Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Southern Ontario's Successful Difficult 2019 Vintage

General Topography of Southern Ontario
Wine Country in Ontario lies between 42 and 45 degrees North Latitude which is well within the common wine making regions in the Northern Hemisphere and corresponds with those of the Southern Hemisphere though there are some Geographic differences which in turn affect the vineyards.
The greatest influence to the vineyards and climate of Southern Ontario is the nearness to the large bodies of water. The Great Lakes affect the Southern Ontario climate all year long.
The Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, Prince Edward County are all influenced by the nearness to Lake Ontario which moderates the climate. Each in turn are also affected by land topography.
The Niagara Escarpment which is the remnant of  a weathered slope and also an ancient sea shore, stretches East/West from New York State, through Ontario, Canada and Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois.
The air current movements caused because of the escarpment basically cool the region in summer and warm it in winter though that is the most simplistic of answers.
As Lake Ontario affects Niagara so does it affect the climate of Prince Edward County ---making it much milder than it would be but accounting for much snow in winter. Lake Erie has the same effect on its North Shore vineyards.    
Description of Wine Regions
Lake Erie North Shore:
This is easily the warmest of the three appellations and includes a group of islands called the Southern Islands one of which was an appellation unto itself, Pelee Island, until 2016 when it was made a sub appellation.
Lake Erie North Shore has influences from many rivers and stream though the main influences are the unobstructed south west breezes which come from the warm, shallow lake near them thus resulting in vines that mature earlier than the two other appellations. 
The soils which are the result of glacial deposits and loam left over from past bodies of water. Limestone forms the bedrock.      
 Prince Edward County:
The newest viticulture area and designated appellation is arguably said to much resemble Burgundy in both climate and wine though that is just an opinion. Certainly the temperature variances are great with as much as with 30 degrees Centigrade during some summers and minus 30 degrees Centigrade in some winters.
Once again the area is strongly under the influence of lake breezes which moderate the climate.  
An example of the huge amount of water permeating the limestone base of the region is the "Lake on the Mountain" which appears to have no outlets. The lake is a "Collapsed Doline" ------ a limestone dome which had numerous streams grinding their way through it and under it. The dome finally collapsed due to the continuous carving by the streams and formed what is now a large lake in the middle of the County.     
In addition, due to the many slopes, ridges and escarpments that line the region there are many microclimates and soil structures that provide grounds for distinctive wine.
The soil consists of clay loam on top of broken and cracked ancient limestone bedrock which allows for vine roots to go deep.  As an example is the remarkable differences between wines found in Waupoos as compared with those of Wellington or Picton areas.    
Niagara Peninsula:
By far this is the largest and most versatile region in Wine Country Canada. As mentioned prior it is mostly influenced by Lake Ontario however the Niagara Escarpment with its height (nearly 600 feet) affects the off shore/on shore breezes which in turn affect the development of the vines.
Once considered its own appellation, the Peninsula has now been divided into a number of appellations with their own distinctive "terroir" and thus producing their own distinctly typical wine.
Several micro clime sub-appellations exist under two main regional  appellations of The Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake!    
Some of these are named: The Beamsville Bench, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Lakeshore and St. David's Bench.
Soils are well drained and glacial in nature atop of shale and limestone bedrock with silt and clay deposits in Lakeshore vineyards.      

General Climate of Southern Ontario

Monthly Weather Patterns During 2019
2019 began on a mild note with mild temperatures throughout Southern Ontario. However the temperature turned very cold from the middle and towards the end of January with very low minus temperatures.  The up and down temperature patterns continued throughout February with some very mild daytime temperatures and some low minus temps towards the end of the month.
March began well below average temperatures and aside from a period of mild temperatures around the middle of the month, it hovered around the average until its end.
April continued the cool trend below average daytime temperatures  though SW Ontario did enjoy some high temps. The general cool trend continued in May with daily highs well below average.
June temperatures remained below average for the most part with a resurgence of temperatures towards the end of the month and into July.
