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© 2017 Haley Ritchie

Ottawa Uncorked: Northern Wineries and Rising Temperatures

The city is thirsty for local wine, but northern climates aren’t without their challenges.

They are the daredevils of wine-growing, the headstrong pioneers of the vine, existing in a category researchers have dubbed “extreme viticulture.”

These Ottawa Valley wine sellers are dreaming big, waiting for the day when cold- climate strains break into the main stream and bring a Prince Edward County-like commercial success to the region. In the meantime rising temperatures over the next 40 years are projected to put traditional growers in Australia and Europe out of commission, opening up more markets for northern vineyards.

Wine-making grapes are among the most fragile crops to grow. An early or late frost, or erratic temperatures, can mean an expensive setback. In Ottawa, a short growing season and winter temperatures that often plummet to -30 C makes it impossible to keep most varieties alive.

But that isn’t stopping a few stubborn individuals in the Ottawa Valley from trying their hand.

“We’re crazy,” says Janet Moul with a laugh, when asked why she opened a winery so far north.

She and her husband opened Jabulani Winery after falling in love with the property in Richmond, south of Ottawa. On their grand opening day in 2010, they had an unexpected 500 people show up.

“In Niagara, you’re just another winery,” says Moul.

In Ottawa, “you’re something that people can’t get, and you have a clientele almost immediately.”

Another Ottawa grower is Marty Kral, who owns Vankleek Hill Vineyards, about an hour’s drive east of Ottawa. Like the Mouls, he had dreamt of having a winery for a long- time. He describes himself as a “pioneer” in grape growing, and has encouraged farmers nearby to plant cold climate varieties.

From his point of view, the more competition the better it is for business, since many tourists will tour multiple vineyards when visiting a region.

The grapes come from the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station, where a 20 year-old project has resulted in specially bred grapes like the Frontenac or Marquette that can withstand harsh temperatures.

More importantly, they make a drinkable wine. Most people wouldn’t recognize the name; a Frontenac or Marquette isn’t a commonly asked about variety, but Kral and the Mouls haven’t found it a problem.

With a good yield, Kral says Vankleek Hills can produce around 3,600 bottles a year. With a label price of $20, he sells bottles out of the vineyard’s bistro without losing a cut to retailers. This year most of his inventory sold-out.

Right now there are three major Ottawa-area vineyards: Jabulani, Domaine Perrault and Vankleek Hill – but Kral hopes their success will inspire others to build up the region.

“I’m on a mission,” says Kral. “In 10 years I expect to see a dozen vineyards an hour from here.”

So far he’s convinced three nearby farmers to plant vines, although it will be around four years before the crops are mature enough for the growers to open their vineyards.

Charles-Olivier Gauthier got advice from Kral before planting his own grapes. After spending much of his life in Europe working for wineries, he wasn’t about to let some frost stop him from realizing his dream of opening his own. He hopes to open a small winery once his hybrid vines mature.

His confidence in the hybrids comes from the success of the cold-climate wine industry in Quebec. Since the 1980s Quebec has seen over 75 wineries open and has seen commercial success in selling local wine and agritourism.

“I thought, ‘if they can do it, why can’t I?’” says Kral.

Despite their faith in cold-climate hybrids, Moul, Kral, and Gauthier all admitted they would jump at the chance to grow the more valuable European strands – if they could survive.

That’s because while the new hybrids might make a decent wine, they’re still not widely recognized like cabernets, chardonnays, and other popular varieties.

Lack of recognition combined with a lack of approval from the Ontario Vintners Quality Association, which regulates wine across the province and subsidizes sales to restaurants, means cold-climate grapes aren’t all that profitable when marketed to retailers.

“The market is what dictates to a large extent what the wineries and the growers will sell,” explains Tony Shaw, a researcher with Brock University Geography’s department. “While the cold varieties will do well, unfortunately the market is not there for those varieties.”

Most of it is marketing: of course it’s a question of personal preference, but according to Shaw the cold-hardy grapes produce a good-tasting wine.

Right now Ottawa’s winters are lethal for the sensitive European grapes, but climate change is bringing major changes to the industry. As average temperatures slowly rise, Ottawa’s climate could become better suited to more traditional grape-growing in the distant future, according to Tara Holland, a teaching fellow at Quest University in British Columbia.

According to projections from the Ontario Ministry of Natural resources, the Ottawa region will see a one to two degree overall increase in average winter temperatures over the next 30 years.

Meanwhile current grape growing hotspots like California and Australia might be in trouble. Grapes require a very specific range of temperature, and as global warming heats up these areas it could become too hot to grow popular strains.

A recent study in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that by 2050 more than a quarter of current wine-growing areas will cease production.

It could mean sidelined Northern climates like Canada and even England might have a chance to cash in.

Holland’s focus has been Prince Edward County, another climate north of Niagara but still able to produce grapes. She’s confident Ottawa area farmers could start growing some European grapes in the future.

“Absolutely,” she says, but warns that growers “won’t see it over that short of a timespan. We tend to measure climate change in spans of 30 years.”

Even then, climate change isn’t all good news for Ottawa growers because consistency is more important than warm temperatures. And as Shaw explains, climate change might bring longer growing seasons and fewer cold days, but it will also bring more dramatic ups and downs.

“The overall trend is an increase (in temperature), but subject to a high degree of variability. That’s a problem,” he says.

Still, according to Holland, Prince Edward County’s transformation from burned out canning capital to prestigious wine tourism retreat wouldn’t have been possible without global warming.

In a few short decades it has become an agritourism mecca, from an experiment in extreme viticulture to an unexpected success. They are still far north, which means in order to grow European strains, regional wine-makers have to bury their wines in the winter, a time-consuming process.

The wine industry in Ontario represents almost $3 billion in retail sales annually, according to a 2013 report from the Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario.

Tourism brought in an extra $248 million for the province last year, according to the same report.

Wine-growers in Quebec, especially those near Montreal, have successfully followed the Prince Edward County model and generated $525 million of business revenue for the province. Shaw says he wouldn’t be surprised if the same happened in Ottawa.

After his success with Vankleek Hills, Kral is convinced.

“We are going to become an area like Prince Edward Country. Absolutely, it’s going to happen,” he says.

Waiting for the warm winds of change doesn’t make sense to Moul, who has found a successful niche market with Jabulani.

She doesn’t understand why growers from Prince Edward County would go to the trouble of burying their grapes instead of just growing cold-resistant hybrids.

“They should just realize this is the way to go. You live in Canada; it’s cold. And (hybrids) make life a lot easier,” she says.

While hybrid wines aren’t a major moneymaker yet, they can still boost agritourism in the area.

Bonnie Gray, executive director of Ottawa’s Rural Tourism Council, is enthusiastic about the possibility, but says wineries have been a hard sell so far.

It’s not that the response hasn’t been enthusiastic, but most people don’t even realize the wineries exist in Ottawa, says Gray. Despite attention at trade shows and advertising, she says “there’s not a lot of support” for Ottawa wines right now.

Even if Valley growers don’t become major commercial producers, it makes sense to foster the tourism angle, according to Shaw, who notes that “boutique wineries” bring a richness to the area.

“The Ottawa Valley does have the potential,” he says.

“You don’t necessarily have to grow pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon. Going out there and people enjoying the wine, I think that’s the experience they’re looking for.”