And then the rain came. Hard. And it came again, bathing Niagara wine country in a much-needed soaking.
The long, hot, dry, humid, relentless summer of 2016 has been an epic ordeal of trying to stay cool and hydrated against all odds. For grape growers it’s been a trying season of extreme dry weather that comes after two stressful seasons of devastating winter kill. It was supposed to be a year of replanting and growth, of rethinking what’s in the vineyard and replanting with more winter hardy varietals.
It is the new vines that suffer the most from the drought and heat with most wineries dropping at least some of their fruit and having to water constantly.
As Vineland Estate winemaker Brian Schmidt says: “Indeed, we have been dropping fruit on all our vines … not to encourage higher quality but to encourage, well, living!”
No one knows for sure what the season will bring in terms of quality but indications are that it will favour the Bordeaux varietals and be in line with other hot vintages such as 2007, 2010 and 2012. Which means higher sugars and high alcohol.
So, big concentrated red blends, likely resulting in the full range of reserve wines most wineries only make in hot vintages and more opulent, juicy white wines built for the short term rather than the long haul.
The berries will be generally smaller, thus yields will be down, and more potent with “high skin to juice ratios,” explains Ravine winemaker Marty Werner (above), who adds that this weekend’s heavy showers did not help things.
We had planned to explore Werner’s vineyards Saturday to see for ourselves the condition of the grapes, but the irony is it was too muddy and wet and we had to cancel.
Werner says the heavy rain is “officially bad — we’re asking the plants to ripen now.” He’s hoping for sunny, dry weather from now until harvest with an easing of the 100% humidity seen in the last few days. Rain and humidity promote disease, especially the dreaded downy mildew. Most wineries do not want to spray their vines at least 30 days prior to harvest, with some electing not to spray 60 days before harvest.
Veraison — that glorious transformation when grapes turn colour and begin the ripening process — is bursting into action throughout Niagara’s vineyards. Some winemakers, such as Shiraz Mottiar from Malivoire, predicts picking for some sparkling wines will begin at the end of the month.
“In 2012, we started picking for sparkling on Aug. 26, so very likely this year about then too, maybe a bit later,” he said. “This year we did have that really cool May and all these days over 30 C I think are actually slowing the vines development down a touch. Still, I think we start in August.”
I asked a few Niagara winemakers their thoughts on Vintage 2016 and their responses are below. I’ve also culled some facts and quotes from various news outlets.
Weather facts for the summer
of 2016 (these figures were gathered
before the rain this weekend):
- 30 days of temperatures 30 C or higher so far this summer
- Environment Canada said the summer of 2016 is the region’s driest 3½-month stretch in recorded history. “It’s forgotten how to rain here,” senior climatologist David Phillips, told the CBC.
- There has been 86 millimetres of precipitation since May, when a normal amount for that month would be 262, Phillips told the CBC. The previous driest Niagara period was in 1934, with 84 millimetres to the end of July. But when you factor in the first week of August, when Vineland got a 31-mm deluge in 1934, it gives Niagara in 2016 the all-time-dry prize.
Quotes in the news:
Paul Pender, winemaker at Tawse Winery on the Twenty Mile Bench:
On the Bordeaux red varietals: “We’re going to have really nice rich, ripe wine. Very full-bodied, assuming everything stays like this. I think that most wineries will tell you, this is a great year. We’re all pretty happy.”
Matthias Oppenlaender, chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario, on similarities to the hot 2012 vintage:
“2012 was probably one of the best year’s I’ve been growing grapes. We’re on pace to almost have a repeat of 2012.”
Tom O’Brien, a vintner in Harrow, southwest Ontario:
“This is a great year. It’s like the plants know they haven’t grown berries in the last three years. They’re producing amazing berries, and this heat … it is absolutely wonderful for grapes.”
Walter Schmoranz, president of Pelee Island Winery:
“The grapes on Pelee Island are sunbathing every day. The grapes have very deep roots and so far are looking great and it looks like a fantastic vintage.” he said.
