Windsor-Essex wineries welcome warm summer to recover from cold winter, wet spring

An exceptionally cold winter and an especially wet spring mean Essex Pelee Island Coast wineries are relying on hot, summer weather to cultivate healthy wine crops.

'Some of our cultivars are running at 50 per cent production'

Cooper's Hawk Vineyards grapes beginning to break through buds in early May 2019. (Submitted by Tom O'Brien)

Windsor-Essex wineries are welcoming warm, dry summer weather to recover from an exceptionally cold winter and an especially wet spring.

Tom O'Brien is the founder and co-owner of Cooper's Hawk Vineyards in Harrow, Ont. It's part of the Essex Pelee Island Coast (EPIC) region's wineries.

He said the hot weather currently flowing through the region is precisely what his grapes love.

"Right now, this weather is beautiful," said O'Brien. "It's allowing the plants to grow, they love this weather."

They certainly deserve all the sun they can get.  He remembers an especially cold winter night in late January when the temperature dipped to approximately –23 C.

Staff at Cooper's Hawk Vineyards counting buds after a January cold snap. (Submitted by Tom O'Brien)

Not only was it cold, O'Brien said, it was also windy — preventing his winery from using its wind machines to regulate temperatures. 

"Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, [Shiraz] all took damage, so there won't be any of that harvested this year," he said. 

O'Brien added even some of his hardier grapes, like the ones used to produce Cabernet Franc, were affected by extreme temperatures.

"I will not get a full crop on most of the varieties, so it will impact how much we get this year, but it won't be zero," he explained.

O'Brien said he lost approximately 30 per cent of his cabernet franc buds, while 65 to 75 per cent of his overall crop remained through the winter and spring.

"I'm happy with that considering how cold it got last January," said O'Brien. 

Differences in microclimates

Ask Martin Gorski, CEO of North 42 Degrees Estate Winery in Harrow, Ont., about Windsor-Essex region weather and its effects on local grapes and he'll be the first to caution you against speaking in generalizations.

Though his vineyard is part of the EPIC region wineries, differences in microclimates across Windsor-Essex mean Gorski's own vineyard is affected by changes in temperatures in different ways than properties which are even only a few kilometres away. 

For instance, while O'Brien raised concerns about this year's wet spring, Gorski said the wet weather wasn't too much of an issue for his soil.

Cooper's Hawk Vineyard's grapevines caught in the cold. (Supplied by Tom O'Brien)

"In other locations, where the soil is a little less porous, it's significantly affecting the crops," Gorski explained. 

Still, Gorski echoed O'Brien's comments about this year's cold winter, adding some of his own cultivars — like his cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc crops — were harshly affected.

"Some of our cultivars are running at 50 per cent production," said Gorski.

Weeks behind schedule, relying on warm summer to catch up 

Not all EPIC region vineyards suffered significant losses through the winter and spring.

Tony Mastronardi is the president of Mastronardi Estate Winery in Kingsville, Ont. For his winery, the weather minimally affected grape production.

"Probably a little bit of the merlot, but other than that, production is pretty normal for this year," he said, emphasizing that this applied to his winery, and not necessarily all other wineries in the region.  

Still, all of the wineries which spoke with CBC News — including Mastronardi's vineyard — said extreme weather set back plant blooms by at least one week. 

This means that harvest in the fall could also be delayed by about a week or so. 

Some vineyards, like Pelee Island Winery, were set back almost three weeks. 

Grapevines at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. (Supplied by Martin Gorski)

Bruno Friesen is the vineyard manager for Pelee Island Winery.

Though he acknowledged the vineyard was able to overcome most of the weather-related challenges experienced through winter and spring, Friesen said Pelee Island's grape vines bloomed almost three weeks late. 

"We were quite a ways behind in terms of when bloom started," said Friesen.

The vines bloomed when the weather began to warm, which he explained was both positive and negative. 

Positive, because blooming vines are able to soak up necessary sunshine. Negative, because shorter bloom times can result in a reduction of each vine's full potential.

A grapevine experiencing bud break at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. (Supplied by Martin Gorski)

"That's always the case, because when it's too short, sometimes you don't have a full bunch," said Friesen. "Yet, it's a good thing, because then you have more open bunches, which are healthier and also giving a better quality."

Friesen added he's not sure if his winery will be able to use the warm summer months to catch up to the typical production schedule. 

"It's too early to tell," he said. "Call me in August I can probably give you that answer."

Despite challenges, Tom O'Brien from Cooper's Hawk had some comforting words for Windsor-Essex wine lovers.

"The wineries still have inventory on hand and they'll probably more than likely be able to carry their most favourite wine."


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