While bad summer weather is delaying harvests, BEPPI CROSARIOL notes wet conditions benefit certain wines
The challenges – and potential rewards – of a cool, wet summer
Rare is the winemaker willing to predict the quality of a vintage before harvest is over and the juice is safely bubbling in tanks. Restraint in such a matter is wise. In wine there is truth, in grapes only hope and speculation.
But there’s one thing you can say for certain about the 2017 growing season in Ontario. It’s been exasperating. Rain across the southern perimeter was so bad at times that many vineyards morphed into lakes. That standing water not only drenched roots but also made it impossible to get tractors in to help with pruning and spraying.
“We got lambasted in June,” said Keith Tyers, winemaker at Closson Chase in Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario, adding that it was probably the wettest season he’s experienced in 14 years of growing.
The most obvious impact of those grey skies has been to delay vine development to the point where some late-picked varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, might fall well short of the ripeness needed for lush, mouthfilling reds. Harvest, which normally would be chugging along around this time in Niagara for such early-picked still wines as chardonnay and pinot noir could be roughly three weeks late in many vineyards.
For winemakers, though, the rains mainly have meant more gruelling work than usual. Disease pressure that attends high humidity, notably in the form of downy mildew, forced workers to pass through the vines to pluck overgrown leaves with a vengeance in order to ventilate grape bunches and expose them to the sun.
Tyers said this is the first year he’s had to strip leaves from the western sides of vine rows. That’s the side exposed to the more intense heat of afternoon sun and which generally benefits from shade to protect berries from sunburn. “There’s been a lot of foliage,” he said. “It’s like having to cut the grass every three or four days.”
And while the weather did improve in much of southern Ontario during August, the clouds that persisted for much of spring and summer could have their own silver lining, at least for some producers. Paul Pender, director of viticulture and winemaking at Tawse Winery in Vineland, told me the other week that although conditions were challenging – because “it was raining every second day” – the season reminded him of another moist, “off” year. He said 2013 yielded many stellar wines, in particular pinot noirs and chardonnays. I’d have to agree, a perspective underscored by the superb Tawse chardonnay below as well as another 2013 offering, the Quarry Road chardonnay, which won a platinum medal at the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada and also is available at Tawsewinery.ca (for $36.95).
It might seem counterintuitive, but wet, overcast conditions can benefit earlyripening varieties. Slower vine development and longer “hang time” for grapes can result in more complete phenolic, or biological, ripeness and greater flavour complexity. By contrast, a hot summer gooses sugar up too quickly and grapes often must be harvested undesirably early simply to keep them from turning to into raisins.
“It’s the kind of vintage I love for chard and pinot,” Pender said, stressing the word “love.” As he likes to observe about the French region synonymous with those two grapes: “The Burgundies you love are the ones are those that come from those off vintages.”
Pinot and chardonnay aside, whether 2017 manages to squeeze out many great cabernet sauvignons and merlots is simply too early to tell. Even a wine critic wouldn’t be so foolish as to make that prediction.
In the meantime, this seems like a good moment to savour one or more of the older vintages below.