Beamsville wineries focus on quality over quantity after poor harvest

When it comes to wine, 2022 will not be remembered as a vintage year for the size of Niagara’s grape harvest, after particularly bad weather has reduced the grape crop by around a half in some areas.

Debbie Zimmerman, chief executive officer of Grape Growers of Ontario, said although the harvest wasn’t finished, growers are looking at a grape crop, which will be less than half of what was expected, thanks to difficult weather conditions, including a wet fall in 2021 followed by a very cold winter.

“It was a year like no other,” she said. Not only did it result in a large loss in grapes, but also lots of dead vines, which couldn’t survive the weather conditions.

She said the vines will need to be replaced at significant cost, which will take more than three years and will impact farmers’ earnings in the meantime. “It’s the years beyond this year that we’re concerned about,” she said.

The scale of the damage has caught the attention of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, who blame the problem on the inadequate cold acclimation of the vines due to the conditions in the fall of 2021.

“Cold acclimation is the process leading to the development of freezing tolerance in plants. Warm, wet weather conditions in the fall of 2021 made the vines more vulnerable to cold temperatures, and susceptible to winter injury after swings in temperature in November and January,” said Belinda Sutton, spokesperson for the ministry.

They say the scale of the issue appears higher in Niagara, while the Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County have experienced less damage.

However, it seems that not all grape growers in Niagara were as badly affected as others.

Growers higher up on the bench didn’t see quite the same extreme cold as those in lower areas like Jordan or Niagara-on-the-Lake, as heat rises and cold settles in lower-lying areas.

Harald Thiel, owner of Hidden Bench in Beamsville, which is up on the escarpment, said although they hadn’t finished the harvest, it appears they have around 85 per cent of a regular crop. He recognizes that was good considering the conditions, but it still carries a financial hit. “At the end of the day, it will affect our bottom line,” he said.

Just down the road at Fielding Estate Winery, president Curtis Fielding said although they lost grapes, those that survived were of superior quality. “It’s a hard year for farmers, for sure” he said, but noted the grapes they brought in had good sugar levels.

Fielding uses technology to help preserve his grapes from the worst impacts of the weather, including wind machines that grab warmer air and whirl it around the vineyard to raise the temperature.

However, at the end of the day, technology can only do so much and nature holds the ultimate cards. “When mother nature plays, we just dance,” he said.

Thiel’s surviving grapes also seemed to be better quality, because there were fewer grapes and a warm summer, meaning that more energy was directed to fewer grapes.

However, although this year wasn’t a complete writeoff for Thiel, he is concerned about climate change, which is causing more extreme weather events and more variability, which cause problems for farmers no matter what best practices are deployed.

“(There are) all kinds of things you can do, but some things you can’t protect against,” he said. “You can’t protect against no rain or −21 degrees (Celsius temperatures).”

He also thinks there should be assistance for the growers who were affected in terms of replanting.

In response to the overwinter vineyard damages, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs wrote to the federal minister of agriculture and agri-food to request an AgriRecovery assessment. The federal government is currently assessing the need for targeted assistance to help growers, said Sutton.

Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News