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NEW WAYS OF COPING WITH ARCTIC WINTERS

geotextiles
Photo credit: Domaine St. Jacques, Québec

 – As published on www.jancisrobinson.com on Aug. 28th 2018 – 

As the leaves fall from the vines in November, the annual race against the clock begins in the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. In Ningxia, China, vineyard workers at Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountain Winery begin the arduous process of laying down canes for winter burial. Wind machines are readied for their winter vigil at Southbrook Vineyards on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Meanwhile, at Domaine St. Jacques in Québec, a tractor appears in the vine row equipped with twin, overhead rolls of white fabric.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”, affirms Dr. Jim Willwerth, Senior Viticultural Scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). And yet, despite the challenges posed by icy winters, new vineyards continue to emerge in some of the chilliest corners of the planet.

The ever-increasing frequency of extreme heat and drought in many traditional vineyard regions is driving wine grape growers to seek out cooler climates. Thanks, in part, to this pattern of global warming, areas once considered too cold to successfully grow Vitis vinifera grapevines are flourishing.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”

The Niagara Peninsula is just one such example. Thomas Bachelder, winemaker in Oregon, Burgundy, coastal Chile, and Niagara, is convinced of the region’s vast potential. “We have the degree days, and complex limestone-rich soils”, explains Bachelder. “Niagara Chardonnay is elegant; racy, mineral and floral, with a solid core of rich dry extract”, he adds.

However, while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes. In northerly, continental areas this means more vicious cold spells. The Vitis vinifera grape vine is not winter hardy. According to Dr. Willwerth, temperatures below -15°c can lead to loss of fruiting buds and damage to stem tissues. Winter injuries to grapevines create opportunities for infection and can lead to the development of Crown Gall disease. When the thermostat lingers below -25°c it can kill vines outright.

Because of this, cold hardy hybrid varieties are the preferred cultivars in many wintry regions. Lerkekåsa Vineyard in Norway focuses mainly on ungrafted hybrids like Hasanski sladki and Solaris. In Northern China, breeding programs have long centred on the Vitis amurensis grape species that can withstand temperatures of -40°c. In Québec and the Midwestern United States, resistant varieties such as Marquette and Frontenac are common.

…while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes.

Critical success on an international level remains elusive for hybrid grape wines however. Consumers and professionals alike still maintain that Vitis vinifera is the only grapevine species qualitative enough for fine wine production. Regardless of limiting factors, the majority of growers continue to prize vinifera plantings above all others. And while they accept that some loss of fruiting buds is the price to pay for growing Vinifera in cold climates, they are increasingly looking for more effective solutions to keep these casualties to a minimum and prolong the lifespan of their vines.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing as different cultivars have varying degrees of cold hardiness. Vines must also be adequately prepared for the dormant period. Over cropping is found to reduce winter hardiness. “Managing vigour and crop level is key to ensure that we harvest at optimal maturity, at a reasonable time in the fall”, explains Southbrook’s Winemaking Consultant Ann Sperling. The vine requires time to build up sufficient reserves in its trunk and canes to resist cold temperatures.

Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes. These measures vary from one region to another, depending on the severity of winter temperatures, vineyard size, budget, available labour, and so forth.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing. Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes.

In regions where temperatures sub -15°c are a rare occurrence, wind machines are common. CCOVI estimates that half of Ontario’s vineyards are equipped with wind machines. These large fans can bring a 2 to 3-degree temperature increase around the fruiting zone. They have a number of shortcomings however. “At wind speeds of 8km/hr or higher wind machines are useless. The inversion layer doesn’t form”, says Sperling. “Their mechanisms are also easily damaged by wind”, she adds. The cost is prohibitive for many small growers. Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands Wine Company in the Finger Lakes region of New York estimates the price per fan at 50 000$ USD, with each unit covering 4 to 6 hectares.

To help growers use fans (and other cold protection methods) more effectively, scientists at CCOVI have created a bud cold hardiness monitoring program called Vine Alert. The system tracks a multitude of different cultivars, from vineyard plots all across Ontario, throughout the dormant period, sending alerts to growers when dangerous cold spells are forecasted. Similar such programs exist in British Columbia’s Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

Where winter lows regularly plunge to -25°c or less, more dramatic actions are necessary. The most popular technique world-wide is to bury vines deep under the soil. While this method effectively protects vines against freezing temperatures it carries many risks. The process of laying down and uncovering the vines damages the vines and increases the potential for diseases entering cracks or trunk wounds. According to Helan Mountain Operations Manager, Mike Insley it is also “incredibly labour intensive and expensive”. Insley estimates that one third of the winery’s labour budget is spent covering and uncovering the vines.

Burying vines is an effective technique against freezing temperatures yet it carries many risks.

Photo credit: Helan Mountain Winery, Ningxia, China

The decision of when to unearth the vines is also fraught. Exposing the vine to the elements in early spring means earlier bud break and a longer growing season yet leaves the vine defenceless against spring frost. At Hinterland Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario the team waits until late May, after the risk of frost has passed. This brings its own set of challenges. “We lose a month of the growing season”, says owner Vicki Samaras. “There is a risk of bud rot if the soils are moist”, she goes on to explain, “and, worst of all, you can hear the buds popping off as you pull the canes from the soil”.

