Outlook for a Niagara vineyard

With high-tech advisers like Craig Wismer, it turns out farmers and cityfolk can learn to live side by side after all

Craig Wismer hops out of his pickup at one of the 30 or so vineyards he manages in the Niagara Peninsula. Below him, rows of grape vines fill Niagara’s Vineland, serving up a panoramic view with a gleaming Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls and its river are on the eastern horizon, in the west are Hamilton’s smoke stacks belching grey into the spring sky, and directly across the lake, a distant CN Tower punctuates Toronto’s skyline.

Rising steeply behind us, however, is the real reason we’re here. The geological ridge called the escarpment is why grapes and soft fruits like peaches can thrive in this vista. It captures the sun and bottles up the local lake effect, taking the edge off winter temperatures and staving off untimely frosts.

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Wismer explains that this topography causes cold air to slide off the sloping fields, keeping Niagara’s temperatures more moderate and creating a climate that you’d expect to have to drive several hours south to experience.

Along the slopes of the escarpment are diverse smaller soil and climate regions, and the wines made from grapes in each of these different areas vary greatly.

Right now, we’re standing on what Wismer calls “The Bench,” one of the naturally formed terraces along the Niagara escarpment, and where his parents and brothers farm about 150 acres of grapes and 50 acres of soft fruit trees.

It’s a beautiful part of the country, and it as unique as it is breathtaking. Despite that, however, for the last 30 years, this has also been a farming area deeply affected by political, economic, agronomic and social changes, especially since the 1988 free trade agreement with the U.S. phased out many of the protections for Canadian wine.

"We have winter conditions unlike anywhere else in the world. We’ve learned a lot, very quickly.” – Craig Wismer, Glen Elgin Vineyard Management

“We have winter conditions unlike anywhere else in the world. We’ve learned a lot, very quickly.” – Craig Wismer, Glen Elgin Vineyard Management
photo: Daniel Weylie

The Canadian wine industry was still a baby back then — small, vulnerable and sweet, much like the bubbly Baby Duck that was one of the top-selling wines at the time. Most of the grapes grown in Niagara were for juice, not for making French or “noble” type wines, and there were only about 10 wineries.

“The industry was built on Baby Duck,” says the chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario, Bill George. “Now palates have changed worldwide and wine consumption is on the rise.”

After NAFTA was signed in 1992, government renewal funding helped producers replace many of their old juice vines with newer premium vinifera varieties, and this support continued over the next few decades. In addition, the Ontario government funded the Ontario Wine Strategy, which included helping to adopt the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) as a quality assurance and marketing tool.

The transition turned out to be perfectly timed. New World wines were becoming mainstream, and because of their success with some of the most popular new varieties, producers in Niagara were able to ride the wave.

Today the Niagara Peninsula still has the largest planted area of vineyards in Canada, with some 46 varieties across nearly 14,000 acres. The classic cool-climate varieties flourish here, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

Until 2000, nearly all Canadian wines were made with some local grapes, topped up with imported stock from the U.S. or overseas. Since then, however, the practice of blending foreign juice has been subsiding, and 100 per cent Ontario-grown rich Cabernet Francs, crisp Rieslings and buttery Chardonnays began winning international acclaim, just when the local food movement came on the scene.

New pockets of wine production rose across southwestern Ontario and British Columbia and even northeast of Toronto, tucked along Lake Ontario in Prince Edward County.

Today, Ontario has more than 180 wineries producing 71 per cent of total Canadian wine volume, with the majority of this still in the Niagara Peninsula.

Glug, glug, glug

Over the same period, wine consumption began rising. Canadian adults in 2011 bought an average of 22 bottles of wine per year, up from 13 in 1995. Here’s a staggering fact: Canadians drink more than a billion glasses of Canadian-produced wine a year.

