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Ontario vintners reflect on a “blockbuster” 2020 vintage

March 2, 2021
“Without question 2020 has been one of the most challenging years to be in business, but the hope was that at least the growing season would give us some great wine. On that note, 2020 definitely delivered!” – Ilya Senchuck 

Now that the corner is finally turning on the winter season in Ontario, our sites are set on spring, and that means wines from the 2020 vintage are on their way.

With just over 71 percent of Canada’s wine production coming out of Ontario and its 17,000 acres of vineyard land, one might understand the nervous and anxious feeling that winemakers and grape growers get when a particular vintage doesn’t quite go according to plan – in a matter of speaking.

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

Everyone knows that each year is unique and brings with it its own set of challenges and circumstances. It’s the sort of thing that forces the industry to stay on its toes, but it’s also what makes the industry exciting, nerve-racking and yes, rewarding. It’s what gives wine and wine collecting a purpose – the fact that each vintage is going to tell a different story.

Which brings us to 2020. Ah, that year. Must we really talk about it? In this case, we definitely should!

As it turns out, 2020 was a remarkable year for weather and wine in Ontario. All winegrowing regions were treated to excellent conditions throughout the growing season. Therefore, the overall outlook for the 2020 vintage is very exciting with many producers reporting a very high-quality grape crop.

VineRoutes had the chance to speak with Ilya Senchuck, Keith Tyers, Murray Wilson, Dean Stoyka, Craig Wismer and Suzanne Janke – all of whom are located within each of the three VQA regions in Ontario – to get their feedback on what is being described as “a blockbuster vintage” and “one to remember”.

It isn’t the vintage of the century (it’s hard to know exactly what would need to happen in order to validate that statement) and you’ll learn below why a lot of producers aren’t referring to it as such. Time will tell if it’s the best vintage in the last decade, but it is being touted as a very high-quality year that will most definitely produce some super quality-driven wines – not unlike 2016, or 2012 and 2010 before that. (Keep reading below to learn which wines, in particular, are best representing the vintage thus far).

Leaning Post Wines

2020 vintage: Ilya and Nadia Senchuk of Leaning Post Wines.

VineRoutes: Going all the way back to late spring of 2020, the growing season wasn’t off to the best of starts, but thankfully, Mother Nature stepped up her game and brought on one heck of a gorgeous summer for farming grapes. Is that pretty much the way you all see it?

Craig Wismer of Glen Elgin Management: “We had a bit of a slow, cool, wet start. May and June saw frost concerns on some frost prone sites requiring action on the frost mitigation front for some of our clients. There were several nights where frost fans, wind machines and anything that burned was deployed to the vineyard to help keep colder air from settling.”

“The less-than-ideal spring weather gave way to more favourable growing conditions as the season took off. These below average temperatures turned into well above, and we quickly found ourselves enjoying the warm, dry weather, especially as new societal norms kept us outside, even more than usual.”

Ilya Senchuck, Owner/Winemaker of Leaning Post and winemaker for The Good Earth (Niagara Escarpment): “Once the warm weather came, it was generally very sunny, hot and dry, particularly through June and July. Our newly planted vines (gamay and dolcetto) found it very dry and required a lot of watering, but generally mature vines with deep root systems came through well. By late August, conditions became a little cooler with very cool nights.”

Keith Tyers, Winemaker for Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County: “Weather wise it was picture perfect. Warm and dry summer, warm end of September and a nice October.”

Murray Wilson, Owner of Oxley Estate Winery in Harrow, Ontario (Lake Erie North Shore appellation): “We are very pleased with the 2020 vintage. Overall, it was our best year. The winter was mild so the bud’s survival rate was good. The spring and summer rain/sunshine combination worked well and the fall sunshine gave the reds a long ramp to ripen.”

Craig Wismer: “By mid summer we were seeing very hot and very dry weather, bordering on too dry. A lush, green canopy was maintained, despite the temperature extremes. In an extreme summer, we shift our focus from excessive practises (as is typical in Niagara) to more of a minimalist approach. How can we work with Mother Nature instead of fighting her?”

Dean Stoyka, Assistant Winemaker at Stratus Vineyards (Niagara-on-the-Lake): “For us it was one of the best vintages we’ve experienced in the vineyard. Winter was mild and without issue followed by an average spring with on-time budbreak, even flowering, good fruit set etc. Summer followed with hot, dry conditions; disease pressure was low throughout. This continued into fall and allowed for an easy, high-quality harvest.”

2020 vintage

2020 vintage: Craig Wismer of Glen Elgin Vineyard Management.

VineRoutes: On that note, let’s move right into the harvest season. How were your experiences?

Dean Stoyka: “Picking times were in advance due to ripeness and maturity levels. It was technically one of the driest seasons on record. Yields were somewhat lower as a result, but this increases quality, which for us is paramount.”

Ilya Senchuck: “By the time harvest began, we had ideal conditions, with warm, sunny days and cool, clear nights. It was like this all throughout our picking. It’s the formula you need for spectacular wines.”

Craig Wismer: “(August and fall season) gave way to milder, beautiful temperatures and dry days leading into harvest. Extended hang time was easily achieved, where warranted, and rare levels of concentration and flavour development were achieved, with no ill effects or risks of leaving fruit on the vine. This also allowed us to see increased nights with a Diurnal shift, further adding to the 2020 profile.”

2020 Vintage

2020 vintage: Dean Stoyka is the Assistant Winemaker at Stratus Vineyards.

VineRoutes: So, what can we look forward to in terms of wines that really characterize the vintage?

