This is my fourth 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:
- Yvonne Irvine – Assistant Winemaker, Creekside Estate Winery & Queenston Mile Vineyard
- Mackenzie Brisbois – Winemaker, Trail Estate Winery
- Andrew Wilson – Assistant Winemaker at Oxley Estate Winery
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 2021 grape harvest.
1. Where your vineyards and winery are located?
Yvonne: Creekside is located in Jordan in the Creek Shores appellation. This vineyard is mostly planted with Sauvignon Blanc and a couple other whites. Queenston Mile is in Niagara-on-the-Lake and part of the St. David’s Bench appellation. This site is where our Syrah and bigger reds are, as well as Viognier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Mackenzie: The winery is located in Prince Edward County. Our estate vineyard is located here in Hillier. We also purchased grapes from Vineland and Grimsby.
Andrew: Oxley Estate Winery and its vineyards are located south of Windsor, Ontario outside the sleepy little town of Harrow. Both of our vineyards are on County Road 50 which follows the north shore of Lake Erie. Oxley Bluff Vineyard is on a high bluff overlooking Lake Erie. Corner Ridge Vineyard is across the Road.
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?
Yvonne: Our first pick was September 10th for sparkling and our last pick was November 2nd. The start of this vintage was at an average time but I would say we finished a little bit earlier than we would in most years.
Mackenzie: Our harvest began a little later than I anticipated but at a regular date to other years. The year ended early as the Bordeaux reds were picked a little earlier than usual.
Andrew: We began harvesting grapes for our sparkling wines in early September and finished on November 8 with Cabernet Sauvignon. Picking the sparkling grapes in early September is consistent with previous years, but we had to wait to get the flavors we wanted from our big reds. This was the first year we’ve harvested fruit as late as November.
3. What surprised you about this year’s harvest? Did you have a bigger or smaller volume of grapes compared to last year? Last year, it sounded like southern Ontario had a near-perfect growing season producing a larger volume of grapes and high-quality fruit.
Yvonne: 2021 was looking like another great vintage and we had our hopes high for what to expect. The most surprising thing for me was seeing grapes with both low sugar and low acid. It’s not often that both of these things are issues and certainly wasn’t what we expected. We had a larger volume of grapes than last year. Yields were large but there was some loss in reds certainly because of rot. We really were spoiled in 2020 with a near-perfect vintage with high quality and clean fruit. 2021 was full of lots of hurdles along the way. It was one of the most stressful vintages I’ve done. Soon after harvest began, rain came in waves and picking decisions were made based on the weather. Rot crept in quickly to many vineyard blocks, which meant a lot more hands-on work in the vineyard to pick clean fruit. We were on our toes the entire vintage but there are some great wines that came from this and I’m excited to see the evolution as they age. I just might have a little more grey hair now.
Mackenzie: I was definitely surprised by the quantity of fruit – everyone was over tonnage. The season could easily be split into two – the early half of harvest was great in terms of quality and fruit. The latter half of the harvest had quite a bit of rain and was warmer than normal so the bigger reds needed to be picked earlier than normal to keep the fruit integrity – meaning slightly lower alcohols and perhaps slightly greener flavours (although so far I haven’t noticed a strong green note in my cabs so fingers crossed)!
Andrew: I have been pleasantly surprised by how clean and fruity our white wines are this year, and I think this vintage could make for some very tasty and complex white wines as they age. Our yields this year are comparable to last year, and we are seeing similar fruit and wine quality!
4. This is the second harvest under COVID. What did you do differently this year compared to last year?
Yvonne: I think there was a little less worry and stress over it compared to last year when it was still fairly new. Vaccinations were made mandatory for all staff by the end of October. We are a very small team and had been working together all year without any issues so we all felt fairly comfortable.
Mackenzie: This year felt more relaxed because everyone was vaccinated and restrictions were eased. In the cellar the general practices were the same as last year.
Andrew: This year was less stressful for everyone because we have all been vaccinated. We maintained the rules we had in place last year to ensure we had the same success in avoiding the virus.
5. Is there a grape or style of wine you are producing this year that you are very excited about?
Yvonne: Some standouts so far have been our Backyard Block of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and our Syrah that we co-ferment with Viognier skins. It’s been a lot of ups and downs but these have stood out the most so far.
Mackenzie: Believe it or not, I am excited about the reds. I like a lighter red and I’m hopeful that I have gotten some good fruit flavours despite the cooler year.
