A 'stunning' year for some grapes, but picking conditions are tricky
Heavy rainfall in September has created challenging conditions for the annual grape harvest.
“It puts pressure on growers,” says Gavin Robertson, winemaker at Niagara College.
“Wet conditions create the potential for sour rot and breakdown, as the grapes are left on the vines to ripen further,” he said.
September rainfall in the region amounted to a whopping 166 millimetres, far above the average of 90 mm, with two major downpours on Sept. 8 (44mm) and Sept. 23 (35 mm) in addition to many other overnight and daytime showers.
“We’ve never had that much rain at this time of year in my 10 years here,” said Amelie Boury, vice-president of winemaking and operations at Chateau des Charmes Winery.
That volume of rain doesn’t just affect the grapes, it also softens the ground, in some cases making it impossible to drive the harvest vehicles around the vineyards.
“We tried to harvest in some sites, but the ground was too soft. We couldn’t drive the machine there,” Boury said.
And where the machines can drive, muddy ground can mean the tires sink in, putting the vehicle a little off kilter, and that can cause mechanical breakdowns.
For Boury, it’s meant three broken beater bars in three days. Her crew carries extra parts onboard the harvester for quick repairs right in the vineyard.
“Instead of a harvest where you can take your time and breathe a little, this season is condensed,” said Lydia Tomek, winemaker at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery.
“You really have to be on your toes and keep a good pulse on the vines, and when to pick,” she said.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s going to be a long harvest with long days.”
For Tomek that means walking the vineyards every day, inspecting the grapes to make sure they’re still healthy, and tasting them to see how ripe they are.
“You can’t drag your feet on decision-making, it could impact the flavour of the wine. If we see breakdown developing, we pick the fruit,” said Tomek.
For Boury, “it’s all about decisions and weighing the risk of rot developing. We have to put everything in balance and maybe sacrifice sugar levels a bit to protect the integrity of the fruit, if necessary.”
“Everyone is antsy right now.”
Decisions about when to harvest this season are based more on “need to pick, versus want to pick, to avoid problems,” she added.
The situation is somewhat different for different growers.
“It varies site by site. It depends on soils, drainage, canopy management. There are so many variables at play,” explained Robertson.
One thing all the growers have in common, though, is “a large crop this year. We had good heat and rain, and healthy vines through the growing season,” he said.
Tomek beams with pride as she shows off her Chardonnay grapes, which are pristine, though not quite ripe yet.
Boury is three weeks later than usual in picking her Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer grapes this year, but they are excellent quality, and with improving weather they should be safely in soon.
“A lot of growers have been waiting with white knuckles” to get harvesting under way in earnest, said Robertson. He said to expect to see a lot of activity in the vineyards this week, as growers take advantage of better weather.
“Daytime wind and sun with lower temperatures at night are a blessing right now,” Boury added.
Even as Tomek keeps a close watch on her white varietals, she’s thinking ahead to the later harvest of the bold reds.
“Our Merlot grapes are stunning. Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are beautiful, but we’ll have a better picture in October.”
Long days and vigilance will ensure the Niagara wines of 2021 will be delicious, as winemakers and growers make the best of whatever challenges Mother Nature sends their way.