West Niagara wineries, grape growers 'can’t win' with this year’s unstable weather

This year’s temperature swings has been a cause for concern among west Niagara’s wineries and grape growers.

According to winemakers, production hasn’t been impacted, but the yo-yoing weather is not ideal for grapes.

“It certainly has been a year of extremes, that’s for sure,” said Sue-Ann Staff, owner and winemaker at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery.

At the start of the month, the Jordan winery was scared the extreme cold would damage the wines, but the recent warm temperatures have also become an issue.

“It’s a little bit of a can’t win right now. It’s hard to know what to plan for.”

Staff said if the warm weather is prolonged, it could heat up the soil, and the grape buds could grow before spring, which leads the vines to lose the hardiness necessary to make the wine.

“All the wines are made in the vineyard,” Staff said. “If we can’t keep the vines alive, then we will see significantly less growth and less wine.”

The winery does not anticipate any crop damage at this point unless the temperatures drop to -24 C. “If the rest of winter goes well and typical, we will be fine.”

Another Jordan operation, Creekside Estate Winery is also trying to figure out how to deal with warmer weather than usual, but is not “terribly concerned” at the moment.

“A few days of warmer temperatures aren’t enough to wake the vines out of dormancy,” said Yvonne Irvine, assistant winemaker at Creekside Estate Winery

The biggest threat to the winery at this time of the year? The cold temperatures. “I would be more worried about that happening,” Irvine added.

Curtis Fielding, president of Fielding Estate Winery in Lincoln, said the vines are protected until temperatures reach -18 C.

Fielding said “big temperature swings” are not ideal, but the warm weather has been great for tourism. “People are out are about and the grapes are fine right now.”

The Grape Growers of Ontario chief executive officer, Debbie Zimmerman, said wineries are in a “wait and see” situation this year. “We remained concerned following the challenging harvest of 2022 and the weakened state of our vines.”

Earlier this month, the Grape Growers of Ontario raised the alarm over the cold temperatures at the time causing “serious concerns” for grape growers.

Zimmerman noted at the time, the continuous fluctuations in weather was troubling and said extreme weather events of 2022 reduced the crop by 50 per cent. She said growers do have access to tools that can assist them, including bud hardiness information that can be used to gauge wind machine use in vineyards to help reduce injury to the vines.

“Vine acclimation, or cold hardiness to tolerate winter, is always a concern for growers, and the unpredictable and unseasonably warm temperatures have not created the ideal environment to ensure adequate dormancy,” said Matthias Oppenlaender, chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario at the time. “There was catastrophic damage in the vineyards last winter, particularly in the Niagara region, causing stress on the vines and affecting the overall grape production.”

John Kocsis from Lincoln’s Atlantis Niagara Winery is not as optimistic about how the temperatures affect crops after vines were “wiped out” in 2015 due to the extreme cold.

“Mankind obviously contributes to the problem,” Kocsis said. “People don’t care. They say they do, but nobody does anything about it. All you have to do is drive down the highway and see all the litter up and down (the road).”

Beatriz Baleeiro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News