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Grape Expectations (August 1, 2002)

Before wine growers plant a vineyard they have to make a host of decisions – decisions that will affect their future prosperity.

Which site will give them the most hospitable soil and subsoil? What variety of grape will the consuming public be interested in when the vines reach maturity? What density of plants per acre should there be? What direction to plant to maximize sunlight? What distance between vines and between rows? Will they be farming organically or using pesticides and anti-fungal sprays? Will they need drainage tiles? What rootstock to use? What trellising system? The list goes on and on.

One wrong move and they could have an expensive disaster on their hands.

The most critical decision is which grape variety to plant. Choosing the right variety requires a working knowledge of your terroir – a fancy term that embraces soil, subsoil, exposure, drainage, wind, weather and local geological and natural features.

It took the French two hundred years to learn that Chardonnay grows best in Burgundy and Riesling in Alsace; that Pinot Noir doesn't do well in Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon won't ripen in the Loire. Today, with the help of infra-red imaging (to find hot spots) and sophisticated soil analysis techniques, the research can be done within a generation.

For instance, studies conducted by Tony Shaw at CCOVI have indicated significant differences in temperatures between parts of Ontario's Beamsville Bench and the cool air corridor around the Henry of Pelham winery. This research has given Ontario growers the best indication as to what grape variety to plant where.

According to winery consultant Peter Gamble, we're going to see some interesting new varieties coming on-stream. "I think that Niagara wineries are realizing that while Canada is cold, Niagara is not. Some regions of Niagara are much warmer than originally thought, particularly the warm plains further from the water in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The movement towards some of the warmer season varieties like Semillon and Syrah are increasingly making sense to growers and wineries alike."

The fruits of this research are already in the bottle, with more and more Sauvignon Blanc appearing on the market, as well as Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Gewürztraminer. But the question remains: are these varieties being grown in the right place? Experience has shown that Riesling and Chardonnay, particularly, do well on the Bench while warm-climate red and white varieties do better on the plain.

Vines are going into the ground at a faster pace than at any time in the history of the Canadian wine industry, and much of the decision-making as to what gets planted is driven by focus-group dynamics. Some wineries are planting the most popular grapes or those that the owner likes. They're not paying attention to their climatic region and what the soil dictates should be planted there. And there is a danger in listening to the Siren song of consumer taste. The public is very fickle when it comes to wine. Tastes change faster than new vineyards can ripen their fruit, and it takes three years before a vine will produce a commercial crop. It takes a good five years before a vine will produce grapes mature enough to produce a wine that does not taste green.

So most wineries look on their vineyards the way a stockbroker looks at an investment portfolio. They spread the risk by having enough varieties in the ground to weather any change in consumer buying patterns. But diversity for diversity's sake is not necessarily the solution. Growers should concentrate on what they do well once they understand their vineyards and the varieties best suited to them.

But who knows – if you factor in the effects of global warming, in a few years Ontario might produce those lush, fruit-driven Chardonnays and Cabernets currently coming out of California!




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