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!