In the industry’s 2013 report “Canada’s Wine economy — Ripe, Robust and Remarkable,” the wine and grape industry was estimated to contribute $6.8 billion a year in economic impact to Canada, based on jobs, taxes and tourism, with about half of that in Ontario. That’s even though the majority of wine consumed in the province is still imported, with domestic wines claiming only 40 per cent market share.

Demand for quality, expensive wine has been on the rise, however, and the local food movement has shifted consumer demand. Our aging population has more disposable income and is aware of the health benefits of wine and desire the sophistication of wine.

According to Euromonitor International, the world’s leading independent provider of strategic market research, wine consumption in Canada is expected to grow annually by three per cent both in volume and gross sales, reaching 591 million litres and C$13.3 billion in 2019.

Canadians, it turns out, are spending almost three times as much on wine as on bread.

Game changers

On his 150-acre farm, Bill George points to a field of vines stretch­ing up and away from the sparkling water of Lake Ontario, explaining that it’s three to four per cent warmer near the lake than anywhere in the Niagara Peninsula. This field was one of the many ripped out and transplanted with French vines. The new vines are grafts, with rootstocks from winter-hardy varieties and tops from noble wine-producing varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling.

In 1988, George graduated from university and came home to the family fruit farm. At the time it took a vat of courage, and it was clear he faced a steep learning curve. “We knew we had to transform the industry. We knew we had to change or we’d be a dead industry,” says George. “We learned to trellis differently, we invested.”

The investment and learning continues today, with reports of $125 million being spent expanding vineyards to supply wineries’ demands for more premium grapes. That’s partially due to the tougher winters in 2014 and 2015, which killed many of the more tender vines. Fortunately, a government crop insurance program – vine death insurance — covered some of the replacement costs and many growers are moving to hardier varieties.

Also, peach land is slowly being converted to vineyards, catalyzed by the 2008 closing of Canada’s last tender fruit canning factory.

Sometimes it’s been a process of learning by failure, such as selecting varieties for specific locations. New web-based tracking programs are helping farmers here manage their pruning practices to deal with cold damage, and wind machines are now being used to stop frost from damaging the plants.

“We have winter conditions unlike anywhere else in the world,” says Craig Wismer. “We’ve learned a lot, very quickly.”

Wismer is a registered viticulture consultant with the Grape Growers of Ontario and operates Glen Elgin Vineyard Management. Originally the company served his family’s vineyards and orchards, and recognizing a need for quality-oriented vineyard management, expanded to service vineyards throughout the Twenty Valley and Beamsville bench areas. They offer brokerage, complete management and custom work, including all vineyard services, from spring pruning through to machine and hand harvesting.

In harvest, they run two harvesters and 80 to 100 labourers in various crews. Wismer explains that the industry relies on Vietnamese immigrants from Hamilton for most of their labour. Their dexterity and work ethic is prized for the highly intensive cropping cycle, including pruning and tying, leaf removal, cluster thinning, sorting and harvesting. Glen Elgin Vineyard Management also offers other services to their customers such as custom trellis installation and planting, applying fertilizer, and spraying up to 12 times a summer.

In the last decade, mechanization has boosted efficiency as well as the work environment. For example, mechanical pre-pruners do an preliminary trimming of the vine bushes, making the followup job of hand pruning much easier.

One of the biggest leaps in efficiency has been using bigger equipment to cover more rows per pass and incorporating multiple functions per pass, says Wismer. Sprayers now cover four rows when they used to do one at a time. Glen Elgin Vineyard Management has set up all of their fleet tractors with front and rear three-point hitches to allow for several jobs to be done in one pass, he explains.

Also, new recycling sprayers have resulted in up to 60 per cent savings, bringing both an environmental and a cost benefit.

Another big change has been the switch of harvest from hand to machine. A few years ago Wismer imported from Europe the only grape harvester in Canada with a purpose-built sorter. Grapes are gently de-stemmed by vibration and sent over abacus-like rollers that sort leaves and twigs out of the grapes, resulting in a massive increase in harvesting quality and capacity. This new technology is gentler than the traditional winery de-stemmer or other harvester mounted de-stemmers. Optical sorters are also being used on farms in the Niagara peninsula to further the mechanical sorting process.

