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‘Nothing ever comes easy’ growing grapes in Ontario — notes from a veteran Niagara grape grower

Jamie Slingerland, the director of viniculture at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Pillitteri Estate Winery, is a former Niagara Grape King and presides over the vast vineyards of the region’s largest family-owned winery.

He’s seen a thing or two in all his years growing grapes in Niagara’s largest appellation, and he has some strong opinions on how to handle the most difficult vintages such as 2019.

Slingerland, pictured below as Grape King,  grew up on a Niagara-on-the-Lake grape and tender fruit farm, coming from a long line of fruit farmers. The Slingerland family has farmed in NOTL since the 1780s. As a result, Jamie understands firsthand that great wine starts in the vineyard.

Niagara wine

Slingerland’s marriage to Connie Pillitteri, daughter of Pillitteri Estates founders Gary and Lena Pillitteri, was a winemaking match made in heaven. Today, the award-winning vineyards of Pillitteri Estates managed by Slingerland account for Canada’s largest estate winery production of Icewine. The business is a true family affair. Working side-by-side with Gary and Lena Pillitteri are Slingerland, his wife Connie (CFO), son Richard and son-in-law Jared Goerz (both on the management team). Slingerland’s daughter Rachel is a lawyer. His Grape King honour in 2015 was especially notable, considering that his father-in-law Gary Pillitteri was Grape King in 1981.

After graduating from the University of Guelph, Slingerland worked as an inspector for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and later served on NOTL’s Court of Revision and Committee of Adjustment. His long history of service includes serving as inaugural chair of NOTL’s Agricultural subcommittee, which established a comprehensive zoning bylaw and an irrigation system for local wineries.

Among Slingerland’s other honors was the 2012 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, which he received for introducing the three Verona grape varieties to Canada, and shortening the period to establish new varieties and clones.

Wines In Niagara reached out to Slingerland for his thoughts on the 2019 vintage and received one of the most comprehensive replies we have ever received for a harvest report. His detailed notes on icewine, for which Pillitteri is a world leader, is particularly insightful. We decided to post Slingerland’s report as an adjunct to the main Ontario harvest report posted here.

In his own words, here is Slingerland’s Harvest Report for 2019 with a special focus on icewine.


By Jamie Slingerland

The 2019 vintage was certainly challenging this year due to the weather and I think a lot of growers and wineries, through difficulty, met the challenge.

It was no doubt a vintage that separated talent from luck, proverbially “the men from the boys.”

I would like to provide some context regarding grape growing and wine production in Ontario before I go further. Grape production in Ontario is very weather and location based.

For the grape crop quantity and quality, all eyes are on NOTL as it determines the Ontario crop. Niagara-on-the-Lake, according to the GGO’s (Grape Growers of Ontario) internal numbers over the last 5 years, has produced between 65-70% of the grapes in Ontario. The growing conditions in NOTL are the most optimum for the Growing Degree Days (GDD) and the moderate winter temperatures, the two factors that impact red grape and most grape production. Adding to that is a municipal irrigation system that covers 75% of NOTL grapes and prevents extreme vine stress/poor quality in dry years increasing vine survival.

Irrigation was not needed in 2019 but was a great savior in 2016, 2015, 2012 and 2010. As a side note, there are over 800 wind machines in NOTL that protect grape vines from winter injury. The density of wind machines in NOTL is 20 times that of any other DVA area in Ontario. Due to these advantages, especially for reds, a consistent crop is maintained and vine mortality is lessened. For those reasons, NOTL produces close to 90% of the Bordeaux varieties each year. It should be noted that all other production areas in Ontario produce primarily Burgundy reds due to their climatic limitations.

Importance of grapes in Ontario by variety (5 year average) from 2014 to 2018 in order of tonnage, from the GGO report on the 2018 vintage.

Red vinifera

Cabernet Franc — 24, 065
Merlot —16,841
Cabernet Sauvignon— 15,029
Pinot Noir — 11,600
Gamay — 7,990

White vinifera

Riesling — 43,418
Chardonnay — 42,481
Pinot Gris — 12,392

I’m a big red person and it would be fair to say that Ontario Cabernet Franc is the signature red grape for Ontario. The 214 Clone on 3309 root stock preforms incredibly well here.

Now that we have established the demographics of the crop now comes the analysis.

Although 2019 was a rainy and cool year, if growers/wineries reduced crop for whites there was some very good whites like Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. French hybrid Baco Noir did well based on timing. Pinot Noir was the heartbreak grape, as usual. If your timing was perfect you survived, if not, there was breakdown because of the above normal rainfall we regularly received in early fall.

