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Consumers looking for Ontario wine are spoiled for choice at the moment. There’s a solid array of red, whites, roses and sparkling wines at a variety of prices to choose from, including many from the 2020 vintage. Unfortunately, the road ahead presents more challenges for winemakers and requires more diligence from consumers looking for the best bottles.
First the good news: The 2020 vintage is meeting expectations. The weather conditions that year were warmer and drier than average which made for an abundance of high-quality grapes with nicely concentrated flavours. The size of the crop was down slightly, but the wines we are seeing right now are exciting and enjoyable. There are many premium chardonnays, pinot noirs and cabernet francs due in the coming months that will be outstanding, with ripe and rich characters that are sure to have mass appeal.
Conditions faced in 2021 couldn’t have been more different. Grape growers and winemakers faced variable conditions from start to finish. Record-setting temperatures and drought conditions were followed by high levels of rainfall and humidity, usually at the most inopportune times, when late-season grapes such as cabernet franc and merlot required sunny and warm conditions to ripen. Winemaking teams struggled to keep vineyards free from disease and ripen their crops as best they could. Damp conditions created a lot of rot as harvest approached, which needed to be sorted out by hand to ensure a quality result.
The vintage isn’t a washout. There will be quality wines produced, but 2021 is the sort of year that rewards the producers that were focused on farming to keep tabs on the variable conditions. Early harvested varieties, including sparkling wines, sauvignon blanc and riesling, were safely in the wineries before the increase in rain and humidity. The variability in the weather is sure to make for variable wine quality. Watch this space.
A bigger challenge comes going into the 2022 harvest. While it’s impossible to predict the quality of wines yet to be made in 2022, wineries in Niagara started the growing season facing a reduced crop due to winter injury. Temperatures plummeted overnight on Jan. 15, with some areas experiencing -26 C temperatures, which can be lethal to tender buds that produce the next crop of grapes. It can even threaten the life of the vine. Some vineyard blocks have been pulled out due to extensive injury.
It’s too soon to assess the overall damage. Some are suggesting an industry-wide shortfall of 50 per cent. But the vagaries of farming mean that reduction isn’t shouldered equally. Some healthy vineyards are looking at full crops, others face having little to no grapes to harvest.
Bill Redelmeier, who owns Southbrook Organic Vineyards, believes his crop will be down roughly 75 per cent. In his recent newsletter, he writes that the current estimation is a drop of about 60 per cent before adding that “in my experience, projections three months out from harvest are fairly inaccurate and are almost always too positive.”
Wineries will only truly know what they are looking at when the grapes are harvested, starting in late August. The size of individual grapes and clusters on the vines will help determine the yield of what comes in for processing. As local winemakers and growers gathered Monday to attend the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium at Brock University in St. Catharines, their moods brightened as the skies opened up and more than 35 mm of rain proceeded to fall over the course of eight hours. After seven weeks of dry conditions that were stressing the vines and development of the grapes, Mother Nature offered some respite.