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.

Picked but Too Cold to Press!

IMG_1196 IMG_1206 The day after I wrote about icewine picking happening in Niagara I got the Georgian Hills Vineyards’ newsletter saying they’d be picking icewine grapes on Saturday morning and that they welcomed volunteers.

Having always wanted to do that, I responded to Robert Ketchin’s e-mail and said that he could count me in – unless the travel conditions made it impossible. (Georgian Hills Vineyards is up beyond Collingwood – so 158 kms. (99.4 miles) one-way from here – and the forecast was foreboding.)

To make a long story short, I made it there and had a terrific time! I’ll write a bit more about the experience later – including more about the fact that it was too cold to press (it was -17.7° C, which is 0° F). But, it was so much fun that I simply had to share some photos photos of the 20-or-so hearty souls that made it out to the vineyard for the fun.IMG_1199IMG_1208

The Crush is on at Oxley Estate Winery

On my recent visit to the Lake Erie/Pelee Island area I visited a few wineries that I hadn’t been to before, and I also made a point of stopping in again at Oxley Estate Winery – one of my favourite wineries in the area. IMG_0969

I stopped in to find out what was going on and how their summer went. Co-owner Ann Wilson said they had a busy summer, which is great to hear. In addition to a very attractive tasting bar (one that feels like a well-appointed gourmet kitchen), Oxley has a full-service restaurant on weekends that is very popular. I stopped in on a Saturday night after returning from Pelee Island and I could not get a table on the patio because it was full. Fortunately they had a few empty tables inside, so I stayed for dinner. The dinner was delicious and the service attentive, even though I was the only guest indoors. Next time I’ll be sure to make a reservation.


As I sat down to write this blog, I e-mailed Ann to find out if they’ve started picking and she reported that they’ve already harvested Auxerrois, Bianca, Hibernal, GM318 and they are  “Picking, sorting and pressing Pinot Noir right now”. So if you’re in the area over the next couple of weeks, stop in at Oxley – you’re likely to find it bustling with the buzz of the crush going on.

As well, on the weekend of September 28-29, 2013 Oxley will be featuring Micah and Delia – musicians who’ll be performing lively “east-coast kitchen style music” on their lovely patio.  The duo will perform on Saturday from 5-8 p.m. and on Sunday from 2-4 p.m.  IMG_0968