Huge drop in grape harvest after ‘superbly cold’ winter event leaves Ontario winemakers worried

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Bad weather during last fall and winter, believed to be a direct result of climate change, has taken its toll on the wine-making industry in Ontario, after an alarming decrease in the grape harvest.

Hamilton-based Steve Byfield is a winemaker at the virtual winery Nyarai Cellars, which buys grapes from vineyards across the Niagara region.

He says regional climatic conditions are changing to the point where vineyards are considering developing new grape varieties.

He said last year was “pretty challenging” in the winter, with “some pretty cold nights and days.”

“Climate change is impacting how we look at what grapes we can grow in the Ontario market,” Byfield told CBC Hamilton. “I know in France they’re breeding newer clones of different style grapes that will hopefully withstand and stand up to the changing climatic conditions that we’ve been seeing over the last five or six years.”

According to the Grape Growers Association of Ontario, grape production has fallen from 82,000 tonnes in 2021 to around 42,000 tonnes this year.

“You just have to do without the quantity or even, in some cases, without the variety,” Byfield said.

“So, if I wanted to make a particular wine from specific grape [varieties, I can’t] pursue it because I can’t source the fruit.”

Winemaker Steve Byfield examines a sample of freshly-made wine. (Submitted by Sharon Little)

Nyarai Cellars’ director of marketing and promotions, Sharon Little, says some growers are unable to fullfil their contract with winemakers.

“Some of them … their contracts with the larger wineries are just barely being fulfilled, or may not be able to be fulfilled because of the damage, and then we lose out too, of course, because … we only buy a small amount from here and there and everywhere,” she told CBC Hamilton.

“So, it’s definitely hard for us.”

Little and Byfield have been in the wine industry for more than 20 years and have made some “pretty good connections” with other wine makers — some of whom have leftover juice from 2020.

Steve Byfield, left, and Sharon Little, right, have been in the wine industry for more than 20 years. (Submitted by Sharon Little)

Little says they have been able to buy some of that juice, which they blend with fresh grapes from this year’s harvest.

“The only thing with that is, we are only allowed less than 10 per cent from the previous year to make it a vintage,” she said.

If a bottle is labelled as 2021 wine, “it has to have at least 90 per cent grapes from 2021 in it, so that makes it a little hard too,” Little added.

‘Vines literally dying’

CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario Debbie Zimmerman says the fall and winter of 2021 were not conducive for grapevines to acclimate and go to sleep until the spring.

She said “climate change has an overall impact on the extreme weather swings, which ultimately are putting pressure on consistently growing a crop. The disease pressures from invasive pests and grape virus issues are heightened by the swings in climate as well.”

“With the vines literally dying, we don’t have a crop, a significant crop,” Zimmerman told CBC Hamilton 

“It was one of those situations where what could go wrong did go wrong. We had a very wet fall and the grapes that were to be harvested were left hanging a lot longer on the vines than they typically would.” 

The wine-making industry in Ontario is being impacted by an alarming decrease in the grape harvest this year. (Shutterstock)

Zimmerman said the month of December was also wet and this affected the plants shutting down so that the sap stops running through the trunk. 

“Then we had a very cold winter event, superbly cold in January and a lot of … the trunks froze and were not producing fruit,” Zimmerman said.

New vines take up to 6 years to produce

Meanwhile, Zimmerman is warning that it could be years before production returns to 2021 levels.

“A new grapevine takes at least six years for that vine to produce grapes — what we call a full crop,” she said.

“So, we’ve got a lot of challenges facing us, not just this year but next year.”

Debbie Zimmerman, the CEO of the Grape Growers Association of Ontario, is warning that it could be years before production returns to 2021 levels. (Submitted by Debbie Zimmerman)

Additionally, Zimmerman said there is a lack of grape rootstock. 

“It’s very challenging to get these clean vines, so next year growers will have a challenge on a replanting program.”

She said replanting vines is a “laborious process” that is “high in labour costs” and can run growers “up to $45,000 an acre.”

“You have to look at it from the perspective they’ll be without a crop for at least six years. So, how do you manage when there’s no revenue coming in from the sale of your grapes for six years?” Zimmerman said.

The association has reached out to the provincial and federal governments for help, the CEO said.

She said the association is “working very closely” with the provincial government — Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Lisa Thompson — as well as the federal Minister of Agriculture, Marie-Claude Bibeau, to come up with a recovery program.

“The province of Ontario, the government of Canada have various business risk management programs that we can look at,” Zimmerman said.

“So, it would help us, probably in the shortest term, help us with getting grapes replanted. The problem is we don’t have enough clean grape rootstock or, more importantly, grapevines that we need to replant.

“It’s a long process and a complicated process, but it’s something that we need, and the provincial government has asked the federal government to look at that recovery as [a matter of urgency] for our growers,” Zimmerman added.



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