If growers/wineries reduced their crops earlier in the season, then all early/mid season varieties did extremely well, whites and reds. Rains lessened later in the season. Due to the hard skins of the Bordeaux varieties they held up well.

If lightly cropped, and if hung long, there were some good quality grapes with especially Merlot. Cab Franc was the cross over grape, meaning that if you did a great job in the vineyard they preformed well, but if you cropped a half tonne extra they didn’t do well and had to hang longer.

It was a season where all varieties were hung longer to balance PH, acidity, brix, and seed colour (brown rather than green). The latest maturing varieties like Cab Sauv, Shiraz and Corvina were difficult, but in our case we either left them for Icewine or employed our Fruttaio (appassimento trailer, pictured above) to bring brix to 24, thus raising PH, lowering acid, and browning seeds. Appassimento to 27 brix or drying to 24 Brix is very labour intensive, time-consuming exercise and costly, but in tough vintages for later maturing grapes it is well worth the effort.

Although we grow all our grapes to reserve level there are some years where you declassify and make great mid range wines, in 2019 many wines will fit that category. Only a few varieties could have reached a reserve level in 2019.

This was a vintage that separated great viticulturists/winemakers from those that get lucky in great years with good wines. Having the tools to do the job made a big difference in 2019 such as flotation, RDV, cross-flow filters, centrifuge, fruttaio, having your own harvester (to pick just before a rain) enabled us to maximize the year. Just as a side note, we have between 1,150 to 1,400, 95% French oak barrels on site. One of the largest in Canada at one site. Sometimes you might wonder how brands that are 150 to 450 times our size are able to make wine with an equal amount of barrels or less. Putting wine in barrels is definitely a means to produce better wines. We have a very dominating red wine program at Pillitteri and have still a few 2015 mid range and reserve reds on the shelf. It would be safe to say that there will be a wide range of quality from the 2019 vintage based upon viticultural practices, winemakers’ talents and tools to do a better job.  

In 2019 there was an unusual early frost that hit the later maturing grapes. Good or fair would be an accurate assessment with some interesting characters for these grapes. It is premature to make a full assessment, but our appassimento program definitely paid off in the reds. Since they typically age in oak for 2 years, it’s too early to tell. Whites preformed well.

As per Icewine, we are the largest estate producer in the world. In 2017, we produced 1/3 of the province’s Icewine, out of 60 wineries in Ontario that produce Icewine we were tops in 2017. We are usually in the top 3 for Icewine production. Taking into consideration the magnitude of the two big boys, we punch way above our weight with Icewine and dominate internationally. We are a family winery with 70 full-time employees, with three generations and nine family members working very hard to obtain success. My son and son-in-law are the No. 1 and No. 2 Icewine salesmen in the world. We supply 50% of all Canadian Icewine sold to China, Japan, South Korea and the UK. We export to 38 countries.

The early multiple hard frosts this fall enabled Icewine grapes to brown earlier than normal. Typically we harvest the red vinifera varieties first, then Riesling, then Vidal due to the desiccation of the skins. Harvest is usually in full swing the first 2 weeks of January. If you were on your toes, you picked before Christmas and just after Christmas. The reds and Riesling were exceptional as Icewine grapes this year. Due to the skin breakdown in the reds we had the highest red colour ever, indicating more flavour. By the time we got to the Vidal in the new year, warm weather hit and we had 2 marginal nights in which we had to harvest. This resulted in a mixture of mostly Icewine and some Select Late Harvest. Typically, there is about 1 million L per year of Icewine produced in Ontario. There are a lot of grapes still hanging at the time of this email (Feb. 4) and the desiccation has taken its toll with the 2019 crop. I expect the numbers for Icewine from the 2019 vintage to be much lower than average levels but have some great qualities.

You could call this Icewine year a short year, but no worries, thank goodness we typically carry 1 1/2 to 2 years of inventory in Icewine. So, no shortage of Icewine to worry about, as well no price increases. As an industry we don’t usually increase prices due to shortages. Remember, that this a high risk crop so you have to learn to roll with the punches, there are perfect years and then difficult years. Typically Icewine quality is based upon the browning of the skins due to freezing temperatures, so a mediocre year for table grapes can produce exceptional quality for Icewine. When you see pictures in the media of those wineries wanting to be first to harvest Icewine, you can usually see green in those grapes indicating lower quality. Due to the weather, with Icewine, some years you win, some years you lose — it is a long-term proposition.

As Canadians, we learn that we have to tough it out, it seems that nothing ever comes easy, so you have to work hard and be better than most to succeed. Many of us in the Ontario wine business started as farmers so we are eternal optimists looking at the good side of life. Cheers!