Requirements for being organic

The last couple Vintages bi-weekly catalogues have had some interesting copy. (Not sure if I’d call it articles – especially since no by-line is given – shame on Vintages.)

In the catalogue for items available April 13, 2019 they’re featuring organic wines. So, interspersed in the catalogue is interesting snippets of info about what it takes for a winery to be considered organic.

One of the pieces of information that was news to me was that: “For certified organic wines, local yeasts must be used in fermentation.” (p. 4) I’d not heard that about requiring use of local yeasts… Mind you, I there are different certification bodies out there and the Vintages catalogue doesn’t specify the certification body, but still, it’s interesting. (Note: on p. 9 it says all products sold as organic at the LCBO is vetted by their Quality Assurance department. And, if you follow the link they provide, they say that the LCBO QA department requires the Canadian Organic Regulations be satisfied.)

Anyway, the reason that comment about the yeast caught my eye is because I typically think about the vineyard management aspects of being organic – not so much on the production aspects.

What about you? Do you shop for wines that are certified organic?

New strategies for coping with extreme cold?

As pretty much the whole province has experienced spurts of on-again/off-again arctic cold, it’s only natural to wonder (even worry) about what these extreme temperatures must be doing to the vines.

After the last polar vortex winter a few years ago, I couldn’t help notice how many wineries have purchased wind machines. And who can blame them, when a fraction of a degree more warmth in the air swirling around the vines on a cold night can make the difference between a healthy yield and an increase in the amount of bunches that end up as verjus.

On the recent family day weekend, I visited the EPIC wine region (Essex, Pelee Island, Coast) on the shores of Lake Erie. Though the region is further south than other regions in Ontario, it’s not immune to extreme weather. Indeed, wineries in the area no doubt vividly remember 2014 when they lost most of their crop due to cold winter temperatures.

Helping Ensure Winter Heartiness?

A few weeks before my visit, I was in touch with Ann Wilson of Oxley Estate Winery. I asked her whether they were concerned about this winter’s extremes. She basically said that they manage what they can manage, but they won’t know till spring what the impact really is. But then she added a comment that intrigued me. She said it’ll be interesting to see whether their experiment in “blanketing” their Merlot and Syrah pays off.

I didn’t get a chance to ask what that meant, but as I headed to the region, I kept my eyes out to see if I could figure out what she was talking about. As I neared Oxley on County Road 50, I saw white, pup-tent like coverings on various rows of vines on the corner of one of their properties. Clearly this was what she was talking about. After stopping to snap a few pictures, I found Ann and Murray and asked them about it.

An experiment at Oxley Estate Winery

They said they heard that some wineries in Prince Edward County (PEC) and Quebec have used these blankets (geotextiles) as a way of protecting the vines and that the wineries have had success with them. So, last year Murray and Ann visited PEC to learn more about it.

They decided to give it a try this winter. According to Murray, the idea behind the blankets is to create kind of a greenhouse effect atop the vines. When the geotextile gets wet, it freezes and then the warmth of the sun and the heat from the ground stay trapped beneath the blanket.

While it sounds simple, actually placing the blankets on is quite labour intensive, he said. For one thing, they have to prune in the fall, rather than in the late winter/early spring. They also have to lower the trellis wire and tie the canes to the lower wire. Then they have to find a way to deal with the metal poles that run the length of the row to hold up the trellis system. One of the blanket edges has a wire on it that helps keep it down, but the other edge they weight down with dirt.

Since this system is not widely used, the timing of when they’ll remove the blanket is another matter. The fact that there aren’t many wineries using this system means there’s limited experience to draw on. And, since the growing season starts sooner in the EPIC region than in PEC, it’s a decision Oxley will have to make on its own.

I think many local growers will be paying close attention to how this trial works at Oxley. One thing’s for sure, they couldn’t have picked a better winter to test this technique. If it’s successful and proves worth the added time and expense, growers will have another tool to help manage the impact of climate change.

 

Owning a Winery Means Facing ― and Managing ― Risks

One of the things I especially enjoy about driving around wine country is seeing the lush, straight rows of vines tethered to the delicate-looking trellises. I love seeing vineyards because they remind me that the delicious nectar that I so enjoy has its start on a farm.

And, when I visit a winery, I love seeing all the gleaming stainless-steel tanks and rooms full of beautiful, hand crafted barrels. At the same time, thinking about the huge investment required for all the specialized winemaking equipment makes me catch my breath.

The winery owners I’ve met come from all different backgrounds. For some, it’s their fir st or only business. For others, it’s a second career, or even a retirement project. And yet, despite the differences, they do have some things in common. The most obvious commonality is their passion for wine. But beyond that, they also are all risk takers and careful business persons (well, at least those who manage to make a go of it).

