CCOVI data predicts a wine vintage to remember in Niagara

The 2020 vintage has been one for the record books, and data collected from the Preharvest Monitoring Program at Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) points to a promising batch of Niagara wines to come.

“I think it’s going to be a great vintage overall, from sparkling to aromatic whites to reds,” says Jim Willwerth, Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences and head of the preharvest program. “With respect to the preharvest data, we’re seeing good sugar and acid levels and great flavour. Disease pressure was also generally low and as a result we’re seeing high-quality fruit and really good maturity levels for all cultivars.”

Since 2010, the program has been tracking the progress of Niagara’s grapes at four sites across the Niagara peninsula.

Willwerth and CCOVI Oenologist Belinda Kemp work with their team to collect samples of Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Pinot noir to be analyzed by CCOVI’s Analytical Services. The lab examines the grapes for key ripeness indicators, including Brix (sugar levels), titratable acidity, pH and acetic acid (which indicates fruit health), and the results are made available to the industry through an interactive website.

CCOVI Research Assistant Alexandra Gunn (BSc ’19) was busy in the field collecting grape samples in Niagara for analysis as part of this year’s Preharvest Monitoring Program.

While this year’s growing season started off a bit cooler than normal (including several frost events and snow around Mother’s Day), it transitioned quickly to being mostly warm and dry, with lots of sun. As the ripening period set in later in the season, Niagara continued to experience warm days with cool, fall nights — creating ideal growing conditions for wines with great character and regional identity.

Willwerth says the cooler periods were beneficial to the region’s white varieties, because the grapes achieved high sugar levels and flavour development while maintaining the acidity that is characteristic of Niagara’s cool climate wine styles.

As for the region’s reds, the high number of growing degree days this year encouraged advanced maturity in the grapes. This allows growers to pick their grapes when it works best for them, rather than having to wait until the bitter end of the season.

Amelie Boury, Vice-President, Winemaking and Operations at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Château des Charmes, says the co-operative weather has been a “light at the end of the tunnel” of what has been an “extremely challenging year” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the Pinot noir and Bordeaux varietals at her site are looking “phenomenal,” and that they will even be able to produce their series of wines that only come out in the best vintage years. The last time they were able to do so was back in 2016, which was another excellent vintage for Niagara.

Utilizing CCOVI’s preharvest program, she adds, also helps provide reassurance to her team that their field testing and analysis is on track throughout the year.

“It is always good to have a group of scientists at your fingertips,” she says. “No vintage is the same, and knowing you have a solid backup from the team at CCOVI for assessment and analysis is a plus.”

Willwerth says having additional data to guide decision-making in the vineyard is also beneficial in a year like this one, where the scheduling of harvest might be more difficult because of social distancing and other pandemic-related considerations.

“Our database of preharvest information provides a historic record so that you can look at harvest dates from previous years and predict when you might be harvesting and get that reassurance of when the grapes might be ready to come in,” he says.

With a decade worth of data now at their disposal, CCOVI researchers can also compile long-term trends and compare similarities and differences between vintages across the region.

“We can connect the dots between growing season conditions, vine development and fruit maturity, which we can then relate to wine quality,” he says. “Therefore, it’s a fantastic resource for both researchers and for the industry.”

The Preharvest Monitoring Program is utilized by the grape and wine industry locally and around the world. Last year, more than 1,300 people from 12 different countries checked in on the data CCOVI reported on Niagara’s harvest.

Sampling for the preharvest monitoring program will take place every week and the data will be posted online at every Tuesday until the end of the harvest season.

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