July proved a warmer month with temperatures slightly to much above average.  
August with a bit of a fluctuation towards the end, registered generally average to above average daily temperatures.
September proved to be a slightly below average until a warming trend became established from the middle of the month towards the end.  October generally showed average to slightly below daytime temps.   November started the month with some sharp drops in temperature for most regions during the most of the month. The cold trend continued  until middle of the month when they plunged even further to low double digit minus temperatures.  
From the 21st of December to the present (January 5th) there has been a mild trend of  above average temperatures.

Precipitation in 2019
Southern Ontario received an above amount of total precipitation in 2019.   March, April and May were rather wet followed by a drier June,   July and August though August was not the normal hot month. September was dry but October was unusually high with 136 mms or rain alone. November was intensely cold as was the beginning to mid December with accumulative snow. Late December saw mild temperatures and rain.    
Grape Development During 2019
Grape development was slow due to the cold spring and delayed warm weather. The fluctuation of temperatures from "frigid" to "thaw" caused me to feel that the vines could be in danger. This was substantiated in an earlier article that I did by winemaker Paul Batillana concerning the cold weather and subsequent warming he stated:
 “We hit minus 27 Celsius at the winery. We only tied down (covered) whatever we wanted to keep the following year. Any of ours left above ground will be dead!”
On the same article I had interviewed Gerald Klose, Viticulture Director for Arterra Wines in Niagara who had this to say:
 "Winter in Niagara was cold! … some slight bud damage on vinifera varieties. We do not anticipate any loss of vines or …potential crop----!"   
Caroline Granger at the Grange of Prince Edward County Winery stated
while they had
"---four significant and extended thaws, it was early in the season and there was little risk of dormancy being disturbed."  
The cooler than normal March, April and May certainly would have affected bud formation and break. 
Daniel Lafleur, Representative for Tawse Winery on the Niagara Bench and Michelle Saba, Director of Communications (through Paul Kassebaum, SVP of Operations and Head Winemaker for Arterra Wine) both said that the Spring was wet and cold and vine growth was delayed!   
Reports from all viticulture areas had "an unusual spring", "delayed start to season" and "challenging weather".
While spring was wet, the "Sun Gods" did shine their glory from the middle of June to September.
Alex Sproll of Trail Estate Winery in Prince Edward County reported "contrasting dry weather" in the following months!
" We seemed to be in a pocket of dry weather during June/July/August which stressed the vines considerably with smaller fruit and yellowing leaves. Not quite as dry perhaps as 2016, but we did hand water later in august and this helped preserve some of the fruit. Certainly after the wetness of the spring, the dryness of summer proved this was a season of contrasts. Anecdotally, deeper soil levels certainly paid dividends"                                                                                      During the summer months of July/August and into September reports from various vineyards ranged from "catching up" and "excellent growing season-----normal crop" from the Niagara Bench and Niagara- on-the- Lake respectively to an August struggle with Veraison  and an estimated harvest start of mid October in Prince Edward County.
Luckily, surprise was on hand and in spite descriptions of "Fall setting in by September and delaying the ripening process" (Niagara Bench)  and predictions of an early frost/snow, the vintage was basically "saved" by a warm period in mid September and fast work by vineyard owners.
Success at the harvest depended on the type of grape variety harvested. The hybrid Baco Noir grape was among the first harvested (NOTL) while early ripening grapes such as Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay were harvested on time however on the Vineland Bench:
  "A few of the later ripening varietals did not make it to full ripeness because the colder temperature and frost came quickly at the end of October and early November... …"
Prince Edward County was a surprise on two fronts.