From China to Russia and through out Canada, vine burial practioners are vocal in their frustration, yet committed to continue. “Why do we persist in the face of all of these disadvantages?” asks Insley, “Simple, we can’t grow vinifera varieties without winter protection”. Insley believes that the growing season conditions and subsequent high quality of wines produced in Ningxia is worth the effort.

In certain areas, alternate solutions are slowly gaining traction. Yvan Quirion, proprietor of Domaine St. Jacques, began experimenting with geotextiles on his estate in 2006. The results were so compelling that he now covers his entire 23-hectare property. Quirion trains his vines 30cm from the ground to capture ambient heat from the earth. He does an initial Cordon de Royat pruning, and then uses a tractor to drape geotextiles over the trellis in a tent-like fashion, securing the base of the fabric to the ground. Quirion says he can cover 20 kilometres in a day; winterizing the entire estate in less than a week. With careful maintenance, he has managed to re-use many of his geotextiles for going on 10 years.

Domaine St. Jacques began experimenting with geotextiles in 2006. The results were so compelling that they now covers their entire 23-hectare property.

Despite many bitter winters, Quirion claims he has only incurred notable bud damage once, in January 2018, when the longest cold streak ever recorded struck the region. Even then, Quirion estimates a mere 10 – 15% loss of fruiting buds. Adamo Estate Winery in Hockley Valley, Ontario was also struck with similar temperatures, and the vines under geotextiles faired well. Only the Merlot grapes suffered bud damage.

Trials at Hinterland Winery began in 2018. “We saw a 33% increase in yield this year”, enthuses Samaras. Vines were uncovered a full month earlier than usual allowing for earlier, more uniform bud break. By bundling the geotextiles up on the topmost wire above the fruiting zone, they were able to keep them at the ready in the event of spring frost.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. “The buried canes were much darker and less vibrant”, she asserts. “Under the blankets, they are brighter and healthier looking.” White also enthused about the increased crop load. In 2017, a geotextile-covered Pinot Noir plot half the size of a neighbouring, buried vine plot gave the same quantity of wine.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. 

The use of geotextiles has even allowed Hinterland Winery to farm organically for the first time. “There is a lot of fungal disease in Ontario, much of which originates from the soil”, explains Samaras. “When you bury vines, you are obliged to train the vines low to the ground. Using geotextiles, we have raised the fruiting zone by 15cm”.

Geotextiles are not a perfect solution for all estates however. According to Mike Insley, they aren’t a viable option for Helan Mountain Winery. “Covers are potentially problematic on large-scale vineyards – a vineyard with a 3m row spacing would require 3333m of row covering for each hectare. That’s a lot to purchase, store, and apply”. Concerns about cost, storage, and unease with application methods seem to be the major obstacles to greater adoption by growers.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, Tom Higgins is taking another approach. He has devised an automated heating system to protect against icy temperatures. Heating tape, more commonly used in roof de-icing, is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter. Temperature probes inside the insulation are triggered to activate the heating tape at -17°c, and to turn it off at approximately -13°c. The system can also be used to ward off spring frost, using higher temperature settings. “For every 100 feet of grape vine, it takes me 20 minutes to apply the insulation, and 10 minutes to remove it”, claims Higgins.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, heating tape is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter.

Photo credit: Heart & Hands Wine Company, Finger Lakes, New York

The ease of use and relative affordability of his plan is a major part of its appeal. Higgins received a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pursue his research. Initial results are inconclusive after a relatively mild first winter of use, but Higgins is confident that the long-term benefits will be tremendous.

Times and techniques are definitely changing. Cool climate vineyards are gaining in prominence around the globe. Rising temperatures have rendered many wintry regions more hospitable for vinifera grape varieties. However, the increase in extreme weather events in these areas is making effective freeze protection strategies more and more vital. While wind machines and vine burial have proven effective in certain conditions, both methods have significant drawbacks. The advent of recent techniques such as geotextile coverage and heating systems are exciting developments likely to have a major impact on the future of cool climate viticulture.

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – DOMAINE QUEYLUS

Domaine Queylus Niagara Wine
Photo credits: Domaine Queylus

If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you will know that I come from a family of unabashed wine snobs. Our saving grace, and the reasons we still have any friends willing to imbibe with us, is our ability to revise our initial judgement calls.

Through out my childhood, my parents hosted an annual mulled wine party, and their well-mannered guests always came bearing gifts. I still remember my father snickering at bottles of Niagara wine received in the 1990s. They went into the “cooking wine” stock without a backward glance.

I was therefore duly shocked when, on a visit home from Burgundy 10 years later, he served me a Château des Charmes Chardonnay, declaring it ‘not half bad’.  And he was right.

It wasn’t until 2009 however that I made my first visit to the vineyards of Niagara. The company I was then working for in Gigondas had just merged with the large Burgundian négociant firm: Boisset, and my new colleagues insisted that I visit their Ontario estate: Le Clos Jordanne.

