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09.08.2011  
 

Northwest Winegrapes Late to Arrive

Canada's crush starts this week--in Ontario

 
by Peter Mitham
 
 
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Pinot Gris is still ripening at Switchback Vineyard in Summerland, B.C. Photo by Michael Bartier
St. Catharines, Ontario/Summerland, B.C.—A 19th century British earl famously described Canada as “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state.” This year, the observation has a meteorological application for grapegrowers. The first shots came from Ontario, where picking began this week. The British Columbia harvest remains approximately two weeks away. Northwestern U.S. states are also slow to ripen.

The two provinces are home to most of the country’s grape industry, with smaller pockets in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. The season started late across the continent, leaving many to wonder what the rest of the year would bring, but as harvest begins in the East, most are hopeful that the vintage won’t disappoint.

Growers in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula experienced “an absolutely amazing July and August,” reported 75,000-case Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery in St. Catharines.

“We have had a very hot summer, which made the grapes very sweet. Flavors are advanced,” said Henry of Pelham viticulturist Matthew Speck in a statement announcing the start of picking. “Harvest will continue through to the end of October, when we finish harvesting most of our reds.”

Ontario is forecasting a harvest of 60,000 metric tonnes this year (about 66,000 U.S. tons), up from last year’s harvest of 50,800 tonnes, considered one of the best ever in terms of quality.

The promising harvest underscores the investment made in operations by  major wineries such as Vincor Canada, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Vincor recently received $750,000 from the Ontario government to increase processing capacity and introduce new pressing technology. Its announcement of the government funding noted that Vincor expects to buy 20,000 tonnes of grapes for its operations this year, a 20% increase over previous years.

B.C. running behind
The sunny outlook and large crop comes some two weeks ahead of harvest for B.C. growers. Standing amid acres of Pinot Gris vines at Switchback Vineyard in Summerland, B.C., winemaker Michael Bartier told Wines & Vines that he initially had blocked out Sept.13 to Oct. 16 for harvest. He now expects to start picking his first grapes—for sparkling wine—around Sept. 18-20. He sources from vineyards that cover 58 acres in Summerland and Oliver; they supply grapes for labels including Haywire and his own new venture, Bartier Bros., produced at the Okanagan Crush Pad custom crush facility in Summerland.

“We’re definitely behind,” Bartier said. “We’re really close to what we were at this point last year, within a day or two, if not on the same day. And that’s encouraging.”

But while last September was wet and dismal, boosting disease pressure, this September is looking brilliant. Moreover, the past seven weeks have been warm but moderate, with temperatures steady between 80 and 95ºF.

“We couldn’t have designed a better summer than what we had,” Bartier said. “I anticipate that we’ll get ahead of last year.”

Northwestern U.S. also lags
Winemakers in Oregon are voicing similar sentiments under similar conditions. Harvest remains about two weeks away in the state, but Don Crank III, winemaker at 130,000-case Willamette Valley Vineyards Inc., in Turner, Ore., told Wines & Vines earlier this week that the heat’s finally coming—maybe a bit too much heat. The outlook calls for temperatures up to 100ºF in the Willamette Valley this weekend. It’s not great for the grapes, but the warm weather is nevertheless welcome.

“We’re excited to have all this Indian summer,” Crank said. “We were three weeks to a month behind, so we’re going to catch up here.”

In Washington state, where growing-degree days continue to lag last year’s tally, good weather is also helping. Washington State University reports just 1,807 growing-degree days in the Yakima Valley as of Sept. 5, well below last year’s cool-year tally of 1,913 days and the long-term average of 2,138 days.

While last November’s freeze and the spring’s cool, late start have some expecting a short crop, and others anxious about the risk of frost if harvest runs too long, overall sentiment is keen.

Tenor Wines winemaker Aryn Morrell sent out a note this morning to the 600-case Woodinville winery’s mailing list, indicating that good weather in recent weeks has allowed grapes to ripen nicely. Harvest will likely run into October, but fruit quality is promising thanks to close management.

“The grapes have been in distress trying to reach maturity,” he wrote. “If this weather continues, we are looking at a spectacular year for wine.”

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