This is my second year interviewing winemakers in Ontario about their latest grape harvest and wine production. To get a more complete picture of the harvest I asked the following questions to three winemakers in three different grape growing regions of southern Ontario, which should have some differences in climate and harvest. The three winemakers I interviewed this year are:
- Amelie Boury, Vice President of Winemaking at Château des Charmes, located in the Niagara Peninsula
- Dan Sullivan, Head Winemaker at Rosehall Run Vineyards, located in Prince Edward County
- Melissa Muscedere, Assistant Winemaker at Muscedere Vineyards, located in Lake Erie North Shore
Where Are These Wineries?
The pins in the map are colour coded to the winemakers shown above. Depending on your device you may have to pan to the right to see Rosehall Run Vineyards.
My Interview with the Ontario Winemakers
Thank you to these winemakers for taking the time to answer my interview questions and let my readers find out more about their wineries and the progress of their 2019 grape harvest.
1. Where your vineyards and winery are located?
- Amelie: We farm 255 acres of vineyards in four locations all within Niagara-on-the-Lake. Two vineyards are in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation and the other two are in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation.
- Dan: Our vineyards are located in the southwest corner of Prince Edward County between Wellington and Hillier Ontario.
- Melissa: Lake Erie North Shore in Harrow, Ontario.
2. When did you start harvesting grapes and when did you finish picking? Was this year early, right on time, or a little later than usual?
- Amelie: We started harvest with grapes for our Sparkling wines on September 19th, about 2 weeks later than average for the past 10 years.
- Dan: We started picking very late in 2019. Our Pinot Noir for sparkling commenced Sept 27 and we finished harvesting our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Oct 24th. We had a late pick on Nov 1 for Tempranillo which is being blended into our first Pet Nat.
- Melissa: This year’s harvest started mid-September and was completed the first week of November. This harvest started a little later than usual due to the delayed start to the growing season. Spring was very cool and wet, which resulted in a later bud break than expected.
3. Were there any technical issues during harvest?
- Amelie: We had a very wet spring, which made mechanical work in the vineyard really difficult and a challenge for our workers to get vineyard tasks done on time.
- Dan: Not entirely clear on what technical might refer to, but if you are asking about the general health of the fruit and disease pressure, our fruit was quite clean with well-developed flavours. Getting there was nerve-wracking as this was the latest pick in our 16-year history of vintages dating to 2004. Other than sugars being a bit lower than average we were gratified that the acidity and skins were firm but not ‘green’. The was very little botrytis across all varietals.
- Melissa: No.
4. What surprised you about this year’s harvest?
- Amelie: It started late and finished (for us) at the same time as usual, with the last pick taking place on November 1st. We also have never experienced a cold snap in NOTL which allowed Icewine to be picked while vinifera is still hanging!
- Dan: It was about 15% smaller than we had anticipated based on our crop estimates. In particular, Chardonnay was down from average following a small crop last year which is unusual.
- Melissa: The biggest surprise with this year’s harvest was the quantity and quality of the grapes, considering the cold burst at the end of January and the cool, wet spring that pushed our growing season back.
5. What Do You Look For When You Make Wine?
- Amelie: I always aim for the optimal balance between sugar and acids, leaving more or less residual sugar according to the vintage; I also extensively taste the berries to ensure that they typify the characteristics of the varietal I am working with. I want to produce wine that best reflects the terroir and the vintage.
- Dan: We are willing to trade a little extra sugar to retain some acidity in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. On the other hand, we usually try to push our Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Tempranillo as late as we can most years. Generally, I am most concerned with getting clean fruit in the winery and we work hard to ensure this happens every season.
- Melissa: When making wine, we’re looking for the best quality grapes to come out of the vineyard. Sugar levels and pH levels are measured regularly to ensure to optimal levels, especially on reds.
6. Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?
- Amelie: I’m always excited about Gamay. It is my favourite grape to work with.
- Dan: We have two new wines that I am pretty stoked about. The first is our very first Pet Nat in which we applied really sound practices with low intervention in fermentation and elevage. The result is now in bottle and is quite promising. The second is our first Rose of Pinot Noir entirely from estate-grown fruit. The primary has just finished and the nose and fruit on the palate are fabulous.
- Melissa: Our passion has always been growing red grapes and producing red wines. We’re most excited about the quality of our Cabernet Sauvignon this year. It withstood the cold winter, crop was low but it ripened beautifully with a harvest date of November 2nd, 2019.
7. How do you grow your grapes, e.g. using organic or biodynamic methods?
- Amelie: Using sustainable methods.
- Dan: We use IPM and thorough vineyard scouting to inform our growing, tending and picking decisions and work toward creating a healthy stable ecosystem in our vineyard with a managed mix of cover crop and native vegetation. We also use scientific data and analysis to guide our nutrition and vine health decisions.
- Melissa: Our grapes are grown using traditional vineyard techniques. We are not organic or biodynamic, but the least amount of chemicals possible are used in our vineyard. Crop management is kept low, especially on our reds, to ensure optimal ripeness across all our varieties. Leaves are stripped on morning sun side to ensure air passage through our canopy. We have alfalfa planted between our vineyard rows to increase drainage due to the deep roots. This is then cut down and left in the vineyard and acts as an organic fertilizer between our rows.
8. How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?
- Amelie: As mentioned, the rainy spring was not pleasant to deal with; September through early November was better, but the harsh winter episode in early November definitely surprised all of us!
- Dan: This was kind of two or three seasons in one, It was very cool and wet this spring with a very late bud break. Then the weather turned quite dry and we had about 12 cm of rain from the second week of June until Mid-September and no rain episode of over an inch all summer until Sept 16th. As a result, there was significant vine stress and the vines accumulated sugar slowly at the end of the ripening cycle.
- Melissa: This growing season was challenging. Temperatures at the end of January 2019 were not favourable, and a couple of harsh nights caused damage to the buds in the vineyard. Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah were the three varieties that were hurt the most. Surprisingly, Sauvignon Blanc, which isn’t particularly a winter-hardy grape, did quite well. The cool, wet Spring didn’t help either, pushing back bud break, which is usually mid to end of April to mid-May. This resulted in a shorter growing season. Summer was dry and hot, perfect for growing red grapes. Quantities were low but the quality was high.
9. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?
- Amelie: As a little “cellar” project, the team and I made a skin-fermented Gewurztraminer; first time and very promising!
- Dan: As mentioned we are making the two new wines noted above. We are also making our first Gewurz from an outstanding vineyard we work within the Twenty Mile Bench sub-app. It is an old school barrel fermented (old wood puncheons) and we are hoping for really best to emerge from the cellar in a few months’ time. Our sparkling wine program started in earnest in 2011. I am also going to dabble with some cherry wood for ageing wine and has marginally increased our use of Acacia in the cellar as well
- Melissa: No.
10. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
- Amelie: Many, many beers and a night of bowling!
- Dan: We aren’t done yet, give me a ring in a month.
- Melissa: End of the harvest always marks the beginning of our downtime, so everyone aims to get away on a mini-vacation. Being a small, family-owned and operated winery, it is always a struggle to reach the finish line with harvest coming off of the busy tourist season.
If you would like to compare the Ontario harvest to the BC harvest, here is my BC winemakers interview article.