Ilya Senchuck: “The most unusual thing is the high quality across the board. Sparkling and early grape varieties such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir were all very good, although I think perhaps (for me, anyway) pinot noir is at the top. To be honest, I can’t remember two vintages in a row that have been quite as good for pinot noir as both 2019 and 2020 for us, even though harvest in 2019 started almost a month later than 2020. Although they are very different years, the flavour development, concentration and power at moderate alcohols and amazing natural acidity is pretty special. Often in hotter vintages, pinot noir suffers, but not this time.”

Keith Tyers: “The 2020 chardonnays and pinots are setting up to be fantastic, with great power up front and with drinking pleasure upon release. I feel it will be a very ageworthy vintage, allowing for five to ten years of cellaring. I think we will most certainly be drinking 20’s after ‘18, ‘17 and ’19 vintages.”

Murray Wilson: “Pinot noir is tricky. Usually, because of our humidity, we take a “harvest when the Brix has reached VQA and fruit is in a healthy” position, as pinot can turn quickly with an ill-timed rain. This year we were able to let the fruit hang and ripen as the weather cooperated. The colour of the wine and the wine itself is going to be a wonderful vintage year.”

Ilya Senchuk: “Outside of pinot noir, perhaps no grape variety had quite as good a vintage as cabernet franc. This could be the best vintage for cab franc in the last 10 years for us! Already incredibly suited to Niagara, I think the ripeness, concentration and power are very unusual, yet the wines are incredibly fresh and bright. The wines are dense, structured and full-bodied yet have not lost any of the varietal character that we really prize. While requiring a fair bit of barrel aging, these should be some of the best cab franc we have ever made.”

“Syrah also seemed to appreciate the heat and sun with a moderated harvest. It was one of the earlier syrah harvests we have ever had, and the resulting wine shows all the white pepper and floral we have come to expect with amazing concentration and weight.”

Murray Wilson: “This was the first year we got a full crop of syrah. The fruit was bountiful and the ripeness for cool climate syrah will be evident. In short, all of the reds had a great year. Cab franc, cab sauv both came off great as did merlot. (Cab franc was a little light in yield for some reason.)”

Dean Stoyka: “All reds loved these conditions; but we kept fuller canopy on the white wines and picked earlier to preserve their verve and freshness. We are particularly excited about petit verdot and cabernet franc.”

Craig Wismer: “I think it is safe to say it will be a blockbuster year for reds. We were able to grow, harvest and deliver fruit with incredible sugar and colour levels, complex fruit flavours, and gorgeous fruit integrity. I am also hearing the whites (when properly farmed and protected) are surprisingly lively and aromatic, especially from such a warm vintage.”

Ilya Senchuk: “The tannin and ripeness levels on merlot are massive, and the resulting wines I think will be very full-bodied and rich. Managing that will be our task over the next (up-to) two years in barrel. Merlot just continues to shine in Niagara year-after-year and 2020 was more about picking to balance acidity and alcohol.”

Keith Tyers

2020 Vintage: Keith Tyers of Closson Chase.

VineRoutes: It appears like everyone is on board with what 2020 offered up. So how does the 2020 vintage stack up to previously celebrated vintages?

Dean Stoyka: “It will be a vintage for the books, for sure. Not unlike 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2016.”

Ilya Senchuk: “Overall, this vintage reminds me of 2012 where we had fantastic quality across pretty much everything. Perhaps there is actually a bit more ripeness in some 2020s, but tasting some 2012 wines recently, the similarities are certainly there. Given that many of our 2012’s are just starting to enter their prime now at eight years old, I think the longevity of these wines is going to be off the charts.”

Murray Wilson: “We are a relatively new winery in that we don’t have decades of history to compare vintages. When we started out it was understood that we could expect eight of ten years to have vintages that didn’t suffer from winter survival issues. We have experienced just the opposite. Having said that, 2020 is our best overall year when considering quality and quantity. Everything worked out with the climate. Good bud survival, consistent bud break, rain at the right time, sun and heat in the summer, and a sunny, cooler evening fall.”

Craig Wismer: “It will likely compare well with other hot vintages (2007, 2010, 2016, 2018.) However, I believe there will be more complexity, more nuance to 2020.”

Ilya Senchuk: “Again, I can’t really think of two better vintages in a row than 2019 and 2020 for Leaning Post and Good Earth. There are truly some exceptional wines coming. Get excited! I know I am!”

Murray Wilson

2020 vintage: Murray Wilson of Oxley Estate Winery.

VineRoutes: It’s not a perfect vintage though, is it?

Dean Stoyka: “For us at Stratus, we’d give it a 9.5/10. The half point is a result of slightly lower yields.”

Keith Tyers: “At this point I would score the vintage somewhere between an 8.8 and 9.5. Pinot noir showing great fruit contribution, firm tannins and tight acids. Chardonnays are showing beautiful fruit notes, with stone/flinty tones and great precision.”

Murray Wilson: “I always think we could do better, and a perfect rating gives us no opportunity for a better year going forward. Like most farmers, I know there is always something that could be better, so let’s give this year a 9.5 out of 10.”

2020 vintage

2020 vintage: Suzanne Janke, Estate Director at Stratus Vineyards.

VineRoutes: Some final thoughts?

Suzanne Janke, Estate Director at Stratus Vineyards: “The surprise was the ‘ease’ in the vineyard compared to the stress of the world. We were grateful for that and for the fact that the sunshine allowed us to safely welcome guests for outdoor sips and views of the vineyard.”

Dean Stoyka: “2020 was challenging, starting in March with the lockdown and a delay to our team. However, locals stepped in and prepared us. We’re grateful.”

Craig Wismer: “It was a year to remember in the vineyard.”


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