Country Dream Viticulture Winter

Extreme Cold and Obsessing about the Vines

It's cold for the vines but a little bit of effort and a lot of good timing makes all the difference in farming.

Cold weather flows across the land. But we aren’t in Winter Hibernation! There is still a lot going on at the winery and even the vineyard.

While we have the perfect Summer and Fall temperatures to grow world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Winter and Spring are often not so great.

One of the biggest challenges in Prince Edward County is extreme Winter Cold. Earlier this week, I peeked at the weather forecast. Accuweather predicted lows below -30 degrees centigrade both Thursday night and Friday night. Oh no!

Here’s the Niagara-on-the-Lake forecast compared with the Hillier forecast (where we are in Prince Edward County). Friday night we are 15 degrees colder than our grape-growing friends across the lake. Minus thirty! It doesn’t seem fair! It’s like we are in a completely different country.

It can be that much more difficult to grow vines in the County. Fortunately, in the Fall we carefully tied down our vines to a low wire, and then buried all the rows in the vineyard under a protective layer of soil. Even when Winter temperatures drift below -20 centigrade, the soil gives a few degrees of warmth and insulation and ensures we get a crop the following season.

Some good looking hills of soil over the base of the vines. Everything above the ground will be killed by the cold and get pruned off in the spring, gathered into piles, then burned.

However, it’s not a perfect system. Soil doesn’t easily fold into tidy hills and evenly cover the vines with a soft blanket of soil with a single pass of the tractor. It’s a war of tractor and man against the heavy mud and rocky clay and takes many passes over the vineyard to coax the stubborn earth into place. Inevitably some areas of the vineyard are more thinly covered than others, and important bits of the occasional vine stick out of the hills, vulnerable to Winter damage.

We did a pretty good job hilling up this year, but when we saw this week’s forecast we thought about the most iffy rows. Not only were they not so well protected from the start, it had rained quite a bit in the fall and all the hills washed away a little.

Fortunately a blanket of snow also offers some insulation from brutal cold, and we’ve had quite a bit of snow recently.

“I think I should go out this afternoon and hill up the snow over the vines,” I said obsessively to Micheline.

“Really,” she said. “Didn’t you say you are behind on working on the wine? Don’t you have to send out the Valentine’s Day email? And send some images to the wine marketing association for Winery Wednesday?”

“Yep,” I said. “But the cold weather won’t wait. Those other things will.”

So I suited up and went out to the tractors.

My tractor of choice for this job is the cantankerous old Zetor 3340 tractor, vintage 1985. It was around zero degrees outside at this point, so after cranking it a bit, bleeding some fuel, then cranking it again, it roared to life. However, for some reason the Zetor’s three point hitch hydraulics don’t work in the cold, and today was no exception. I had to go to Plan B.

I let the Zetor idle away (it’s good for the machinery to run it regularly in the Winter) and turned my attention to the McCormick F90 tractor, vintage 2015. I’ve been using that machine with the snowblower to clear the parking lot and driveway, so it started no problem. I removed the snowblower and put the big v-plow on, then spent a couple of hours zipping up and down the rows, pushing snowbanks onto the vines.

In the end I was able to push another eight inches of snow onto the vines in addition to the earth I hilled up in the Fall. It took a bit of effort and time, but we should get a great crop of Chardonnay this year because of these efforts.

Sometimes a little bit of effort and a lot of good timing makes all the difference in farming.

The vineyard hilled up with snow in addition to the soil. All the buried parts of these vines are protected by at least 12 inches of soil and snow. I hope it’s enough!

Entrepreneur, Winegrower and Father. I write about going for your dreams, living authentically, raising a family and building a winery from scratch in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada

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