The Niagara wine region has been blessed by its geographic locations bounded in the north by Lake Ontario and in the south by Lake Erie. The last glaciations that ended 10,000 years ago formulated the Niagara Escarpment, mainly the St. David’s Bench, that promotes a microclimate known for good air flow, soil drainage and soil quality for vineyards. However, grape vines in the winter are inactive and vulnerable to the cold air mass from the North during winter. Lake Ontario, which is not frozen in the winter, is able to moderate the cold air with its pool of sensible heat and high specific heat capacity. Similarly, Lake Erie is able to ease the hot summer weather from invading this wine producing region. But as we see in climate change, fluctuating maximum and minimum temperature will continue to push the grape vines’ adaptive ability to the limit. In fact, this condition calls for a shift in the Niagara region to produce grapes that are more suitable in a warm climate. This warmer climate will also have an effect on the transformation of the conventional fruit production that is vital to the survival of the local economy.
The tour of the wine region began on our second day at the vineyards of Chateau des Charmes. Dr. Tony Shaw, a professor at Brock University, pointed out the place that was the first winery to install a wind machine to combat climate change and cold nights which are not suitable for the growing of grapes. Even though the climate in the Niagara Region is observed with increasing temperature, the increasing variability of temperature translates to more days of cooler minimum temperature that happen at night. To prevent the cold nights from interfering with the growing of grapes, a wind machine has a temperature sensor that will automatically spin its blade to push a warmer air to the surface when approaching -15 to -16°C. While cool and warm air masses do not mix, such use of technology is able to prevent the loss of grapes by inverting air columns at the surface.
Also on our wine tour, we visited at Stratus, where we were welcome by its LEED Silver awarded retail gallery and offered a sample of white wine by our host Phyllis. At the back of the building, we discovered similar a wind machine was erected within the vineyard. In addition to frost damage, Phyllis pointed out another danger posed by the invasion of Asian long-horn beetles. The Asian beetles, once hatched, feed on the leaves to reduce the photosynthetic productivity of the grapes, which delay the ripening of grapes and reduce their quality. In addition, fieldworkers often encounter the problem of extensive molding of the grape vines that allow the growth of fungus to overtake the development of grapes.
Currently, in addition to the Niagara region, the north shore of Lake Erie, Pelee Island and Prince Edward County represent about 80% of Canadian wine, with the rest coming from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. However, the warming from climate change poses an immediate threat to the future of Canadian wine output. Setting wind machines to create a temperature inversion can only be a temporary solution as once the climate warms beyond control, other adaptive measures may need to be considered in preserving the production of wine. Solutions such as shifting the production to grapes that are more suitable for a warmer climate can make a significant impact on the local agricultural and wine industries in the Niagara Region.
PhD Student, Environmental Science