Ontario Wine Makers Harvest 2020 Interview – COVID Edition

This is my third 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.  But this year was a little different as one of the winemakers, Kelly Mason, makes wine at three different wineries, so we are getting a harvest report from 5 wineries this year.  Fantastic.

The three winemakers I interviewed this year are:

Keith Tyers, Winemaker at Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County

Tim Charisse, Winemaker at Pelee Island Winery in Lake Erie North Shore

Kelly Mason, Winemaker at Domaine Queylus, Honsberger Estate, and The Farm (and the Assistant Winemaker, Brooke Husband)

Where Are These Wineries?

The pins in the map are colour coded to the winemakers shown above.

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 2020 grape harvest.

1.       Where your vineyards and winery are located?

  • Keith Tyers, Winemaker at Closson Chase

    Keith Tyers, Winemaker at Closson Chase (Photo courtesy https://www.clossonchase.com)

    Keith: Closson Rd & Chase Rd in Hillier in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
  • Tim: Pelee Island Winery is located in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada’s southernmost town. Our climate is warm and our people are even warmer. Our 700+ acres of estate vineyards are located on Pelee Island in the South Islands sub-appellation of the Lake Erie North Shore VQA Designated Viticulture Area. Pelee Island is Canada’s southernmost inhabited place, located south of the 42nd parallel. Pelee Island has most heat units (warmest) of any Canadian DVA and was home to Canada’s first commercial winery, Vin Villa (1866).
  • Kelly:

    Domaine Queylus

     – Winery Location: 3651 Sixteen Road, St Anns Ontario

     – Mountainview Estate Vineyard: Mountainview Road, Beamsville ON

    Honsberger Estate

     – Winery Location: 4060 Jordan Road, Jordan Station ON

     – Honsberger Estate Vineyard: 4060 Jordan Road, Jordan Station ON

    The Farm

     – Winery Location: 2132 King Street, St Catharines ON (The winery does not have an actual tasting room or retail store – they only open their cellar door once a year for their annual vintage release party. The wines can be purchased only, or enjoyed at one of the restaurants that carry them (listed on their website – www.thefarmwines.ca/where-to-find-it))

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?

  • Keith: We starting picking sparkling on September 18th and finished picking on October 9th.
  • Tim: The 2020 harvest started just after Labour Day (Sept 8) and finished Oct 29. Bud break was slightly later than a typical year but the near perfect growing conditions throughout the growing season that followed allowed the vines to ‘catch up’.
  • Kelly

    This year at Domaine Queylus was definitely early. Pinot Noir grapes for Rosé were picked on September 14th and we finished with Cabernet Franc on October 29th. This year was earlier than previous vintages. For perspective, using Pinot Noir as an example, this year we had finished picking all of our Pinot Noir on September 29th. In 2019, we started picking Pinot Noir on September 30th.  This is a good comparison between a hot vintage and a cold vintage.

    At Honsberger, harvest began with Sauvignon Blanc on September 25th and ended with Cabernet Franc on the 25th of October. This being slightly earlier than most years for us.

    At The Farm, Pinot Noir came in on September 25th and we finished with Chardonnay on September 27th. Being a Chardonnay and Pinot house only makes it a busy couple of days/weeks to bring in all of our fruit. This timing was relatively average in comparison to other warm vintages.

3.       What surprised you about this year’s harvest?

  • Tim Charisse, Winemaker at Pelee Island Winery (Image courtesy https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSVnrEfc5poR7qGYAjXcINQ)

    Tim Charisse, Winemaker at Pelee Island Winery (Image courtesy https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSVnrEfc5poR7qGYAjXcINQ)

    Keith: How perfect the fruit was after an extended hang time.
  • Tim: Most years allow us to have high quality or big yields, not necessarily both. 2020 has been exceptional for the entire region where there was no trade off, we had our cake and got to eat it too! There was also beautiful weather all the way through harvest, which allowed for a really smooth operation and ideal picking times. Typically, weather can be a factor when transporting grapes by boat off the island for processing on the mainland but everything was very smooth this year. 
  • Kelly

    A good surprise we had this year at Domaine Queylus was that the fruit was very clean. This meaning almost no breakdown or rot.

    The biggest surprise for us was how quickly everything got ripe at Honsberger. Everything got ripe around the same time making it a lot of hard work during just one month of harvesting.

    At The Farm, we noticed that Chardonnay clusters were a lot larger in size than previous vintages. Pinot Noir clusters were also a lot smaller.

4.       What do you look for when you make wine?

  • Keith: To express the season in the glass, to allow the fruit to tell the story.
  • Tim: We look for clean fruit, disease-free and without mildew and other defects. The fruit this year has been stunning.
  • Kelly: It’s a group of parameters that we measure to decide – we look at Brix levels, flavour of the actual grape, health of the block, logistics for picking and processing and of course experience and past history. Vintages in Ontario vary significantly, so if we see the grapes aren’t breaking down, we might choose to leave the grapes hang on the vine longer to develop the flavour profile we desire. The main focus for all three wineries is that good wine comes from great grapes. We believe that the quality of the wine directly correlates with good vineyard practices.