Though I’ve always assumed the business of owning a winery was risky, a recent writing assignment I got from the Chartered Insurance Professionals (CIP) Society gave me a whole new appreciation of the types of risks involved. The CIP Society asked me to write a paper on insurance issues faced by wineries. It was a fun and interesting assignment that gave me an excuse to “talk business” with people involved in the Canadian wine industry.

The primary audience for the paper was insurance professionals, so the paper is admittedly a bit technical. But, for those of you who – like me – are inherently interested in the business of owning a winery – you might find the paper interesting.

The CIP Society has graciously given me permission to share the paper – called “From Rootstock to Bottle” – with my readers. You can find it by clicking here.

Hunter Bottling – a mobile innovation that would make Rube Goldberg proud

I often wonder how wineries can afford all the different types of equipment needed for that precious nectar to go from grape to the bottle I enjoy with dinner. If you’ve ever been to a winery, you’ve probably seen a press, tanks and barrels. But there’s also a raft of special-purpose equipment involved in bottling and labelling.

If a winery can’t afford their own bottling equipment – or if they don’t want to tie up precious space for equipment they may only use a few weeks a year – they have to make alternative arrangements. Sometimes that means shipping their wine via tanker to another winery for bottling. Turns out, another alternative for wineries is Hunter Bottling, a company that’s been offering mobile bottling services for about 15 years. A number of Ontario wineries use them (particularly in the Niagara region, which is where Hunter started).

Intrigued by the idea, I began asking around to find out more about Hunter Bottling and their services. I soon found out that Malivoire Wine Company uses them. So, since Malivoire’s winemaker Shiraz Mottiar is very approachable, I dropped him a line and he put me in touch with Glenn Hunt, founder of Hunter Bottling.

Video

Mottiar was also kind enough to let me stop in (in mid-May) and see the bottling line in action. Click Here to watch a short video of Hunter Bottling at work bottling Malivoire’s 2016 Gamay. Special thanks go to Mottiar for explaining the process and to the crew of Hunter Bottling who let me into the truck as they worked.

Hunter Bottling’s Back Story

Shiraz Mottiar, winemaker at Malivoire Wine Company

Glenn Hunt, who grew up in St. Catharines, was in the winery business long before he started Hunter Bottling. Early in his career he focused mainly on the sales and marketing side (though he also had a successful virtual winery for a while). He was working at Hillebrand at the time Peller (the owner of Hillebrand) was building Peller Estates’ winery on East-West Line in Niagara-on-the-Lake. To satisfy regulations that required Peller to conduct a certain amount of processing on-site at their wineries, Peller had the idea of transporting its bottling line between its two properties: Hillebrand and Peller Estates. So, it outfitted a 53-foot semi with a bottling line.

Because Peller’s mobile bottling trailer sat idle for a fair bit of time, Hunt approached Peller with the idea of him renting the truck from Peller and offer bottling services to other wineries. Peller was agreeable and so in 2002 Hunter Bottling debuted, using Peller’s truck. At about that time, Martin Malivoire was thinking about putting a mobile bottling facility together. Malivoire’s idea was to put the bottling line in a smaller truck, as not all wineries have the space to host a full-size semi.

Malivoire designed a line that would work in a truck’s 22-foot box and Hunt bought the plans from him. Hunt affectionately described the original 22-foot box as a cute little truck and Hunter Bottling used it for quite some time. In 2012 they expanded it a bit and its current fleet is three trucks, each with a 28 foot box (40 feet overall).

In Ontario, Hunter Bottling focuses mainly on the Niagara region, though they also service wineries in various “emerging regions” of Ontario. As well, they service a number of wineries in Virginia. They’re also the Ontario sales rep for the French bottling equipment maker they use for their bottling lines.

And, in case you’re wondering – as I was – Hunt says each fully outfitted truck costs about $750,000. Obviously, it’s quite an investment. So, it’s no surprise that for many wineries it’s more cost effective to hire Hunter Bottling, rather than invest in equipment for a bottling line that sits idle much of the year.

A Typical Bottling Day

Mottiar says that on bottling day, Hunter Bottling’s truck typically arrives at the winery at about 6 a.m. It takes Hunter about 90 minutes to set up and by 7:30 or so, they’re ready to start. The bottling activity involves a combination of winery staff and Hunter staff. Malivoire’s retail staff does the repetitive manual work on the line – things like loading the empty bottles onto the line, taking the full cases of wine off the line and onto the pallets for storing/shipping. Hunter’s staff runs the equipment, cleans it out between runs, and so on.

