Constant cold weather damaging Ontario vineyards

Watch the video above: Ontario grapes are suffering in the extreme cold. Laura Zilke reports. 

TORONTO – The constant cold temperatures and recurring polar vortexes have wreaked havoc on Ontario’s vineyards.

As temperatures plunge, wine growers in Niagara region are trying to get an idea of how much they’ve lost due to the cold weather.

“I’m thinking we’re probably down to at least 50 per cent across the board,” Greg Wertsch from Between the Lines Winery said in an interview Monday. “We might be a little bit higher on our hybrids but we’re definitely almost wiped out on the merlot.”

Wertsch explained that some grapes, typically those native to Canada, can sustain cold temperatures but the more popular ‘European grapes’ that produce Merlots, Chardonnays and Riesling (among others) can be severely damaged or even killed during the harsh Canadian winters.

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“We have, we have usually for us, the weakest grapes that we have around here, seem to be ones that are fairly popular like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah and Merlot definitely, those are some of the weakest grapes that we have,” he said.

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Those three grapes can generally withstand temperatures above -20 degrees Celsius. Riesling and Chardonnays can withstand -22 degrees Celsius and their hybrids are a little stronger but will get damaged when the mercury hits -26 degrees Celsius.

This week Wertsch will be going through his vineyard to run tests and determine how much of his crop is alive and well and how much succumbed to the weather.

To test the grapes, Wertsch brings some vines in from the cold and puts them by the heater to warm up. He then cuts into the vine and looks at the tissue. Ideally, its green he said, but if the tissue is damaged it will be brown from oxidization.

He said the vines have water inside of them and the extreme cold will freeze that water, leading to damage.

“If you cut in here,” he said while cutting a vine. “You’re going to see green underneath and the green tissue is what will die in the winter because its alive, it’s full of water, and if it freezes the tissue will get damaged.”

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Read More: Will this be Canada’s coldest winter?

Dr. Kevin Ker, a grape consultant who also teaches at Brock University, said he expects 90 per cent of the region’s crop to be damaged.

With only 10 per cent of the vines surviving, Ker said it’s unlikely to be a successful year for growers.

But that’s not the worst part. The significant damage to the trunk of the vine can cause damage for subsequent seasons, he said.

“It’s not the first punch that’s taking you down,” he said in an interview Monday. “It’s the later rounds of getting punched over and over again, that’s what we’re seeing this year.”

In fact, the problem is exacerbated by a “bumper crop” last season. Those high yields have led to the “perfect storm” this winter, Wertsch said.

“So we’ve had really good quality across the board with a large volume. So it kind of helped us from our wine production side, or the quantity that we have, the problem is the more the grapes had to produce, the less winter-hearty they are. So it’s kind of a perfect storm.”

With files from Laura Zilke

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