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Niagara Falls
Friday, April 19, 2024
High hopes for grape harvest washed out


Niagara’s hot dry summer sowed the seeds of high hopes for a magnificent grape harvest in 2018 — then came September, bringing rain, warm temperatures, and humidity — a perfect storm of conditions to threaten grapes with mildew and sour rot. 

That meant that  “timing was crucial, we had to be very careful about when to spray, when to thin, when to pick” according to Jackson Triggs winemaker Marco Piccoli. His approach was to pick the thin skinned varietals (gewurtzraminer, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinots) early,  sacrificing sugar levels to get healthy grapes off the vines.

Gavin Robertson, Winemaker at Niagara College concurs.

“It’s been a topsy turvy harvest season so far, trying to balance optimal ripeness  against health of the fruit,” Gavin said.

 The scene has been similar at Vineland Estates, where winemaker Brian Schmidt said staff  have been “scrambling to get as much in as possible as quickly as possible, working night and day.”

According to Environment Canada, September was much wetter than usual, with rainfall for the month in the Niagara region more than 25 per cent above average.  

With the harvest in for most white grapes and the lighter reds including pinot noir, the chair of Ontario Grape Growers Mattia Oppenlaender estimates the yield for 2018 will amount to just two thirds of the tonnage picked in 2017, lower than expected. 

Last year was a bumper crop, in fact the largest ever, weighing 87,567 tonnes. This year the number is expected to come in at around 60,000 tonnes.

 In one case, Robertson reports that a block of chardonnay vines that yielded four to 4.5 tonnes per acre last year produced less than half the harvest this year, due to “a combination of naturally lower yields after last year’s bumper crop and the fruit we had to drop on the ground.”  

Still, winemakers are pleased with the quality of the harvest so far. Piccoli explains that “wines will be different each vintage, for example this years’ sauvignon blanc might be have more of a grapefruit flavour, where other years could be more peachy; pinot noir is very fruity this year, with darker colour than other years. 

“Each vintage has a different personality from Mother Nature,” said Piccoli.

Skilled winemakers in Niagara have different challenges each season. As Robertson put it, “it’s disheartening, but it keeps it stimulating as a winemaker.”

Everyone takes the season in stride, even if it does disappoint in some ways.

“This is my 28th year, I’ve seen extremes from every perspective. This is not the most difficult year we’ve had. The quality is amazing. Every year throws us curve balls we don’t expect” said Schmidt.  

There is still a considerable amount of grapes left to harvest. Merlot is coming in now, cabernets a little later. 

Schmidt has some good news for cabernet lovers.

“Cabernets are beautiful, small supercharged berries, extraordinary quality” according to Schmidt.  All the winemakers we talked to were of the same sentiment, and all have their fingers crossed for a good couple of weeks of hang time for the cabernet grapes, wishing for warm days, cool nights, morning breezes — and no rain.

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