Ontario wine producers seek solutions to extreme weather threats

Damage to grapevines brought on by cold temperatures and frost at Southbrook Organic Vineyards, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on Sept. 1.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press

One extremely cold day last winter was all it took to cause widespread damage to Bill Redelmeier’s wine crops.

Months later, the destruction was in full sight at Southbrook Vineyards, an organic winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Vine shoots were growing shorter than they’d in a typical yr, in the event that they were growing in any respect. Black netting used to guard the vines hadn’t been rolled down on several rows considered too spoiled to save lots of. Some leaves were already turning brown, while the grapes on plants that did produce fruit showed damage of their consistency and color.

They’re all signs of vascular injury contained in the plants stemming from the mid-January cold snap – which was catastrophic not only for Redelmeier, but for grape growers across Niagara Region’s wine country in southern Ontario.

“It takes an hour. That’s on a regular basis it takes,” Redelmeier said as he surveyed the vineyard in September.

The freezing event that Redelmeier estimated has reduced his winery’s output by 75 per cent this yr, and certain 50 per cent next yr, is one example of extremes in weather that Ontario’s wine producers are contending with amid a changing climate.

Redelmeier described the phenomenon as “wild swings” in weather that farmers are struggling to predict and prepare for.

“We assume that all the pieces that’s going to occur is somewhere in our memory. We’re now getting stuff that’s outside of our experience,” he said.

Crop loss from the cold snap forced adjustments for Redelmeier’s business and other competitors in the realm. With only a lot wine available last summer, Southbrook had to decide on whether to reduce on selling to the LCBO – the Crown corporation that distributes liquor within the province – and other large retailers or to their very own customers. They decided to give attention to sales to their loyal base.

Extreme cold may not immediately come to mind with regards to the results of climate change – a conversation that usually centres on increases in temperature. But experts and industry stakeholders say extreme, unpredictable swings in weather are having a giant effect on Ontario’s wine industry and forcing producers to reply with costly pivots.

“Ontario is not any different than anywhere else on the planet. After we take a look at climate change, probably the largest effect that we’re going to see is the extremes in weather,” said Brock University grapevine biologist Jim Willwerth.

Climate change is difficult grape growers around the globe with extreme weather starting from hail to drought to smoke from forest fires. Cold winters are nothing latest to grape growers in Ontario, Willwerth said, however the low temperatures that hit last winter followed a period of relatively milder days and an unusually rainy fall season. That meant the sensitive grape plants weren’t capable of construct up the cold tolerance they should survive the winter, he explained.

All farmers are coming up against increasingly extreme weather events, but Willwerth noted that grapes are particularly sensitive because slight changes in climate can affect flavour.

“Grapes may be the canary within the coal mine with regards to climate change,” he said.

Ontario winemakers have options with regards to mitigating weather extremes, though they’re expensive.

Some use technology called geotextiles, covering the vines with what is basically a blanket to warm the crops during intense cold periods.

Others use wind machines – a technology that warms the air across the crops during extreme cold to guard from essentially the most severe damage.

For Redelmeier, wind machines are a greater option for his wallet given the layout and specific needs of his vineyard. Noisy, skinny windmills were slowly turning between the vines at Southbrook this September.

Redelmeier estimates the costly technology keeps temperatures barely warmer than –25 C, and certain saved lots of the plants from everlasting damage that may have required ripping them out and replanting.

“It might have been much worse,” he said.

Some growers, meanwhile, are faced with geographic challenges to the available technologies.

Ed Madronich of Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan Station, Ont., west of St. Catharines, also saw damage to crops during last yr’s extreme cold. He’s considering investing in geotextiles, but wind machines aren’t an efficient option at his vineyard resulting from the sloping layout.

Other efforts geared toward mitigating extreme weather swings like build up inventory to arrange for unexpected weather-related setbacks all add as much as significant business costs, Madronich said.

“Climate change is unquestionably having an impact, and it’s costing farmers extra money to give you the chance to mitigate the challenges that climate change is putting on us,” Madronich said by phone.

Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, where Willwerth and other experts conduct research relevant to Canada’s wine industry, has studied the economic impact of severe weather on Ontario wineries. A study from 2014 ran a scenario that determined vine loss from a chilly event would end in $55.7-million in losses to grape growers over five years, including lost sales and the price of renewing and replacing vines.

Invasive pests migrating further north because the climate warms also pose a threat to Ontario vineyards, Willwerth said, pointing to the spotted lanternfly for example. The species, which is thought to feed in huge numbers on grapevines, has been difficult wine producers in america, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently asked people to report sightings of the insect after it was seen near the Canadian border.

Debbie Zimmerman of the Grape Growers of Ontario said there’s some money available from federal and provincial governments to assist farmers rebound from weather damage. But she said more support is required given the challenges being posed by climate change, including support for adaptation research that’s already under way.

“This isn’t going away,” she said of the weather extremes. “We’re doing our part trying to arrange for the long run. It’s the support that we want, financially, from the federal government to assist us get through these challenges.”

Back at Southbrook, Redelmeier tastes a 2019 Merlot from his vineyard. The red wine variety won’t be produced in 2022 resulting from the extensive damage to the vineyard.

It’s one example of how wine, a product tied to the earth at the precise time and place it was produced, can tell the story of climate change, Redelmeier said.

“It’s time in a bottle,” he said.


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