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Ontario 2020 mid-vintage update: Notes from all three VQA appellations

July 6, 2020

There’s no doubting that making wine is difficult – no matter where you are in the world, no matter the year. Nothing is to be taken for granted.

Whether you’re farming in the dry, drought prone, warm climate regions of California, southern Italy, Portugal and Spain or much cooler spots such as New Zealand, Austria, Germany and Ontario, winemaking is never the same from one year to the next and that’s what makes it so exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. As winemaker Ilya Senchuk says emphatically: “Every year has its challenges!”

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Here in Ontario, where winters can sometimes be devastatingly cold (polar vortex anyone?) and summers dry and almost unbearably hot (summer of 2016?), winemakers are constantly on edge, never truly able to relax until the last of the grapes from the season have been harvested. Then the cycle of anxiety begins again.

In fact, Ontario’s three main grape growing appellations can be quite different from one another – temperature wise – which gives wine consumers variety depending on the types of wines and styles they prefer.

No winemaker will truly be able to admit that the first half of any year makes much of an impact on how things will go during the second part of the year, but I thought I would reach out to some wineries, located within each of the main regions in the province, and get an idea of how things are coming along as we begin the second half of 2020.

Niagara Peninsula

From Ilya Senchuk, winemaker and owner of Leaning Post Wines located within the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation. Ilya also sources much of his fruit from various vineyard sites located within the Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake appellations:

Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post“The early spring definitely had some challenges. To be honest, the winter and spring were quite warm mostly which got the grapevines going early. However with warm weather there is a risk of frost. We then got a blast of very cold weather for about 10 days at the end of April and into the first couple weeks of May that presented a lot of frost risk – definitely not a usual or predictable occurrence for the time of year. This did delay the season slightly, but I would say it was on the late side of normal, maybe 7-9 days later than average.”   

“Since that frost though, it has been unusually hot and dry, so we have not only caught up with that week at the beginning of the season, but we are probably a bit ahead of a normal year. It seems like it will be hot and dry this year, so it might actually be a bit of a difficult year for early grape varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc just in terms of keeping freshness and acidity. However we will likely have an early start to harvest and potentially some very good big reds if this continues.”   

Prince Edward County

From Keith Tyers, winemaker for Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County, Ontario’s most easterly wine region:

Ontario vintage report“This year saw a much drier spring than 2019, along with below average snow fall over the winter and things are drying out fast! Whereas 2019 was wet up until June 6th and then we dried out.”

“April saw the vines push on; however bud break was delayed as we had a cool snap of weather between May 5th-15th. After the cool weather subsided, the vines pushed hard as spring turned to summer. The heat and sunshine of the last month have been great for the vines and we are at flowering, which is slightly ahead of normal, not that there is a normal to our weather anymore. Fingers crossed as we go through flowering!”

 

 

Lake Erie North Shore

From Murray Wilson, winemaker and co-owner of Oxley Estate Winery, located in Harrow, Ontario, within the Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) appellation – Ontario’s southernmost (and warmest) winemaking locale:

Ontario vintage report“Spring did get off to a slow start as the weather was cool and we had a cold event (late frost). The good thing was that the weather was cool and the buds were not quite as far along so the cold event did not affect us as much as it could have.”

“Since then, the weather has been more than co-operative. Bud break and flowering happened in an orderly fashion with anticipated results. We are excited to see all of the varieties come along as planned including the tender syrah and merlot. We see that everything is caught up at this point.”

When asked to compare this year’s first half to that of 2019’s first half, Senchuk says that “it will no doubt be the opposite this year.”

Continues Senchuk:

“As a contrast, we really had no warm weather to speak of in 2019 until almost the third week of June, so that put us almost a month behind normal (as opposed to being behind a week in 2020). Then it was reasonably nice, but quite cool for most of the remaining 2019 growing season so early varieties were very, very good however later ripening grapes were definitely a challenge.”

As far as this year goes, I am worried about the heat for early grape ripening varieties. I will say though that this year has been easier in terms of growing grapes, because the plants generally like hot and dry.”

Ontario vintage report

Vines at The Good Earth Food and Wine Co. are developing their full canopy and flowering has begun.

And just to prove how the mindset of a winemaker can swing from one half of the year to the next, Senchuk goes on to say:

“If you asked me about the first six months of 2019 at the time I would say it was bad (maybe a 2 out of 5) and I would say this year would be much better (say 4 out of 5). But to be honest, the first six months don’t really matter that much except in terms of setting you up for the second half of the growing season. So the resulting wines that came out of 2019 (except for maybe a few big reds) I would give a 5 out of 5 – they are that good.” 

Wilson believes the 2020 vintage can be one of the great and memorable vintages that we haven’t seen since 2016 and 2012 before that, saying that “so far this year our farm is experiencing a 5 out of 5 year.”

“This year is setting up to be a great year to this point. If we can dodge any hail that might be coming our way, 2020 will be one of those great vintage years.” 

“LENS is known for its heat units and extended fall ripening conditions. If things develop as anticipated, 2020 will be a year that the vineyards in LENS will produce some outstanding fruit and our team at Oxley is excited about working with it in the cellar.” 

Meanwhile, Tyers prefers to remain modestly optimistic:

“It is impossible to call the vintage this early in the season, however things are shaping up nicely and a warm dry fall is something I’m looking forward to!”

Good luck the rest of the way to all of our farmers and winemakers. Fingers are crossed for a desirable second half and we’ll be sure to circle back at the end of the year for a complete 2020 Ontario vintage report.