I will admit that I went into the visit with low expectations. Our appointment was for early afternoon, and we had tasted some pretty green, over oaked wines over the course of the morning. Pulling up outside a glorified shed made of corrugated iron did little to assuage my doubts. However, just 2 or 3 barrels in to our tasting, my opinion was radically altered. Here was elegant, expressive, balanced Pinot Noir that could ably hold its own on the world stage.

And I was far from the only enthusiast.

A group of friends and wine lovers from Québec were also following the successes of the Clos Jordanne, and its talented, Québecois winemaker Thomas Bachelder, with interest. So much so that they decided to pool their resources and purchase a 10-hectare orchard in 2006 at a site near Beamsville in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation.

Armed with the knowledge that the choices made when preparing to plant a vineyard will dictate the quality produced for years to come, this band of brothers pulled out all the stops. Internationally renowned vineyard consultant Alain Sutre was called in to perform detailed soil analyses; to determine what to plant and where.

Though the project was intially set to be dedicated to Pinot Noir, the variable soils called for greater diversification. A pocket of heavy blue clay, similar to that found in Pomerol, was planted to Merlot. A cooler site, near the lake, was given over to Chardonnay.

Thomas Bachelder left the Clos Jordanne, and joined the Queylus team early on, as consultant, head winemaker and estate manager. He brought with him a wealth of experience and an uncompromising ambition to craft balanced, elegant wines in tribute to his years in Burgundy, though with a clear sense of Niagara terroir.

Today, the estate consists of 16 hectares spread across three appellations: the intial plot at Lincoln Lakeshore near Beamsville, Twenty Mile Bench near Jordan, and Vinemount Ridge in St Ann’s.

Over a sumptuous lunch at the always fantastic La Chronique restaurant in Montréal, I had the opportunity to taste the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Pinot Noirs from each of the three tiers of Domaine Queylus’ range. Much like in Burgundy, Queylus has segmented their wines into a Villages level (called “Tradition”), and Premier Cru level (“Réserve”) and a Grand Cru bottling (“Grande Réserve”).

My notes as follows:

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

   

Pinot Noir Tradition 2013 – 89pts. PW

Fragrant red berrry and cranberry notes on the nose, underscored by hints of white pepper. Lovely balance of crisp acidity, medium body and tangy, just ripe fruit flavours. Silky tannins. Easy drinking and fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (29.95$), SAQ (31.00$)

Pinot Noir Tradition 2014 – 88pts. PW

Moderately intense red cherry, red berry and eucalyptus notes on the nose. Firmer and fuller bodied than the 2013, with a tightly knit structure and somewhat chewy tannins. Subtle cedar, spice notes linger on the finish.

Where to buy: coming summer 2017

Pinot Noir Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

I particularly like this vintage for its lightness of body, purity of fruit and freshness. Local growers might not agree however, given the challenges the poor growing season weather presented, and the heavy sorting that quality-minded estates like Queylus were obliged to undertake.

The nose is initially quite subdued, but shows lovely complexity upon aeration, with pretty raspberry, red cherry, floral, spice and tea leaf notes. Silky on the palate, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. The finish is long and layered, with well integrated oak and lovely fruit.

Where to buy: stocks running low, enquire in stores

Pinot Noir Réserve 2013 – 94pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of red cherry, red berry, musc and potpourri abound on the nose. The palate is crip, full bodied and firm, with an attractive velvetty texture and concentrated red berry flavours. Moderately chewy, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. Spicy, toasted oak lends further complexity on the long finish. Good, mid-term cellaring potential.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), LCBO (coming soon)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

Elegant notes of violets, red cherries, dark fruits and a hint of white pepper define the nose. This fresh, medium bodied cuvée is moderately firm, with fine grained tannins and highly concentrated fruit flavours, with underlying savoury nuances. Vibrant, lifted finish. Ready to drink.

Where to buy: 1st vintage for the Grande Réserve tier; likely out of stock. Enquire with domaine.

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2012 – 94pts. LW

A riper, richer vintage than the 2011 or 2013, this 2012 Grande Réserve features sweet spice, stewed strawberry, ripe red cherries and subtle earthy notes on the nose. Full bodied and fleshy on the palate, with intense candied red fruit and oaked flavours (cedar/ spice). Quite tannic and taut on the finish, this vintage needs time in cellar to unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (62.50$), LCBO (60.00$)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2013 – 95pts. LW

A beautifully balanced, lovely wine all around. Just ripe strawberry and raspberry aromas are enhanced by chalky minerality and subtle tomato leaf nuances. Bright acidity lifts the firm structure and fine grained texture. Wonderfully vibrant, juicy fruit flavours play across the mid-palate and linger long on the layered finish. Great oak integration. Superior ageing potential. Bravo!

Where to buy: SAQ (set for an August 2017 release), LCBO (coming soon)

Cabernet Franc/ Merlot Réserve 2012 – 90pts. PW

Classic Cabernet Franc aromatics of bell pepper and just ripe raspberries feature on the nose, with deeper, riper cassis notes developping upon aeration. Fresh, full bodied and moderately fleshy across the mid-palate. Needs some time for the oak flavours to fully integrate. Highly drinkable.

Where to buy: SAQ (37.00$)