale.

With little rainfall so far this season, the dry and hot summer conditions play a huge role in how the fruit ripens and the quality of the harvest. Hurst said they were worried about the stress on the vines and the rain was a relief.

Westcott is harvesting at a low tonnage – around two tons per acre – believing it “makes better grapes and makes better wine”, but the vineyard “would absolutely love to have more fruit on our vines right now”.

For this year, that’s just not possible, and even if there’s less harvest, Hurst said the costs will be the same.

“We have to prune them, we have to tie them up, we have to deal with pests and mold,” she said. “These things continue whether or not there is a harvest from each of them.”

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