Climate change impacting worldwide wine production hits close to home in the Ottawa Valley

Unpredictable weather presents challenges for delicate process

Around the world, wine production has fallen to a 60-year low and experts are saying climate change is to blame.

The International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) looks at data from 94 per cent of the world’s wine harvest for the year and found the season of 2023 had the lowest grape production since 1961.

The OIV blames the bad weather of climate change, including frost, heavy rainfall and drought.

Ottawa Valley winemakers are also feeling the impact.

KIN Vineyards stands on a hillside in the Ottawa Valley in the Carp area and grows nine different varieties of grapes for winemaking on-site at the vineyard. Some of those wines include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with the latter being notoriously difficult to perfect.

Brian Hamilton is the current winemaker and manager of KIN Vineyards and has been working with grapes and the changing weather for over 20 years across many places and continents, including New Zealand and California.

Hamilton, who teaches part-time at Algonquin College to students pursuing a sommelier college certificate in the New World Wines course, says not a lot of people are aware wine can be made in the Ottawa area.

He adds it is not the easiest job, as growing the right grapes for making wine is a delicate process the changing weather is making it more unpredictable, especially when working with a wine Hamilton and winemakers around the world call “the heartbreaker grape.”

“It’s hard to grow, it’s even more difficult to make wine out of, so when you are a winemaker and you make good Pinot, it’s a badge of honour, so to speak,” says Hamilton.

He says that while more heat and a longer growing season is nice, the other effects of a changing planet are not welcome.

“It’s not all good, it’s not just about heat. When you talk about climate change, it’s about climate extremes,” says Hamilton.

“So, yes, heat units and sunshine might be one benefit to the change in climate, but certainly there are lots of negatives. The intensity of whatever weather you’ve got can be problematic.”

One of the vineyards at KIN Vineyards, all vines pruned, buried and ready for a long winter in the Ottawa Valley.
One of the vineyards at KIN Vineyards, all vines pruned, buried and ready for a long winter in the Ottawa Valley.

As the winters become milder, the grapes come out of dormancy a little early and begin to flower, becoming at risk for late frost, and if caught in a cold snap or freezing rain, they die and no longer make fruit.

To help protect the plants during the winter, the vines themselves are pruned down every year and covered with soil to protect them from the cold.

“It’s a very time-consuming, very labour-intensive and expensive process,” says Hamilton about the whole winemaking process.

Science advisor Renée-Claude Goulet from the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum says there’s another problem when the weather is poor: bees and other insects stay home and the pollination rates go down, affecting the quality of crops.

“There’s a lot of issues that are coming about with climate change. So one of them is obviously climate variability. So, not so much that it’s getting warmer, but it’s just becoming more unpredictable,” says Goulet.

“This is really affecting a lot of the crops that rely on flowering, like apple trees, grapes, anything that you know has a dormancy, a perennial that lives through winter, comes out of dormancy in the spring makes flowers and the whole crop is reliant on that one, like those 10 days where the crop is in flower.”

Climate change is both increasing the likeliness of extreme weather around the world, such as tornados and wildfires, and the subtle shifting of seasons, according to Agriculture Canada.

Winemaker Brian Hamilton, who teaches at Algonquin College for the Sommelier College Certificate, shows how vines are buried with soil to protect them from the cold winter.
Winemaker Brian Hamilton, who teaches at Algonquin College for the Sommelier College Certificate, shows how vines are buried with soil to protect them from the cold winter.

“Just as the vine starts to grow, the shoots can maybe be six inches long. They’re still extremely fragile and the wind can blow the shoots right off and there goes your crop,” says Hamilton, adding that heavy rain and water events can lead to damage as well, especially when hail falls.

“If you are far enough along in your growing season that the fruit has set and has started to expand and you’ve reached the stage in the vine called veraison,” he says. “This is where the red grapes start to turn from green to red then they start to soft and the sugar starts to build and the fruit starts to expand and the skins get thinner, hail can destroy your crop. They’ve had that in Ontario this year.”

The future of farming has depended on the weather since humanity first began planting seeds in the ground millennia ago, and the changing weather isn’t a new topic, but Goulet says the future of climate change on all types of farming is a major concern.

“It’s in a very critical time period that can really affect the crop for the rest of the season and really affect the harvest,” says Goulet. “Really, it’s the variability and the unpredictability that’s really causing a lot of issues.”

Hamilton says though the weather is shifting, KIN Valley is in a unique location for growing grapes as the hill is made from limestone and holds water even in a dry spell, to the point where the vineyard operates as a dry farm, meaning no irrigation is needed.

The vines then are forced to grow deeper to get water, something Hamilton says will make the plants stronger in the end, both against the wind and as they access more salt and minerals buried deep in the earth.

“That’s one of the age-old understandings about vines, if you want to make fine wine you need to make the vine struggle,” says Hamilton.

“Think of it like people. I think it’s the best analogy. Adversity in our own lives builds character, like what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and vines are exactly like that.”

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