Speed and other Variables

In terms of the speed of the process, Mottiar says it averages about 3,000 bottles per hour. A variety of factors impact the speed, including some variables I wouldn’t have considered. “It can depend on the wine – some flows quite easily. Reds with some age, for example, usually flow very well. The bottle shape also impacts how fast the bottle is filled, as does whether we’re using a screw top or cork,” said Mottiar.

Another interesting variable they’ve had to contend with is labels that don’t want to adhere. If the wine is too cold, for example, the bottles sweat and then the labels don’t always want to stay on. The day I was there was unusually hot and the stainless steel tank holding the rosé they planned on bottling later that afternoon was starting to sweat. To compensate, Mottiar thought that they’d probably end up having to turn on the air conditioning in the bottling truck to lessen the chance of the bottles sweating.

Winemaker Amélie Boury’s Favourite Childhood Game Really Paid Off

Winemaker Amélie Boury

Like many winemakers, Château des Charmes’ Amélie Boury attributes a love for the outdoors and growing up on a farm as a reason she’s at home in the vineyard. But, she attributes her interest in winemaking to a creative game her mother played with her growing up. The “Nose Game”, as she referred to it, was “a simple game”: her mom told her to go outside and smell things and then come back and describe them to her.

She loved the game so much, as a young girl growing up in France, she initially thought about a career was in the perfume industry. Somewhere along the line, however, she focused her nosing talents on winemaking, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Amélie was gracious enough to show me around the cellar at Chateau des Charmes and to talk about winemaking –  the unglamorous parts and the joy of seeing people enjoy the wine she’s made. Here’s a video of our chat.

Catherine Langlois – winemaker and owner of Sandbanks Estate Winery

Catherine Langlois

I love Prince Edward County and always look for reasons to visit. This week I had a sad reason – the funeral of a friend’s mother. Because it was a planned trip on a weekday, I decided to see if Catherine Langlois – the winemaker/owner of Sandbanks Estate Winery might be in that day. I dropped the winery an e-mail to ask about meeting Catherine. They got back to me right away and we set it up a meeting.

I love meeting winemakers and have found it especially interesting chatting with women winemakers. Catherine was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet with me and she let me film a short video with her. Click here to watch the video.

As I mentioned to Catherine when we were done shooting the video, I think Sandbanks is an incredibly inviting place. I’ve often thought about why that is. I think lots has to do with the colour scheme and the welcoming lawn full of colourful Muskoka chairs. From the very first time a friend and I were tooling down the Loyalist Parkway headed toward Picton, as we came upon the winery, we were drawn like a magnet to stop in. I imagine that’s how lots of people “discover” Sandbanks Estate Winery.

After meeting Catherine, I now realize that the winery’s ambiance is nothing less than a manifestation of Catherine’s friendliness, enthusiasm, and warmth.

A living lab

On a recent visit to Southbrook Vineyards I asked Ann Sperling, Director, Winemaking and Viticulture, about how the harsh winter of 2014 impacted Southbrook’s spring pruning.

Pruning Technique at Southbrook - Snapshot 3 (05-09-2014 9-11 PM)
Pruned with one cane and a couple of spurs
Pruning Results at Southbrook Sept 2014-second example (05-09-2014 9-10 PM)
Pruned leaving only spurs

She explained that, in general, they pruned pretty heavily. Their theory is that they wanted to ensure that the vines had as much energy as possible, so that they’d be healthy in years to come.

That said, they also experimented a bit. They did pruning trials where they pruned the same variety in different ways to see if different pruning methods have an impact on the vines next year and years to come. In the example she showed us, on one row they left one cane and a couple of spurs. In the next row (of the same variety), the pruned leaving only spurs.  They’ll be taking notes regarding yield and other things and comparing the results of the differently pruned vines – making the vineyard – well, a living lab.

Here’s a video of Ann explaining two of the techniques used on one variety and the different result at this point – September 2014.

Of lemons and lemonade …

Snapshot of Ann Sperling Sept 3 2014
Ann Sperling in the vineyard at Southbrook Vineyards

This week I was out at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Ann Sperling, Director, Winemaking and Viticulture, was kind enough to show me around the vineyard.

Seems the harvest in the Niagara region is going to be late this year (by about three weeks) because of the slow start after the harsh winter and the very wet spring and early summer. Fortunately, though some of us city folk have been complaining about the heat this past week, the growers are thankful for it, as it’s good for the grapes.

Walking through the vines, it was surprising how many of the individual clusters had grapes that were green and grapes that were a deep purple. I asked Ann about this and she explained that the reason for the different stages of ripeness on the same vine is because the primary, secondary, and tertiary buds broke in stages over a period that was longer than usual. The result is grapes in different stages of ripening.