Greenbelted

The Niagara Peninsula is part of the industrial Golden Horseshoe, and was rapidly losing prime horticultural land through the 1990s and into the first decade of the new millennium.

About a decade ago, however, Ontario’s Greenbelt law landed on the escarpment. Nearly 50,000 acres were frozen, with a ban on housing and industrial development.

Growers had been concerned their land values would decline. Instead land values went up, due to the farms being financially sound. “As long as the countryside is economically viable, the land can remain valuable,” says George.

Population here has continued to increase, but the region’s towns and cities are building up instead of sprawling out. For growers, this has meant more interface with non-farming neighbours and learning how to deal with the broadening urban and rural divide.

Best management practices were developed by the Grape Growers of Ontario and adopted by growers. Use of pesticides, manure, bird bangers, and wind machines have to be explained and justified. Niagara’s farmers are acutely aware they need to communicate better so the public understands why and when things are being done on their farms. George says that they’ve had to learn to deal with more noise and smell complaints, but have found once the public understands why they’re doing things, it’s not a problem.

Branding

Wine tourism has also become a powerful marketing tool with nearly two million visitors to Ontario wineries. Wine tastings, weekend getaways, and banquets and weddings are hosted on local vineyards.

Non-farmer investment has flowed into the grape industry, from wine-loving urbanites to publicly traded companies. Canada’s top two players, Constellation Brands and Andrew Peller, held 17 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively, of total volume sales of all wines in Canada in 2014. These two companies use about 75 per cent of the grape production and are a strong anchor for the producers, says George.

Big names like Wayne Gretzky, Mike Weir, Dan Aykroyd and Kevin O’Leary are investing in Niagara vineyards and branding labels. The marketing power of those names has opened doors for the entire industry. “It’s adding to the credibility of industry,” says Wismer. “And giving us visibility on the international stage.”

Maturing industry

In the early 1980s icewine was pioneered by Inniskillin and has slowly grown to 4,000 tonnes (800 acres) of grapes this year. While icewine is produced in relatively small quantities, its high value means dollar-wise it accounts for one-third of wine exports.

Canadian wineries are internationally renowned for this cold-climate product. Icewine has been a way to penetrate European markets with a uniquely Canadian market, and a foot in the door for other wines.

The trick is that VQA icewine is made with grapes harvested at -8 C. Mechanical harvesting has become almost a logistical requirement, because icewine grapes are usually harvested at night, when it’s cold. Think lights, limited harvest windows and cold crews. “It takes about 30 pickers to harvest an acre a day, but with a harvester, three to five guys can do 10 acres in one night,” says Wismer.

Not surprisingly to make mechan­ical harvesting work in the cold took some retro-fits, such as a way to deal with the netting necessary to protect the icewine grapes from birds, and tricks to stop belts freezing up.

Recently, two nearby post-secondary institutions have begun offering wine and vineyard courses. Nearby Brock University offers a B.Sc. in oenology and viticulture and a certificate in Grape and Wine Technology. Also, Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute has vineyard management, sommelier, laboratory, marketing and winemaking courses.

The information and students coming out of the programs have been catalysts for improvement of production and processing, says Wismer. Niagara is also now drawing winemakers from around the world.

Overall, vineyard management has become more informed and professional since the ’80s. This is in part due to the increase in farm size, largely due to consolidation.

It’s also been nearly three decades of trial by error, risk management, research, investment and embracing new technology. The farm management and the vines here are relative neophytes in the wine industry.

Viniferous vines take at least 40 years to reach prime productive capacity. One vine in Europe is still producing grapes at 400 years old. Generally, as vines mature, if they’re managed properly, they produce better quality grapes that can result in better quality wine. “The bulk of the industry here is still in its teenage years, with vines only 15 to 20 years old,” says a confident Wismer.

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