It's a Vine Life: From Vine to Wine
by Konrad Ejbich
October, November and December may be the most important months in the vineyard. It’s time to harvest grapes. It may also be time to pray...a lot. Whatever happens in this crucial period determines a legacy for the vintage.
If that’s not enough, soon after the vines have been picked clean, the best ones must be tied to wires set just two inches above the ground. Later, they will be ploughed over and buried under soil in order to survive the County’s severe oncoming winter.
Although some grapes may have been picked earlier for sparkling wine production, at the beginning of October, the real work begins. You’ll see growers walking their vineyards, picking grapes and tasting them for flavour and ripeness. They carefully inspect the seeds. If they’re still green, they have a way to go. Once they turn beige or brown, full fruit maturity is imminent.
You may see growers reach for a refractometer, crush a grape onto the small mirror in the centre, cover it with a prism and look up at the sky. A scale inside the gadget gives an accurate estimate of sugar and, therefore, potential alcohol.
For more precise readings, winemakers snip bunches of grapes here and there, sealing each in a sterile container and noting its source. Back at the winery, these samples can be individually analyzed for sugar, acid, tannin, and pH levels before any decisions are taken as to when and where to begin to harvest.
For those who machine harvest, the process runs quickly, with a lot of grapes entering the winery over a very short period of time. Several acres can be harvested in a single hour; an entire crop can be brought in over a few days. Meanwhile, a team of hand-pickers must work very hard to gather a few tonnes of grapes over the course of a long, exhausting day.
“Here at Casa-Dea, we hand-pick everything,” says Paul Batillana, the winery’s vineyard manager and head winemaker, “so it’s a mad rush to get things picked between rains and fogs.”
Fog? I ask about the fog.
“Niagara gets fog,” Batillana replies, “but what we get here is insanely thick.” He explains that visibility can drop to less than 30 feet and the moisture soaks the ground and grapes as if it had rained all night.
At Huff Estate, teams of pickers overcome another challenge. They must carefully wind back long rows of netting before any grapes can be harvested.
“We have a crazy starling problem out this way,” Huff vineyard manager Alex Hunter says. The nets are rolled out after the final summer cull of non-viable bunches. Every row of vines gets covered to keep the hungry creatures out. In addition to netting, Huff uses bird bangers, screechers and squawkers to scare birds away.
Hunter has worked the same vineyards since the day they were planted and knows intimately every corner of the winery’s two vineyards: one that surrounds the winery, and a second – a half-hour’s drive away – at the east end of the County near South Bay.
“Our winery site takes off a week sooner than the lakeshore site,” Hunter says. “but once South Bay warms up, it gets a longer season and that means more hang time.”
“If you can let the vineyard go a little longer and not jeopardize the fruit, why wouldn’t you?” asks Keith Tyers, head winemaker and vineyard manager at Closson Chase Vineyards. “You’re going to get more physiological and phenolic ripeness and that will give you a better wine with more character, richness, body, and more of the place and the year in the glass.”
Late harvesting in the County, though, means there’s less time for the hilling-up process needed to protect the vines through winter.
Over at Harwood Estate on Loyalist parkway in Hillier, owner John Rode will be experimenting with a new technology this winter. He’s experimenting with Geo-Textile, which he thinks may be the way of the future. This material is said to insulate vines efficiently although Rode says he must slightly adjust how he prunes his vines before tenting them under the fuzzy, spongey, high-efficiency cloth. Once in place they can be used for several years. Initial results from test plots have been “spectacular”.
Rode also purchased a unit called Air-Dancer to deal with his birds. It has a vertical column of sailcloth with arms and a head and a strong fan underneath. Rode placed it at the edge of his property last year, near some hydro wires where flocks of birds like to roost.
“It wiggles around like crazy and does a great job of getting rid of the birds,” Rode says, “but here’s the thing; it also attracts customers, who often think they’re the primary reason it’s out there.”