Late frost crushes hopes of Nova Scotia grape growers

When Pete Luckett woke up in early Monday morning and saw it was -3 C outside, his hopes for this year's grape crop sank. "It was brutal to see," he said.

'You can see the leaves are all wilted, they're all shot,' says vineyard owner Pete Luckett

Frosty temperatures reaching -3 C devastated grape vineyards across the Annapolis Valley overnight Sunday. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Vineyards located in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley are looking at losses of at least 50 per cent to this year's grape crop following a late frost overnight Sunday.

Temperatures plummeted from the high 20s in parts of the region Friday to - 3 C Sunday night and into Monday morning.

The industry took a hard hit, Gerry McConnell of Benjamin Bridge said Tuesday. The winery's 14-hectare vineyard in Gaspereau Valley was full of damaged plants "fried" from the frost, he said.

"We're trying to determine the impact of this frost on what our projected production would be and our best guess … is we're looking at a 50 per cent reduction," McConnell said.

Gerry McConnell of Benjamin Bridge winery in Gaspereau Valley, N.S., said wine production will be cut by 50 per cent this year. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

When Pete Luckett woke up in early Monday morning and saw it was -3 C outside, his hopes for this year's grape crop sank.

​Standing in his 14-hectare vineyard in the Gaspereau Valley, he said the bulk of this year's grape crop is "shot."

"It's brand new for Nova Scotia, this giant problem," he said. "Who knows, it could be anywhere from 100 per cent on many of the vines to 50 per cent. It's not good."

The devastation is industrywide in the region, McConnell said.

"I am very concerned for other vineyards. Some of our growers were hit quite bad and we are concerned about the industry, not just ourselves," he said.

"We're trying to meet with our growers and give them the best information that we have and try to help them as much as we can."

Pete Luckett of Luckett Vineyards in Gaspereau Valley says the late frost overnight Sunday and into early Monday damaged the bulk of his grape plants. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Benjamin Bridge and Lucketts Vineyard also buy grapes from other growers to produce their wines.

There are more than 20 wineries in Nova Scotia, most of them located in the Annapolis Valley. The industry employs roughly 640 people directly and brought in $17.5 million in sales in 2017.

"We're trying to formulate a plan over the next few days, a strategy of what we can do to try to get through this thing. The problem is you have a lot of expenses attached," Luckett said. 

"You can't abandon these grapes. You've got to have a team of people, tucking and tidying, nipping these buds — if we're going to remove them — trying to get the vine back into shape.

"There's an extra load of labour added with no end result. Growing grapes, it's a tough, tough deal. There's a lot of things that affect the crop."

A late frost damaged grapes at Luckett Vineyards. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"For Nova Scotia grape growers, this is probably the first time we've experienced a severe frost at this time of the grape-growing stage. This is a crucial stage right now, when the shoots are very young and tender, when all the shoots are just forming," Luckett said.

He pointed out rows of early producing vines that "are totally wrecked. You can see the leaves are all wilted, they're all shot."

Those plants produced buds, but they had not yet blossomed and the frost permanently damaged them.

"From that blossom, the grape bunch forms. There's no coming back from these buds." The next step will likely be stripping the damaged buds from the vines, preserving the vines for next year, Luckett said.

The decision on how to move forward will come after four or five days of sunshine, he said.

Plants in Luckett Vineyards show damage from a late frost that saw temperatures plummet to -3 C and below. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

He said growers in the Niagara region, which is prone to late frost, sometimes invest in wind machines or hire helicopters to fly over during cold snaps.

"It's not too crazy when you've got 300 acres to protect."

McConnell said he would have considered hiring a helicopter to prevent the damage. Instead, he had to settle for having fires burning in some areas of the vineyard in an effort to keep the plants from freezing.

"I would rather have had a helicopter or two flying over the vineyard and creating wind and not giving the frost an opportunity to settle in and to cause damage. We thought of that too late."

McConnell said he isn't sure fires were particularly effective.

"It makes you feel good. That you're doing something," he said.

With files from Preston Mulligan