5.       Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?

  • Keith: Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are exceptional this year and I think they are both going to shine in 5 years.
  • Tim: We are excited for the later ripening Bordeaux reds like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The ideal conditions this year lead to high sugars in these grapes which should translate to some intense, complex wines.
  • Kelly

    At Domaine Queylus, we believe this year is going to be a great year for Pinot Noir. It is very rare to see a year with such clean Pinot clusters.

    At Honsberger, we think our best wine from 2020 will be our Cabernet Franc. The hot vintage gave us the opportunity to harvest at just the right time.

    This vintage at The Farm, we are looking forward to showing off our Chardonnay.

6.       How do you grow your grapes, e.g. using organic or biodynamic methods?

  • Kelly Mason, Winemaker at Domaine Queylus, Honsberger Estate, and The Farm (Photo courtesy https://honsbergerestate.com/winery/)

    Kelly Mason, Winemaker at Domaine Queylus, Honsberger Estate, and The Farm (Photo courtesy https://honsbergerestate.com/winery/)

    Keith: We are a sustainable vineyard, using practices that support the health of the vines, the soil the people and the business.
  • Tim: Having control of our grape supply allows us to grow and care for each and every vine to specifications strictly outlined by the World Wildlife Fund’s strict Sustainable Vineyard Practice. This means limited and controlled pesticide spraying and use of a 100% island grown natural fertilizer; sorghum grass. The winery farms a 10-acre organic vineyard on Pelee Island where we learn and develop many of our best practices on vineyard management. Pelee Island Winery is a founding member of Sustainable Winemaking Ontario, which recognizes wineries and growers committed to enhancing the environment by using sustainable practices in their wineries and vineyards.
  • Kelly

    At Domaine Queylus, we farm organically.

    At Honsberger, we farm conventionally.

    At The Farm, we farm organically.

7.       How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?

  • Keith: 2020 was exceptionally dry, very little snow over winter, followed by very little spring rain and a dry summer produced concentrated fruit with some dehydration.
  • Tim: Close to picture perfect conditions. Just enough rain and always spaced apart without prolonged droughts. The humidity didn’t sustain for long periods this summer and the airflow off the lake allowed for the necessary cooling periods when we needed it. It really was a text-book vintage. 
  • Kelly: This vintage was overall a great growing season. It seemed like it rained right when the vines needed it. There was just enough stress on the vines to keep acidity while also getting us the Brix levels we needed. The lack of breakdown on almost all grape varietals is a good display of an excellent growing season. This year was a major challenge if you planted any new vines or had young plants with a need to still develop their root system – as water was a bit low, irrigation was critical for new plantings.

8.       Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?

  • Keith: New for this harvest is our first vintage of County Pinot Gris from our Ridge vineyard, it’s very promising!
  • Tim: We are experimenting with more red sparkling wines and plan to expand that program this year into including a Gamay Noir. 
  • Kelly: This year at Honsberger, we were able to work a little bit with whole cluster carbonic maceration on our Gamay and skin contact on our Sauvignon Blanc.

9.       What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?

  • Keith: We had a physically distanced staff meal.
  • Tim: We kept things pretty low-key this year. The patio weather fortunately stretched into November in Ontario this year so we were able to enjoy some nice, cold, locally crafted beers alongside Lake Erie Perch and Pickerel on the patio at Mettawas Station in Kingsville. Hiram Walker commissioned the architect Albert Kahn to design and build the Kingsville Train Station in 1889, that is now home of Mettawas Station.
  • Kelly: Historically, we’ve celebrate the end of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay processing, the end of Cabernet Franc and Merlot processing and then the end of harvest. Unfortunately, this year, we celebrated on our last shift with a couple of blind wines and popped some bubbly.

10.   COVID really shut down things for wine regions around the world.  How did COVID affect you through the growing season and during harvest?

  • Keith: COVID effected us with the delay of our team’s arrival in the spring, however we were fortunate that some locals were able & willing to come work in the vineyard early in the spring.
  • Tim: We closed our doors in retail back in March and didn’t open the wine Pavilion on Pelee Island this season. While that’s disappointing, the decision was made, at least in part, to protect our workers and to do our own small part to help slow the spread of the virus.
  • Kelly: One effect that COVID had on the growing season was the lack of foreign workers. Some work in the vineyard was delayed at the beginning of the season as workers upon arrival had to quarantine. Despite our best abilities, social distancing in a cellar proved to be a challenge. Being a part of a small team and working long hours 7 days a week, we created our own little bubble during the busiest processing weeks. 

Some Observations

From the winemakers it sounds like they had a warmer, near perfect growing season, producing a larger volume of grapes and high quality fruit.  It is a very clean vintage.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should be excellent.  Later ripening grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon reached full maturity so we should be getting some intense red wines.  I look forward to seeing these wines in the new year and later as released.

Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.