The vintage in review from
Niagara winemakers/winery owners
Shiraz Mottiar, winemaker Malivoire Wine Company, Beamsville Bench
“Some bonuses with this drought are that we are not going crazy with weed control and we aren’t spraying like crazy for mildews, either. And hedging has been minimal. All that adds up to less time on the tractor, less passes through the vineyard and less fuel consumed.
“That’s nice, but it has been very nerve-racking seeing barely any rain for so long. Just like the cold winters of 2014-2015 showed us which areas in a (vineyard) block are best suited to avoid the killer deep freezes, so, too, has this year shown us where the soils in a block retain the most moisture, and to that, I have been very impressed with our bench soils.
“These stresses we see in extreme conditions give us plenty of information, although it would be nice to be blissfully unaware due to easier conditions. But then where would the fun be, and ultimately, if things were too easy, would the wines be as exciting as they’ve been the last few years?
“In 2007, when our vines were under 10 years of age, with a smaller root structure, I witnessed very small vines and small berries. This year, any vine under 5 or 6 years has been very stressed, but in those sites with mature vines, I have seen a good crop and healthy clusters.
“Maybe there has been a bit of pent up energy in the vines after a couple shorter crops. As we focus on fresher, brighter, vibrant wines, the challenge will be to maintain a balanced crop and to pick at the absolute right time to ensure sugars and phenolic maturity reach their peak together.
“If we manage that, the quality of fruit and intensities of flavour should be outstanding. A few days’ delay in picking though with sustained heat can increase potential alcohol by a whole degree.”
Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estate, Twenty Mile Bench
“GASP… water … I need water,” said in my parched voice.
“Never before have we had a year with so little weeds. This is the one of the only silver linings we have in an otherwise cloudless summer.
“Indeed, we have been dropping fruit on all our vines … not to encourage higher quality but to encourage, well, living!
“The older vines have managed to find water deep in the crevasses of the fractured limestone. But as of this day … I can now see signs that even these old vines are beginning to struggle.
“If we only embrace short-term thinking, we could argue that this vintage will produce excellent wines. This is likely to happen.
“However, a vineyard is more than the current vintage. The vines not only produce and ripen fruit now, but simultaneously. They are preparing for next year. Developing buds that will be responsible for next year’s crop … damn, I really do sound like a farmer … I am going to grab a glass of Riesling and stop complaining.”
Harald Thiel, proprietor of Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery, Beamsville Bench
“We have dropped fruit on all vines younger than three years and are watering new plantings weekly to provide these new vines some relief.” On quality of the vintage: “It’s too early to be sure but feel that with good canopy and yield management we could see some memorable wines. Let’s wait till after harvest to see where we really sit.”
Ann Sperling, winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake
“We are optimistic about the season (aren’t we always … we’re farmers!). The dry conditions have reduced disease pressures greatly and mature vines have deep roots so have been able to access moisture.
“We have been watering new plantings and young interplants manually which is pretty labour intensive but because they have immature roots systems it’s sustaining them … and it’s better than watching all our early season hard work dry up.
“As well, in the last two weeks, we’ve laid out drip lines to give the mature vines a drink as the berries size up. This period in the vine and grape development is the most demanding for moisture. Our historical average rainfall each month is about 65 to 80 mm per month. We are giving the vines the equivalent of about ½ to 1 month of rain.
“Our fear is that if we don’t help the vine through to the end of the season that the crop, which the vine prioritizes, will use up all the vines’ reserves and leave insufficient stored nutrient to sustain the vines through our typical winter temperatures.
“Since the vines have been compromised by hard winters recently, we feel these extra steps are prudent. Watering with cannons is not a method we support due to the wasteful nature of the delivery system.
“The vintages you mention (2007, 2010, 2012) have resulted in many of our best reds, and I would say that 2007 most resembles 2016.”
Michele Bosc, director of marketing, Chateau des Charmes, St. Davids Bench
“So far, our vines and grapes are doing well. Crop estimates are up from last year and on track to be a good year in regards to volume. A little more rain would be nice, as long as it doesn’t come during harvest.”