From Vine to Wine (It's a Vine Life...)
by Konrad Ejbich
The grape is a vine, a creeper. It survives all terroirs but the wettest ones.
It needs to be trained to stay in place. (Given the opportunity, it might creep right out of Canada to a more conducive milieu...perhaps politically and bureaucratically as much as climatically.)
The vine must be pruned to focus its energy. It needs protection from adverse weather, pestilence and disease. Different grape varieties have varied life cycles and all varieties intended to produce quality grapes need constant attention.
Here, and over the next three issues, we’ll explore that seasonal need for attention through the experiences of some local growers. Keep in mind that vineyard maintenance is just one of many facets of managing a winery. Additional responsibilities include finding and hiring staff to do all the chores, harvesting and fermentation, cellar and lab work, racking and blending, barrel rotation, tank and line cleaning, bottling and shipping, marketing, trade sales, retail shop supervision, managing inventory, administering the business, negotiating with banks or investors, and endless government reporting.
Vacation? Are you kidding?
April, May and June are the vineyard’s time to wake up.
The land magically begins to transform itself from crusty and barren, to mucky and miserable, to lush and green. Near the end of this season, young sprouts will burst into blossom filling the land with a subtle, intoxicating fragrance that triggers the grower’s dreams and hopes for a healthy and prolific yield.
Winter, however, is far from over. During this seasonal transition from very cold to very hot, a long period of instability unsettles many growers even more than during harvest. Especially in Prince Edward County (PEC), where growers face an extra challenge not known in warmer regions.
Winters in PEC can be more severe than vines are able to tolerate. When temperatures plunge to -25ºC or lower, stumps and canes freeze to death. The solution is to untie some of the canes from the wires soon after harvest, lay them carefully on the ground and hill up several feet of soil on top to protect from.
But choosing the right moment to take these hills down is the ultimate mug’s game.
Once the ground warms up, the sap begins to run. New buds need to be exposed to air as soon as they sprout. If they sprout beneath the surface, they will surely be damaged when the earth is removed, but if cleared too early, they risk a late killer frost.
“There’s wackiness and lack of rhythm in the weather and in the ecosystem itself,” says John Rode, co-proprietor of solar-powered Harwood Estates Vineyards in Hillier.
Rode buries more delicate vinifera vines for the winter, but not his hardier hybrids. Around the middle of April, he gets ready to take down the hills by preparing counter-measures for an unexpected chill. He positions dozens of bales of hay all around his vineyard. If the frost comes, he reaches for a box of matches.
“Burning hay bales works,” he says, “but you have to burn a lot of them.”
The smoke from smoldering hay creates a ceiling over the vineyard, which reflects back what little warmth is in the ground.
Just down the road, at Casa-Dea Estates Winery, winemaker Paul Batillana monitors several weather stations but also relies on old-school wisdom.
“Typically, we get frost on the full moon in April,” he says. “It always seems to come just about the time we want to take the hills down, so we wait till that’s over.”
Over at Huff Estates Winery, vineyard manager Alex Hunter isn’t quite as convinced as others on the benefits of burning hay bales. “As the heat rises,” he says, “it only invites more cold air to move in to fill the gap.”
Hunter depends on the winery’s three large wind machines installed in the estate and South Bay vineyards. They are programmed to kick in before frost can attack the vines.
Natural topography helps winemaker Keith Tyers combat frost at Closson Chase Vineyards. The winery has two properties straddling Closson Road on the west side of Chase Road. The more elevated ‘Churchside Block’ on the north side of the road slopes gently, draining chilly air into the older vineyard on the south side. Any pooling of frost in the lower ‘South Clos’ would be very costly, so the winery installed its wind machine at the edge of this site, directing cold air further away into a nearby marsh.
Before switching on his fan, Tyers monitors countless websites, including The Weather Network, Environment Canada, Acu-Weather, Farm Zone, and perhaps, half a dozen others. For all PEC growers, this is a never-ending necessity.
Spring is primarily about unburying vines and monitoring for frost, but it’s also about clearing away dead wood, training new shoots up onto the wires to get them off the ground early, and initiating a good spray regime to ensure a healthy flowering.
“You need to start early,” Tyers says. “Once the new shoots have a few leaves, you have to protect them before funguses settle in.”
As June rolls through and the flowers finish blooming, it’s time for growers to prepare for the oncoming ravages of summer.