Ontario wine producers seek solutions to extreme weather threats

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — One extremely cold day last winter was enough to cause extensive damage to Bill Redelmeier’s vineyards.

Months later, the destruction was plainly visible at Southbrook Vineyards, an organic vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

The vine shoots grew shorter than they would in a typical year, if they grew at all. The black nets used to protect the vines had not been unrolled in several rows deemed too damaged to be saved. Some leaves were already turning brown, while the grapes of the plants that produced fruit showed damage in consistency and color.

These are all signs of vascular damage inside the plants resulting from the mid-January cold spell – which was catastrophic not only for Redelmeier, but for grape growers in the Niagara Region wine country in southern Ontario.

“It takes an hour. That’s all the time it takes,” Redelmeier said as he inspected the vineyard in September.

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The frost event that Redelmeier says reduced production at his winery by 75% this year, and likely by 50% next year, is an example of the extreme weather Ontario wine producers face in a changing climate.

Redelmeier described the phenomenon as « wild swings » in weather patterns that farmers struggle to predict and prepare for.

“We assume that whatever is going to happen is somewhere in our memory. We are now getting things that come out of our experience,” he said.

Crop loss due to the cold spell forced adjustments for Redelmeier’s business and other competitors in the region. With a limited amount of wine available last summer, Southbrook had to choose whether to cut sales to the LCBO – the state corporation that distributes liquor in the province – and other major retailers or to its own customers. . They decided to focus on sales to their loyal base.

Extreme cold may not immediately come to mind when discussing the effects of climate change – a conversation that often centers on temperature increases. But experts and industry stakeholders say extreme and unpredictable weather fluctuations are having a significant effect on Ontario’s wine industry and forcing producers to respond with costly pivots.

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“Ontario is no different than anywhere else in the world. When we look at climate change, probably the biggest effect we’re going to see is extreme weather,” said Brock University grapevine biologist Jim Willwerth.

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Climate change is challenging winemakers around the world with extreme weather conditions ranging from hail to drought to smoke from wildfires. Cold winters are nothing new for Ontario grape growers, Willwerth said, but the low temperatures that hit last winter followed a period of relatively warmer days and an unusually rainy fall season. This meant that the sensitive vines were unable to develop the cold tolerance they needed to survive the winter, he explained.

All farmers face increasingly extreme weather events, but Willwerth noted that grapes are particularly susceptible because slight changes in weather can affect flavor.

« Grapes could be the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change, » he said.

Ontario grape growers have options to mitigate extreme weather conditions, even if they are costly.

Some use a technology called geotextiles, covering vines with what is essentially a blanket to warm crops during periods of severe cold.

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Others use wind turbines – a technology that warms the air around crops in extreme cold weather to protect against the most severe damage.

For Redelmeier, wind turbines are a better option for its portfolio given the specific layout and needs of its vineyard. Loud, lean windmills spun slowly between the vines at Southbrook in September.

Redelmeier believes the expensive technology maintains temperatures just above -25°C and has likely saved many plants from permanent damage that would have required them to be pulled out and replanted.

« It could have been a lot worse, » he said.

Some growers, meanwhile, face geographic challenges for available technologies.

Ed Madronich of Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan Station, Ont., west of St. Catharines, also saw crop damage during last year’s extreme cold. He plans to invest in geotextiles, but wind turbines are not an effective option in his vineyard due to the sloping layout.

Other efforts to mitigate extreme weather fluctuations, such as stockpiling to prepare for unexpected weather-related setbacks, all incur significant business costs, Madronich said.

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« Climate change is definitely having an impact, and it’s costing farmers more to be able to mitigate the challenges that climate change is putting on us, » Madronich said by phone.

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Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, where Willwerth and other experts conduct research relevant to the Canadian wine industry, studied the economic impact of extreme weather on Ontario wineries. A 2014 study conducted a scenario that determined that vine loss due to a cold spell would result in $55.7 million in losses for grape growers over five years, including lost sales and the cost of renewal. and replacement of vines.

Invasive pests migrating further north as the climate warms are also a threat to Ontario vineyards, Willwerth said, citing the spotted lanternfly as an example. The species, which is known to feed in large numbers on vines, has challenged wine producers in the United States, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently asked people to report sightings of the insect. after he was seen near the Canadian border.

Debbie Zimmerman of the Grape Growers of Ontario said federal and provincial governments have money to help farmers recover from weather damage. But she said more support was needed given the challenges posed by climate change, including support for adaptation research that is already underway.

« It’s not going away, » she said of the extreme weather. “We are doing our part by trying to prepare for the future. This is the support we need, financially, from the government to help us overcome these challenges.

Back in Southbrook, Redelmeier tastes a 2019 Merlot from his vineyard. The red grape variety will not be produced in 2022 due to the significant damage caused to the vineyard.

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It’s an example of how wine, a product tied to the land at the exact time and place it was produced, can tell the story of climate change, Redelmeier said.

« It’s time in a bottle, » he said.


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