Niagara vineyards suffer severe winter damage
Heavy rains and cool air hit the vines hard, especially in low-lying regions
Heavy rain and cold air severely damaged Niagara vines last winter, and early signs show growers could lose 50% or more of their harvest this year.
Grape and tender fruit industry expert and consultant Ryan Brewster said assessments are still being made, but predicts there will be more.fields could be affected for up to three years.
“This is the worst winter damage since 2005,” Brewster told The Lake Report.
Matthias Oppenlaender, president of Grape Growers of Ontario, said growers are “trying to get the situation under control, but it’s certain it’s serious damage.”
“We knew there could be damage, but the scale was surprising,” Oppenlaender said.
“We are still evaluating, we will know better later in the season.”
The damage is very site-specific, affecting lower areas more than others, creating a patchwork in the vineyards, with brown blocks appearing alongside vibrant green vines growing normally, says Wade Stark, vineyard operations manager for Andrew Peller ltd.
Stark notes that “Some vineyards are dead, some are normal, and there’s everything in between.”
“It’s amazing, in Beamsville the sloping vineyards are now having a near-normal year, then there are others that are flat or in a depression where the cold air could set in, and we don’t ‘have not just damaged buds, but dead vines.’
He echoed Brewster’s estimate that farmers could lose 50% of their crops this year.
Both Stark and Oppenlaender said Niagara-on-the-Lake was likely hit harder than the bench area because it’s flatter and low spots were hit the hardest.
The level of damage in the vines was a bad surprise for the winegrowers.
“People have been surprised now that the damage is showing, it’s right in front of our eyes and untold areas are being affected. No one saw this coming, this level of impact,” Stark said.
“We came into the spring looking pretty good, but once we started growing we found some damage,” explained Jim Willwerth, assistant professor and researcher at Brock University. Institute of Oenology and Viticulture in Cool Climates.
There were many contributing factors, dating back to last fall, Stark said.
“We had a lot of heavy rains in a short time in September and October. There was so much water that the hardiness of the forming buds was affected.
“The wind turbines ran for 10 nights last winter, which is much longer than usual. Most winters it’s only two or three nights,” Stark said.
The buds formed in 2021 are the source of growth for the 2022 season.
“The vines were less hardy in the winter, then we had several nights where temperatures ranged from -19°C to almost -28°C,” Stark said, adding “there were big pockets of cold air, so not everyone was hit, but the low points were hammered.
Willwerth describes it as “a cold, very sporadic and extreme series of events. They were also site-specific, particularly affecting low points.
Grape growers have a range of actions to take in the future, depending on the type of damage to their vines.
“We check the vines during the flowering period, to look for trunk damage and to assess shoot growth,” Brewster explained.
If only some of the buds were damaged, the vine could have fewer shoots per plant, but still produce fruit this year and fully recover next year, Stark said.
“But if there’s vascular damage in the trunk, the bunches can’t get what they need,” he said.
“The plant will throw up suckers at the bottom, and some growers will let that grow into a new trunk this year and produce an arm next year.”
Winegrowers can thus recover their vines, but this takes time.
“We can replenish the vines from the lower growth, but we’ve lost a full year and really have three years left before we get back to full production,” Brewster said.
And if the vines are dead, they must be uprooted and replanted. Next spring is the prime time to replant and in many cases new vines won’t be available until spring 2024. Once planted, it takes three to five years before a full harvest, according to Brewster.
“We won’t return to any sort of normalcy for at least three years, and that’s if Mother Nature cooperates for the next three years,” Brewster said.
“It’s very difficult and it takes a lot of work to get the vines back, so there’s an increase in the cost of farming,” Oppenlaender said.
Growers have insurance that covers both crop loss and vine loss, but not 100%, notes Oppenlaender.
“Loss of vines is covered, but there is a 12% deductible and crop insurance covers 70-85% of the loss.”
With crop losses, rising costs and the prospect of a long road to recovery, Oppenlaender said “this is a tough pill for many growers to swallow.”
He said the Grape Growers of Ontario will contact the provincial government to see how they can help, “once we see more specifically the extent of the damage.”