From Vine to Wine (It's a Vine Life...)
by Konrad Ejbich
In this second installment, we continue our exploration of the expected and unexpected events that occur over the course of an average summer in the vineyards of Prince Edward County, and how local winemakers prepare and adapt.
For years to come, wine lovers will opine over tastings about how this summer’s weather left its mark on the region’s wines. Winemakers, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on how they might have better managed their vineyards in light of the year’s environmental and meteorological realities.
For both, it will be 20/20 hindsight.
July, August and September are the vineyard’s time to relax, to nourish, to drink, and to bask in the sun.
For grape growers, however, there is no rest.
The 100-day ripening period has begun. Each vine requires the right combination of factors to produce its optimum quality and quantity of fruit.
In the short period that precedes harvest, growers attend to weed control, shoot positioning, tucking and hedging. Later on, they will pluck select leaves to clear the fruit zone, exposing grape bunches to direct sunlight.
The middle of August brings veraison, a critical period when grapes change colour from green to red or golden, and begin the final ripening phase. Growers will take this opportunity to cull irregular or problem bunches.
For Keith Tyers, head vigneron at Closson Chase Vineyards, the sweet spot is a yield of about two tonnes per acre in his chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards.
“That’s about all I believe we can physiologically ripen,” he says, adding that there will always be minor variances from the norm. “The healthier your crop is, the more healthy, ripe fruit it will produce.”
That means seizing control of vineyard problems before they begin...and spread. Once signs of disease manifest, the done is damage.
“Early in the season we use pheromone twist ties to confuse leaf hoppers, and we use a lot of organic sprays.” says John Rode, co-owner and winemaker at solar-powered Harwood Estate. “One is a natural fine powdered clay we put on the outside of the grapes to avoid sunburn and keep bugs off the fruit. It saves us from using chemical insecticides.”
“It never ends,” Rode adds. “It’s us or them.”
Grapevines need plenty of sunshine to optimize the short Prince Edward County growing season. By the end of July, field workers start to walk the rows plucking leaves from the fruiting zone to expose green grape bunches to the sun.
Brightness and warm temperatures are key to the sugar-making process. In the County, grapes need all the sun they can get but, weather permitting, it seems there’s barely ever enough.
Rows are planted on a north-south bias to ensure both sides of each vine get full morning and afternoon sun.
Paul Batillana ensures his crew completes the leaf-plucking just in time for veraison. “We try to do it then to get less sunburn on the grapes,” says the Casa-Dea Estates winemaker.
Veraison is also the time for growers to “green harvest,” which is the removal of any bunches that have little hope of maturing, allowing what remains to fully ripen. In the sultry Sacramento Valley of California, growers reduce yields to eight or ten tonnes per acre, but in Prince Edward County’s cooler, shorter season, yield expectations remain significantly lower. Like Tyers at Closson Chase, most growers limit their crops to the two to three tonne range.
Green harvest should be completed quickly so that vines can be covered with nets before the ripening colours of the grapes catch the attention of birds. One taste and they immediately share the message that it’s time for a feast.
Netting vines wasn’t always legal in the province. Before 1983, it was considered trapping. Then Pelee Island Winery lost an entire crop of late harvest Riesling, Scheurebe, Vidal and other grapes to birds, in a single weekend! Regulations were re-jigged to protect farmers from birds instead of the other way around.
These days, growers have many different tools at their disposal to scare off these flying little eating machines, including bird bangers, which go off like cannons at regular intervals; screechers, which sound like predatory birds; squawkers, that mimic a caught or injured bird warding off others; huge, high-flying, eyeball-shaped kites, owl statuettes mounted on poles and rooftops; and even predatory trained falcons.
Huff Estates, vineyard manager Alex Hunter works with two County vineyards: one which surrounds the winery itself, and a second located down at South Bay, where conditions are warmer and more humid. After 15 years of working with some of the oldest vines in the region, Hunter sums it up, “The only consistency about Prince Edward County is its inconsistency.”
As summer winds down, the first haul of grapes selected for sparkling wine heralds the beginning of the next three-month stretch...one in which every winemaker might feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.