Near Wellington Caroline Granger of The Grange Winery noted the following :
"--- --- the summer was warm and dry. Maggie (daughter/winemaker) and I watched and tended the plants hoping we would be able to ripen before the snow. It seemed too much to hope for never had a year been so late and as August waned and the fields struggled through Veraison late we estimated harvest might begin mid October. The first round of brix testing in the third week of September though was surprising the Pinot Gris was ripe and ready to go and so with one days notice harvest began. While the crop was lighter than usual the fruit was exceptional and over the next 4 weeks we began to fill our tanks with the sticky bounty nature and the vines had so generously provided. The warm fall gave us warm fruit with lively yeast cultures on the skins; natural fermentations were spontaneous and smooth. This year all of our whites from Pinot Gris through Sauvignon Blanc saw extended skin contact giving us a colourful array of white wines.
As with every vintage by the time the fermentations have ended and the wines have been racked and tucked away for their rests the work and worry of the season is replaced with a sense of awe for the beauty these humble fields offer up year after year."
Not far from The Grange but having a somewhat different topographical make up Trail Estates Winery indicated that their reds had a higher amount of acidity and that it is using Geotextiles to increase soil stability, provide erosion control or aid in drainage and thus assist in future vine development.   
 "This past year was also the first year we had our entire vineyard under geotextiles and we’re confident this will help in the future. Certainly from a vine and soil health POV there are benefits as we now avoid turning the soil over and can plant complimentary cover crops. Vines are also not buried now, so they should be happier long term. From a vineyard practice POV, it makes Spring less hectic as well as preserving more buds, which once the vines are older should mean more fruit — not as much as in other regions but we may one day approach 2T/acre after 1-1.5T/acre in past harvests. Additionally, as weather becomes more unpredictable (global warming IS a thing) in shoulder seasons, this flexibility, we think, will become essential and provides insurance against a late frost or a wet or hot spring"
As mentioned previously much of seasonal development and harvest  success depended on the actual grape varieties. Even in a similar location, choosing the correct grape for the region may have made the difference.
The general climate of Waupoos not far from Cape Vessey where Delgatto Estates Winery is located is warmer than further "up" near the region near Wellington. The grapes used generally are those of a hybrid nature though wine maker Patrick Delgatto has come up with some rare surprises such as an awesome "Pinotage!"
  "Weather-wise, we had timely rains through the season.  Vines were able to grows without water stress.
Throughout the summer we had very few degree days over 30, which typically makes the vines shut down into preservation mode.
Rains did come in the late summer and early fall. We had to wait for windows of opportunity to continue harvest.  Additional rains will drop the Brix (sugar) levels in the grapes and so a few days have to go by to regain those desired brix levels.
 The introduction of the Marquette to the VQA has validated the hard work of many vineyards and winemakers in producing high quality wines.
The vine itself is well suited for the Ontario climate and will no doubt be a big part in the development of other DVA regions in the province.
It's exciting to know that with the introduction of cold hardy varieties such as the Marquette, it will allow grape growing to expand into northern regions like the Ottawa valley and the Kawartha region". 
According to most wineries contacted harvest was completed as early as the end of October to mid to late November. 
Due to the extreme November cold, many wineries made Icewine in November. Donald Ziraldo, Canada's ambassador of wine; the man who started the whole boutique winery craze going in 1975 as well as the man whose Inniskillin 1989 Vidal Icewine put Canada on the World Wine Map said that while no Icewine was made from the original Inniskillin vineyard this year, he did have a regular Reisling harvest and his Vidal would be picked later in January. He now makes a stupendous Ziraldo Icewine. 
The general attitude for 2019 seems optimistic of a large to medium harvest with good quality wine. Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County vineyards are all seeing positive harvests. Delgatto seems to summarize the general feeling of this difficult vintage!   "The 2019 harvest provided both quality and quantity (much like 2012). The sugar levels were good, the acidity was slightly higher than normal (but certainly easy to work with).
Our white grapes will be as great as the 2012 harvest.  The aromas are off the charts.
Reds are aging nicely in barrels and all indications show these will be stellar vintages as well.
Our barrels of Pinotage have outstanding aromas of chocolate and mocha, blackberry/black cherry.  
Seemed to be the case throughout most of the grape growing regions in Ontario."
Many are predicting a marvelous Pinot Noir year!