Pandemic vintage expected to be a wine to remember

Like public health officials, Gavin Robertson has also spent the last few months analyzing clusters — but not for COVID-19. 

Robertson is a winemaker in Niagara and after sampling grape clusters in anticipation of this year’s harvest, he said good quality wines and a “really strong vintage” are likely. 

“I’m tasting good flavour already and also I’m sort of chewing through quite thick skins … and it’s the skins that actually contain most of the flavour compounds,” said Robertson, who is also an instructor in Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute. 

Though there’s only a few weeks until winemakers begin harvesting, Robertson said any grape-grower will agree that “you never call a vintage until it’s in the tank” because the weather can bring unexpected changes. 

Yet, he’s confident in the way the harvest is shaping up. 

“The wines really express the weather, you know, the seasonality in which they’re grown … that said, 2020’s looking really strong,” he said adding that this is because it’s been warm and dry, with very little weeds or pests taking over the plants. 

Niagara winemaker Gavin Robertson says he’s predicting a ‘strong vintage’ this year based on the cluster of grapes he’s sampled. (Niagara College Facebook)

The same was true for Windsor-Essex. 

Compared to recent years, the region saw its highest number of heat warnings from Environment Canada this summer. While this may not be good for some crops, co-owner of Harrow’s Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards Tom O’Brien said it created the perfect set of grapes. 

“This year has been amazing. There’s an old saying when growing grapes that vines do not like wet feet and so the grapes really thrive in hot, dry weather like we’ve had this past summer,” O’Brien told CBC News. 

“So the heat adds to the maturation of the grapes because we have a fairly short growing season because we’re southern Canada and the dryness really creates stronger juice to it.”

At times it was a bit too dry for O’Brien’s 13-year-old plants, meaning he had to water them more than normal. But for the most part, the dry heat was exactly what his grapes needed. 

What this means, he said, is that reds will be darker in colour and richer, while the whites will be more crisp. 

This year’s season reminds Bernard Gorski, owner of Colchester Ridge Estate Winery in Harrow, of 2016 — the last great wine year in the region.  

“We’re going to have a wine that is very full of flavours because the grapes are going to be totally mature by the time we harvest them, which produces a phenomenal year,” Gorski said. 

Cooper’s Hawk Vineyard co-owner Tom O’Brien says he has only hired local workers, but that the spacing of his vineyards make it easy for people to physically distance. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Coast-to-coast wine growers have had a promising season

According to Troy Osborne, the director for Viticulture West at Aterra Wines Canada in British Columbia, his region has also had a good growing year. 

Usually, he said, when the east coast gets a good year the west coast gets a bad one and vice versa — but like many things this year, it was an unconventional season. 

“[It’s a] real exception this year where we have both had an exceptional year,” he said. “We started out a little bit slow … it was kind of cool and wet in the early part of the year, but we’re we’re more than making up for it now.”

Vineyard owners in Prince Edward Island have also encountered ideal conditions. 

Troy Osborne, director for Viticulture West at Aterra Wines Canada in British Columbia, says his region has also experienced great weather despite a cool and wet start. (Submitted by Troy Osborne)

“I would say this year, we’re lining up perfect right now,” said  Mike Newman, president and winemaker at Newman Winery. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen. I would say this year I’m a bit optimistic, but there’s still still a little ways to go.

“We’re well ahead of schedule. I would say we’re about 10 days ahead of schedule now.” 

But dry heat is only one part of the recipe for an ideal growing season. In the winter, growers look for milder temperatures and some snow cover, a lot of rain in the spring to grow the vines as quickly as possible, and then heat through the summer to ripen up the grapes as fast as possible. 

The grapes gathered this year likely won’t be bottled and sampled by your taste buds until spring 2021 at the earliest, with reds making their way to shelves in 2022 or later due to the aging and barrelling process. 

Wineries like to see a hot, dry summer for their grapes to ripen (Travis Kingdon/CBC )

Dip in revenue, but industry largely unaffected by COVID-19

While it may taste good, there won’t be as much of it.

Robertson said they’ll likely gather smaller amounts of grapes this year due to a number of factors including little rain and the soil quality from previous years. 

But a smaller harvest might be a good thing for companies who may be using fewer workers due to COVID-19.

Like other businesses, Osborne said they had to shut down for some time and also had to reconsider their accommodations for migrant workers and implement COVID-19 safety measures. 

But for the most part, winemakers agree that the pandemic didn’t really impact them because their vines are outdoors and rows are about 10 feet a part. 

Yet, like any other industry they had to pivot to survive and revenues are not what they once were.

Colchester Ridge Estate Winery says revenue dropped by 40 to 50 per cent due to the pandemic. (Submitted by Bernard Groski (CHECK))

“Well, we certainly had to shutdown right away, and we you know, being a small business, you can be a bit more agile. We brought in an online ordering system which worked really well for us,” he said, adding that their wine sales are still down and revenue has declined by 30 to 35 per cent. 

Gorski said for them revenue has declined by 40 to 50 per cent, but they’re slowly starting to see people return. 

The true challenge, Robertson said, will come when it’s time to process the grapes in facilities because they typically need a larger team to do so. 

Despite smaller team sizes and split shifts, wine makers don’t foresee COVID-19 precautions delaying their grape-mashing processes. 

“We’ve been lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to have had several months to think through [our processes] pretty carefully,” Robertson said. “So I think we’re in good shape going into the harvest.”