Wednesday, December 21st, 2016
It is difficult to sum up an entire growing season in a couple of words, but I’d bet if you asked a bunch of Ontario grape growers and winemakers to describe 2016, the bulk of them would quickly reply, “hot and dry!”
That will be the narrative going forward, but obviously there is much more to explore about this fascinating season. I learned many things in 2016, most of which the hard way. There was no precedent in my memory bank for such prolonged dry conditions, especially when the weather forecast seemed to feature a constant 60% chance of precipitation five days from now. Front after threatening front would approach and break-up at the escarpment, splitting north and south of St. David’s and leaving us basking in sunlight.
I was reticent to use irrigation early in the season and this proved to be a tactical error. Having completed a Master’s Degree in Viticulture entitled “Examining the Effects of Deficit Irrigation on Cool Climate Chardonnay”, you’d think I’d know better. When we finally decided to water our vines, it was inevitable that a chain would break on our traveler cannon and the town would impose water restrictions…our drought continued.
The first lesson learned is that you are flying blind if you don’t take steps to measure vine and soil water status to gauge stress. It was pointed out to me that this is second nature in BC, but foreign to many Ontario farmers. We tend to think of a drought as something that pops up every five years or so (2007, 2012, 2016), but perhaps it will prove to be a climate change related trend going forward.
Thankfully, the older vines didn’t seem to mind the stressful conditions and continued to thrive. Younger vines, those plated in 2009 and later, showed signs of stress even with supplemental irrigation. Bloom phase is a critical point in the season to ensure the vines have adequate water and nutrition. The lack of early rain in 2016 meant that any spring nutrition added in the form of fertilizer and manure could not percolate down to the roots at bloom, ultimately leading to poor fruit set.
Another observation from this past year is that some blocks have not fully recovered from the winters of 2013 and 2014. Replacement of dead and damaged trunks has left these vineyards unbalanced in terms of vine status, nutrient allocation and ultimately vigour within each row. More evidence is the increase in crown gall virus, which can be caused by cold temperature splitting of trunk tissue.
The effects of the drought may actually have a short term silver lining. In 2016, winemakers were thrilled to see lower crop levels, smaller berry size, moderate vine stress and little canopy growth after veraison – all of which being favourable conditions for crafting premium wines. If the aromatic intensity of the 2016 whites is of any indication, we have may have something to be very excited about.
I’m sure 2017 will present its share of surprises and challenges, but I definitely intend to be more proactive when it comes to the water and nutrient status of my vines.