Article by Catherine Stutt
Photos by Rick Furber
Courtesy County and Quinte Living, Summer 2012
As the harsh winter winds cast their frigid cloaks over Prince Edward County, last year’s canes stand sentinel in vineyards. When seasoned viticulturists determine the time is right, they will awaken the vines, the frozen soil will warm, and luscious grapes will replace brown vines.
Growing grapes in the County is as much about the unrelenting winter as the much more forgiving summer, and even in the relatively small region, conditions vary. Compared to Ontario’s well-established wine region in Niagara, it is a whole different world.
“Our season starts at least a week later and ends a couple of weeks earlier,” explained Paul Battilana, the winemaker at Casa-Dea Estates Winery in Hillier. A butcher by trade, Paul returned to school in his 30s and graduated in the first class of Niagara College’s new Winery and Viticulture Technician program. Before migrating to Ontario’s newest wine region, he spent several years working at Niagara wineries.
During a walk though still dormant vineyards in mid-March he introduced a neophyte to the realities of grape growing in Prince Edward County.
“Conditions in the area can vary substantially within very short distances,” Paul continued. “We can have a five-day difference in bud-break between our vines on Cold Creek Road and the vineyard at the winery on Greer Road, and it’s less than a kilometre away. It’s all about the winds, the lake, and the resulting microclimates.”
It’s about the soil, too.
“We’re on the same latitude as Burgundy, France and our soils are similar,” he continued. “Soil depth varies quite a bit on the County, but here we have about two to three feet before we hit solid limestone, and limestone provides the minerality in the wines.”
There are 36 wineries on the County with about 500 acres of vineyards. One third of the wineries, including three of the largest are in Hillier, where prevailing winds from Lake Ontario moderate temperatures, resulting in an earlier start to the growing season compared to the eastern ends of the County.
South Bay boasts a slightly warmer growing zone, and is home to a couple of wineries. “Merlot vines are notoriously fragile, and they do okay there, with some pampering. There are some varieties we can’t grow; we still can’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon properly here.” said Paul, leading into a lesson on vine selection.
Most of the County wineries grow vitis vinifera – the so-called noble European varieties – vines grafted onto native root stock to help it acclimate to local soil. “Some of the wineries grow Minnesota hybrid varieties, but we don’t at Casa-Dea because they aren’t endorsed by the Vintners Quality Assurance board, and everything we produce here is VQA approved.”
Niagara, because of the much longer and warmer growing season has many more vine options.
The harsher County conditions present challenges throughout the year. “Many of our decisions are based on the winter, not the growing season. Grapes are a perennial plant and we need to know their hardiness. Just because something will thrive the first summer doesn’t make it a sound investment when it dies in the winter. We have to understand and play the weather, because it is going to impact the crop whether it’s July or January.”
Even hardier varieties can be high maintenance. Each fall, Paul and his crew of 12 vineyard workers close the growing season with a labour intensive process. The team selects canes on each vine from the next year’s growth, and prunes them to about 12 to 18 inches with 10 buds on each side and then gently lays them on the ground parallel to the row. Once this stage is complete, the team backtracks and buries each row under about two feet of soil. This canopy helps insulate the vines from the cold. The rest of the vine is left above ground until spring. The old growth visible all winter will be completely removed during spring preparations.
Spring brings a new set of chores. Paul says they can, “play with the soil to warm it up,” which means cultivating between rows. When the time is right – determining this requires a very shiny crystal ball, advanced meteorological skills, years of experience, and luck – crews hit the vineyards. Old vines are removed, as is the protective canopy over this year’s canes. Each bud will grow a new five foot cane, and gentle is the operative word. “We’re removing large amounts of dirt from tender vines, and we have to be very careful,” cautioned Paul. “If we lose three buds from each vine, we have potentially lost 30 per cent of our crop.”
Comparatively, Niagara vineyards don’t have to be covered, so the labour at both ends is eliminated. Add this requirement to a shorter growing season and a lower yield – about two tonnes per acre on the County versus four tonnes per acre in Niagara – and the reason for slightly higher prices of County wines is justified.
Uncovering the vines is simply the start of more work. When new canes reach the top of the wires strung along rows, workers trim them to ensure the plant’s vigour goes into fruit production and new young leaves. In the second week of June, when the larger older leaves start to fade, they are removed, because they are no longer converting carbohydrates to sugars.
Throughout the summer the vineyard is monitored daily, and Paul does a personal tour at least weekly but usually far more often. His crews know to look for and prune damaged or dead plant material and signs of decay. Pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides are used sparingly and with caution, however, they are necessary. “Maintaining a purely organic winery in Ontario is very difficult,” he explained. “The crops are susceptible to powdery and downy mildew. We try to prevent rather than react, with means using less invasive products and methods, including trimming the vines of non-productive shoots to improve airflow.”
In Niagara, the fruiting zone extends about three feet from the ground, allowing mechanical harvesting methods. On the County, it can be a foot, but is usually with eight inches of the ground. “We prune to about two bunches of grapes per shoot, and because we train them so low, we harvest by hand.”
Paul and his 12 disciples work seven days a week, often logging 65 hours each week, for up to two months during harvest. In Niagara, Paul worked 90 hours a week for nine weeks. He brought one habit from his Niagara days to the County. “We weigh ourselves at the beginning of harvest and again when we’re finished,” he chuckled, admitting he typically loses 20 pounds during the process.
The yield, in a good year, is simple math, plus the magic touch of the winemaker and vineyard workers. At about 1,000 vines per acre at Casa-Dea, the estate winery – meaning every drop in every bottle comes from grapes grown on-site – has 65 acres of crops. Each of the two tonnes per acre results in 650 litres of wine. In total, the winery produces about 5,000 cases per year created in small batches of about 1,000 litres at a time.
The question needs to be asked. Why is this mild-mannered, humble, yet incredibly passionate winemaker fighting the good fight against the vagaries of eastern Ontario’s weather? Why did he uproot his family from their Hamilton roots three years ago to challenge new soil in unfamiliar territory?
He could share his love of viticulture in a more forgiving and traditional wine region, but he wants more. “I love going places and learning new things and I want to share that experience. People can go to the LCBO and purchase our wine, but I hope they come here so I can show them why one glass is better for a certain type of wine, or why one wine is better with certain foods, and how wine is experienced – first by sight, then smell, then taste, then the silky feel of the liquid. Wine can even satisfy the sense of hearing – the sound of a cork popping, the clink of glasses, and the fizz of sparkling wine.”
“This is a great winery and we are making a point. I sought the position and accepted it when it was offered. The owners are kind and passionate and have a vision to create amazing wines. When we moved here we knew we could always move back, now I don’t think we could ever leave.”