Andrew: This is my first year producing an Auxerrois table wine. Last year we made a sparkling wine (Lucky Blue) from all of our Auxerrois grapes. This year we are producing a monovarietal Auxerrois table wine that I cannot wait for our customers to taste. Auxerrois has a rich history as a grape variety and, in my opinion, a lot of untapped potential in the Canadian wine scene. This vintage we also are making our first Corner Ridge Vineyard Pinot noir. This will complement our Oxley Bluff Vineyard Pinot noir that has been available since the 2016 vintage. So far, we have our classic fruit and delicate tannins in the Oxley Bluff Pinot, while the Corner Ridge Pinot has developed rich earthy flavor with bolder tannins.
6. How do you grow your grapes, e.g. using organic or biodynamic methods?
Yvonne: We try to be proactive in the vineyard and keep fairly sustainable practices. We do what needs to be done for that given year and definitely aim to be practical with sprays and not overdo it. We value things like leaf removal and shoot positioning to keep good airflow and prevent as many issues as possible. Every growing season is different and we adjust our treatments based on what we’re seeing or predicting.
Mackenzie: I am converting to organic practices, but I’m unsure whether I want to stick to this method. There are a lot more tools available for better management in terms of an environmental standpoint and I’m happy to use them more and more.
Andrew: Our winemaker, Murray Wilson, made it a priority for Oxley Estate Winery to become certified as both a sustainable winery and vineyard. We achieved both certifications effective January 1, 2022. We are proud that our practices at Oxley are sustainable, and we endeavor to reduce all the waste possible from grape to glass.
7. How was the growing season? Did you have overly harsh temperatures or lack/or too much rain this year? Other factors?
Yvonne: The growing season started really well and a little bit early. The summer was a bit hotter and drier than we would like for viticulture and I think it resulted in some vines shutting down and delaying ripening. As it got into August we had rain but it was very site-specific with some vineyards getting lots and others getting next to nothing. Rain throughout harvest was probably one of the biggest challenges we faced.
Mackenzie: Our growing season in PEC was pretty good – we had some drought-like conditions in August that caused the plants some stress, but the fall has been quite warm so the plants have had lots of opportunities to shut down properly. They will likely have good stores to keep them over the winter and we should have a good fruit year next year.
Andrew: The 2021 growing season had the typical Lake Erie North Shore heat, but more than our typical rainfall. In September and October, there was more rain than we have seen in past years which made us grateful our vineyards are planted on ‘Fox’ sandy loam soil, which has excellent drainage. This allowed us to navigate the increased rainfall with minimal interruptions to our harvest and tend to the vines to keep our crop healthy until it showed us it was time to pick it.
8. Are you experimenting with anything new with this harvest, like making a sparkling wine, using amphora or skin-fermented white wines?
Yvonne: We are a winery that really likes to experiment. We do a number of sparkling wines including Pet-Nat. We continued our tradition of making a skin-fermented Viognier and some wild ferment Chardonnay. There are many creative minds on our team so we’ve been experimenting with various winemaking techniques for a while now.
Mackenzie: I am always experimenting with something! This year I am doing a bit more skin fermentation using the whole cluster and also trying to get several wines to bottle without additions.
Andrew: This year I am excited to begin a personal passion project – starting a small batch sparkling wine to be made entirely of Auxerrois. This is our first Traditional Method sparkling wine and we are endeavoring to do every step of the process by hand. It was pressed in a wooden basket press; we will riddle each bottle on racks we make ourselves; and we plan on disgorging it ourselves in a few years. This year we also gave our Pinot Gris a 48-hour cold soak prior to pressing which has given it a unique flavor and complexity. The wine has been changing and developing rapidly since it finished fermenting. I cannot wait to see what it grows into in the coming months.
9. What did you or your team do to celebrate the Harvest?
Yvonne: We are still finishing up – getting reds finished ferment and pressed and everything into a cozy tank or barrel. There will likely be a team harvest celebration with copious amounts of beer and some sort of greasy food. Don’t ask about the fruit bin hot tubs. If there ever was a year when we needed a post-harvest celebration – it’s this one.
Mackenzie: We bottled all the nouveau wine and pet nats! I’m sure we’ll have some time to celebrate soon.
Andrew: With harvest concluded we are racing to get the geotextile blankets on our Merlot, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc to keep them warm and cozy through the winter. Once the vines are put to bed for the winter, I am sure there will be a few bottles of bubbly popped to celebrate all the hard work everyone has done to make this harvest such a success.