Grape growers rebound

By Michael-Allan Marion, Brantford Expositor

The grape harvest in the Ontario South Coast wine region has progressed well, vineyard owners say.

The grape harvest in the Ontario South Coast wine region has progressed well, vineyard owners say.

Members of the Ontario South Coast Wineries and Growers Association are finishing a good second consecutive harvest that will let them draw even more distance away from disastrous seasons a few years ago.

"The 2016 growing season brought a good quality harvest and this year will be almost as good," said Mike McArthur, co-owner of Burning Kiln Winery on Front Road just outside St. Williams, who earlier this year finished an eight-year stint as the association's founding chairman.

"This year's crop will be a heavier one, but on a par in quality with last year. Maybe last year was a hair better, but I'd say this one has turned out just as good."

In any case, the two years taken together will help grape growers and vintners recover from the "extremely horrible" years they had in 2014 and 2015, he said.

That was when growers - particularly the region's 11 wineries - were nearly wiped out by two successive winters in 2013-14 and 2014-15, when the thermometer plunged. The second winter had such bone-chilling temperatures that growers and vintners were handed a near wipe-out of their crops and most had to start over.

But a mild 2015-16 winter allowed growers to recover, and the 2017 growing season freed them.

"The good thing about it was that everyone survived," McArthur said.

Nick Vranckx, the association's new chairman, said his family operation, Blueberry Hill Estate on Front Road, was one of the few who were hit hard and is still recovering.

"Grapes, when they get hit hard by winter, it takes them a while to recover," he said while taking a break from pressing grapes.

"We had to plant new vines and we sourced juice from other growers in Norfolk and Elgin counties. The new vines are coming on. Next year we will be making our first wine from them. Everyone is helping everyone. We're all in it together."

Early summer rain this year got the growing season off to a tenuous start, but growers got some cooperation from Norfolk's dry summers that can bring on drought due to the way the air currents converged in the area just north of the Lake Erie north shore.

"The area was quite dry, but didn't hurt the crop," said McArthur.

"Also, the crop suffered fewer disease pressures" than in other operations in neighbouring counties.

Vranckx noted that hot dry weather in September propelled an early harvest.

"Many of the growers got the grapes picked earlier than anticipated. Some were two weeks early. But the fruit quality was good."

Growers and vintners learned a lot in the past two years, said mcarthur. The association got a grant to do drought tolerant studies at the Ontario Wine research institute. it involved taking vines from typical drought areas and grafting them onto local rootstock.

"The grafting has gone well. The research has three more years to run. Now we're looking at quality," said mcarthur.

"if we can grow vinifera vines on our rootstock, which has already demonstrated drought tolerance, we'll be in an even better position."

The fateful 2014 and 2015 years did have one lasting effect - it set back the association's timetable to obtain the coveted dVa (designated viticulture area) designation. The association has applied to VQa Ontario for approval to make the south coast growing area mainly in Norfolk, elgin and middlesex counties a distinctive region, like Niagara, Lake erie North shore and Prince edward county.

The distinctive taste of wines comes from grapes grown in a particular region where there is a confluence of soil chemistry, sunshine and warmth in a minimum volume. To gain the dVa, south coast growers must plant a minimum 125 acres of grapes that will be considered for designation. collectively, south coast growers worked on 110-120 acres. They planted more in 2016 and 2017. after years of delay, the dVa application is before VQa Ontario under the name, "Norfolk county." it will encompass wineries in Norfolk, Haldimand and elgin counties. it will take until early 2018 for the application's status to be known.

"We're hopeful it will be successful," said mcarthur.

"it's been a long haul."