IMG_2083
Grapes harvested in the Green Harvest at Southbrook — Sept. 2014

She said it’s not unusual to have some green grapes among the ripe clusters and that’s why they go through the vineyard and do a “Green Harvest”. This involves trimming out the green grapes from the other ripe grapes. Normally, when they Green Harvest they just take off the less ripe bunches and drop them.

 

 

This year, however, because there’s a fair bit of green among the riper grapes, Southbrook is going to harvest the grapes from the Green Harvest. And, in the spirit of waste not, want not – this year Southbrook will be using them to make verjus.

Here is a short video of Ann Sperling explaining the Green Harvest.

April showers bring … ??

Though the calendar says it’s almost May, the cold weather (and today’s wind and driving rain) really make me wonder if spring will ever arrive.IMG_1590

Meanwhile, like many Ontario wine fans – I’m wondering what the poor grapevines are looking like. Since my March trip down to Hinterbrook to learn about how growers test bud viability, I’ve heard mixed news about what grape growers are anticipating.

A few told me they’ve not bothered testing the buds because it only tells you part of the story – for example, it doesn’t tell you whether the vine has died. Regardless of whether they tested the buds, a number of those that I’ve spoken to said they’ve modified their pruning a bit, just in case. For example, in some cases they’ve left more canes, and in some cases they’re leaving on “suckers” (shoots that grow from the base of the plant), which they would normally remove.

In mid-April, for example, Stone Church mentioned in their newsletter that they’re expecting their Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc crop to be reduced by 75%, but that they expect the rest of their grapes will come in at 70% of normal. Wes Lowrey of Five Rows Craft Wine recently reported that most of their varietals are showing about 50% bud viability, which he considers good, given the harsh winter they had. He said they’ve left a few extra buds and given the thinning they normally do, he hopes the crop levels won’t be substantially reduced. Others noted that some of their winter heartier varieties, like Marechal Foch, seem fine.

All the growers I’ve asked about possible crop damage from the harsh winter pointed out that they’ve been through tough winters before, and it’s all part of farming. They also agreed on one thing: we’ll just have to wait and see…

 

Oh those poor grape buds

Vines in Winer-Pat AndersonOur winter this year has been especially tough, but I hadn’t really thought about what it might be doing to the vineyards across Ontario until a winery owner mentioned it to me at Cuvée a couple weeks ago. Though most agree it’s too early to tell the true extent of the damage, all the winemakers and vineyard owners I’ve talked to have said that 2014 isn’t looking too good. Actually, what really caught my attention was when one vineyard owner from the Lake Erie/Pelee Island region said he doesn’t think there’ll be a 2014 vintage. Period.

When I heard this, I wondered how they can evaluate – at this time of year – the likelihood of damage. The answer lies – primarily – in the buds. Though most grape growers wait till March or April to prune their vines, they’re keeping a very close eye on them and many are out there sampling the buds to see whether they’re dead or alive.

I was told that the process involves cutting canes and thawing them and then making delicate slices through the buds. If the inside of the bud is brown, it’s dead – if it’s green, it’s alive. I was interested in seeing this first-hand, and so I contacted Andrew Nickel of Hinterbrook Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake to ask him if he’d do a bit of a show-and-tell for me.  He agreed, and on Monday, March 10th I met Andrew at Hinterbrook. (Pat Anderson, a terrific photographer who specializes in food photography, came with me so that I’d have some shots for this post.)Andrew Nichol-Pat Anderson

Andrew had cut some cane samples the day before so that we’d have thawed buds to look at. The very first bud Andrew sliced (from a Merlot cane) was pretty clearly dead. The next few were also dead. He didn’t seem too surprised, since Merlot is known for being less cold tolerant than some of the other cool climate varieties.

Among the buds Andrew sliced for us we did find examples of beautiful, green insides – a wonderful sign that they’re still alive. The contrast on the inside between the buds that were still alive and the dead buds was quite remarkable – and pretty obvious.Dead Bud-Pat Anderson

Alive Bud-Pat AndersonOf course, the few canes we looked at aren’t a representative sample of all the vines in their vineyard or of the Niagara Lakeshore appellation, which is where Hinterbrook is located. Even so, Andrew admitted that he expects the bud viability for their Merlot, for example, will be pretty low this year.

He also explained that bud viability is one issue that grape growers and the industry are talking about and testing now, but it’s still too early to tell whether there has been any vine damage. They won’t know that until the leave start coming in.

Though I know – intellectually – that farming is at the heart of winemaking, it’s easy to forget the risk inherent in the business of growing grapes.

Andrew was also kind enough to let me shoot a video of him explaining the bud testing process. To watch the video, click here.