Wine regions such as Germany, Oregon, Burgundy and Niagara are considered cool-climate viticulture areas. Prince Edward County is way cooler.
County winegrowers require steely nerves in midwinter, high pain tolerance for hand-tending vines from cramped kneeling positions, and an egomaniacal nature to withstand the arched eyebrows from those in the now well-established Ontario viticultural areas, once grape growing trailblazers themselves.
Just like Niagara in the 1970s, we are breaking the conventional boundaries of what is considered possible in the successful cultivation of vitis vinifera grapes, the European varietals of classic great wines. Mostly we are accomplishing this feat through harder work. And, if the recent extremes in weather patterns settle down, our wine-growing lives will be a little easier.
SURVIVAL OF THE HARDEST WORKING
At By Chadsey’s Cairns we have survived three consecutive killer winters, ironically faring better than some in warmer climes, because of our protection strategies. By November our vineyards can be strange to behold, completely buried in soil to protect the buds, with only trellising wires and posts protruding. This means tying down 40,000 canes onto a low wire while on bended knee, ploughing soil over the canes with a tractor, and then reversing the process in the spring. The payoff, we hope, will continue to be dramatically higher bud survival rates that produce grapes with an enhanced minerality in the wines. That means whites that range from delicate to nervy, and reds that are lively and fruit-driven.
Each decade will present us with two to three cane-destroying winters, extreme spring temperature changes that nip at vulnerable buds, and early October frosts that halt ripening. This makes Prince Edward County a slightly higher risk area than the grape-growing regions of Niagara or Lake Erie North Shore. Our grape production will always be lower. However, this correlates nicely with higher quality grapes.
Although hybrid grapes will withstand winter temperatures of minus 25-degrees Celcius, fine vinifera grapes will suffer bud damage at 21 below when fully dormant, and even at warmer levels if canes are not properly hardened. Late April and early May cold fronts can also devastate new shoots in Eastern Canadian and New York vineyards.
HILLED, BURIED AND CANDLELIT VINEYARDS
In Niagara, grape growers improve their chances by hilling dirt up over the vine graft union, which is typically about 5 cm. (two inches) above ground, choosing early maturing varietals that are the most winter hardy, and in some cases using windmills to minimize frost damage. Even so, their vineyards take a hit once or twice each decade. In Prince Edward County, we need to do all these things and more if we hope to take advantage of our great soils to grow great wines.
However, as fledgling wineries most of us cannot afford windmills or hovering helicopters to stir frosty air. Sometimes the low-tech solutions are just as effective. At By Chadsey’s Cairns we burn fires around our fields in reclaimed oil tanks, which causes sufficient turbulence on those still, starry nights to prevent cold air turning to frost on sensitive plant tissue.
In the fall of 2003, when we were desperate to extend a difficult growing season to raise the sugar content, we even burned candles up and down the rows. It was a magical sight at 2 a.m., and almost made us forget our sleep deprivation. We have found that two nights of this vine pampering is all that it takes to buy a couple more weeks of ripening, essential for Riesling and Chenin Blanc most years, and perhaps for Gamay several times a decade.
RECENT RECORD LOWS
In the winter of 2002-3, the county suffered prolonged bone-chilling sub-minus-twenty temperatures, shattering the harvest dreams of most growers, and causing irreparable damage in Niagara as well. However, much of the damage to the vines may actually have started in early December when temperatures plummeted dramatically after a fairly mild November. Defying most people’s understanding of the odds, the winter of 2003-4 had even colder temperatures, albeit of shorter duration, with some parts of the county reaching minus 34. At By Chadsey’s Cairns, the gauge hit minus 29.5. In either case, any exposed canes and buds were destroyed. The winter of 2003-04 was also hit with dramatic dips and heartbreaking lows, making hard winters a new reality, not just freak occurrences.
BURYING VERSUS HILLING
Fortunately, we have been burying--not just hilling--our canes since 2001 on the advice of our nursery stock provider, Martin Gemmrich, who as a romantic, but practical oenologist, worried about transferring Niagara growing methods to an area colder by half a zone. To our delight, when we unearthed the vines in the first spring, we discovered 85 percent bud survival rates, much better than the couple of low-growing buds per vine that happen to be saved when using standard hilling measures. As a result, By Chadsey’s Cairns has been a pioneer in a winter management strategy that particularly suits our sandy loam soils.
Initially, most grape growers thought we, and our vine burying co-conspirator, James Lahti of Long Dog Winery, were totally mad taking on extra work, each year devising new ways to pile dirt on top of plants. Following the first two back-to-back freezing winters, however, others have been entertaining notions of sleeping peacefully on cold winter nights. Several are experimenting with less labour-intensive methods, which we, with worn-out kneepads, split fingers and aging lower lumbars, will watch with interest.
And for those who are still reading and crave more detail, at By Chadsey’s Cairns we do not use a central trunk system with permanent fruiting cordons that are spur pruned. Instead, we head prune: two renewal canes are allowed to grow up from the graft area of the plant, and, towards the end of the season, these canes are tied down on a low wire about 10 cm (four inches) above the ground. After harvest, when the canes are fully hardened, soil is ploughed over the canes to protect the buds. In the spring, we use a de-hiller plough to unearth, then tie the canes onto a fruiting wire at about 4045 cm (16-18 inches) high. The routine is repeated each year, with the previous year’s fruiting canes pruned either in the fall or spring depending on weather.
We have discovered that Brighton Gravel, our sandy loam, is easy to plough up as high as 30-35 cm (12 to 14 inches) to cover the low-tied canes, but Hillier Clay is heartbreakingly tough if the autumn is rainy. Wet clay is both hard to heave up, clumping up badly, and easily washed down after hours of painstaking ploughing. Thankfully, because it is less porous than the Brighton Gravel, Hillier Clay can protect vines with only a few centimetres of cover. Blanketing with straw may also work, but only during average winters. Ultimately, like all farming, grape growing is a high-risk venture.