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Canada's wine makers relish a vintage summer

From Monday's Globe and Mail

You didn't have to be Roman to believe in Bacchus this summer. You just had to be an Ontario grape grower.

The god of wine performed miracles in the province as precious clusters worked their way to perfect, mildew-free ripeness in what is being billed as the best vintage in local history.

“This is unbelievable, the best harvest I've seen in 25 years that I have been in this industry,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates Winery in Vineland on the Niagara peninsula. “It's just been simply ideal.”

Drought-like conditions in Southern Ontario may have taken their toll on lawns and backyard gardens, but the sunny weather was divine for wine grapes.

“We're getting phenomenal fruit into [what will become] $15 and $20 bottles of wine,” said Paul Speck, president of Henry of Pelham Estate Winery in St. Catharines. “There is just great flavour all the way through the berries.”

In British Columbia, Canada's second-largest wine-producing province, conditions have been looking much the same.

B.C. enjoyed low precipitation throughout the summer and ideal fall temperatures.

Unlike many other food crops, which crave fertile soil and water, vines need poor, well-drained dirt and scant rain to yield great wine. Barren conditions trigger physiological responses that concentrate sweetness in the berries, which are part of the plant's reproductive system. Too much water and the contented vine will instead devote energy to an exuberant leaf canopy, giving the resulting wines a weedy flavour.

Most growers are only about halfway through the six-week picking season for dry wines and caution that rains could still spoil some wines, notably reds based on late-ripening grapes such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. But early-ripening varieties for sparkling wines and still whites, such as riesling, have safely been crushed and are gurgling away in fermentation vats.

“Everything's been good about the weather this year,” said Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario, a trade group representing more than 80 wineries, which produce virtually all of the province's wine. “This is shaping up to be the best quality they've ever harvested.”

She said conditions were consistent throughout the wine regions, including Pelee Island and a strip on the north shore of Lake Erie, both southwest of Toronto, as well as Prince Edward County, the new district about two hours east of Toronto.

It's Niagara growers who could really use the break. Apart from the last great harvest of 2002, this decade has been less than kind. It included two devastating winters – 2003 and 2005 – the latter of which saw temperatures of –25 that destroyed more than 400 hectares of vines and slashed production of fine-wine grapes by 50 per cent, to about 20,000 tonnes.

And in 2001, many growers were devastated by a plague of Asian ladybugs, which got into fermentation tanks and imparted a rancid-peanut flavour to the wines, many of which had to be dumped.

Despite this year's storybook conditions, not all Ontario growers will be able to boast of high-quality fruit. Because of the drought, quality-minded producers had to do what their more profit-obsessed counterparts would consider unthinkable: discard a large portion of the green bunches in mid-summer to spare the health of the vines.

At Vineland Estates, which owns 80 hectares and buys additional fruit from contract growers, workers removed 20 per cent of the immature fruit clusters in August to relieve the plants of stress and enable them to fully ripen the remainder of the fruit.

But the overall crop level is relatively high and should surpass even last year's relatively robust output of 46,000 tonnes for dry table wine.

As for sweet icewine, the jury is still out on its quality this year. That harvest won't get under way until the berries are left to dry out and freeze on the vine, likely some time after mid-December.

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