There's a certain artistic and mystic quality surrounding winemaking. Being able to capture that unique sense of place and the growing season in the glass is the essence of the craft. You can't help but think of the romantic vision of an artist when you walk through the vineyard with a winemaker, taste what you think are fully ripe grapes and hear an extra week just like today, is going to make all the difference.
The truth is that great wine comes down to a lot of hard and often dirty work in the vineyard. Like with all farming a little faith that Mother Nature will be kind also helps. But, no matter if the growing season is short, cool and wet or long, hot and dry, there are still plenty of decisions to be made in the vineyard and they all affect how that finished wine will taste in the glass. In some areas of Niagara technology and science are becoming increasingly helpful in making those critical decisions at the right time.
Tucked away in a small corner of Vincor's national office, sits a small white room filled with pipettes, test tubes, beakers and a couple of technicians in white lab coats. You'd be forgiven for thinking you took a wrong turn and somehow ended up outside of a winery. Even amongst the multi-ton presses, the 120,000-litre tanks and the multi-story buildings of Canada's largest wine making facility, this quality control lab just might be the most impressive. It is the heart of the operation. Vincor has hundreds of its own acres of grapes which make its premium Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs and Le Clos Jordanne labels. Plus, it buys the grapes from approximately half of the acres owned by Niagara's independent grape growers. So, the quality assurance lab is always a popular place with winemakers, managers and staff coming and going. Still, even during this busy harvest season it's never frenzied; there's a serene, meticulous calmness about it.
Amongst all the interesting lab equipment, a small, innocuous-looking, toaster oven-sized, grey and blue device sticks out. It's called WineScan. Manufactured by Danish Company FOSS, this lab-in-a-box was adapted from technology used to test the quality and safety of dairy products, according to Marlene Kruger, Quality Assurance Manager at Vincor. For Vincor, a single thirty-second pass in WineScan performs about an hour-and-half worth of separate quality assurance tests for critical criteria like: density, alcohol, sugar, tartaric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, volatile acidity, total acidity and pH. The device performs this battery of tests by scanning a sample of wine using infrared light in a process called Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, explained Vincor technician Sarah Ward. This works because each compound being tested absorbs light differently allowing levels to be measured precisely and quickly.
It's this precision and speed that's the chief benefit of WineScan. If something seems off the winemaker can have a wine run through WineScan and get a run-down of all the critical numbers she needs to take any necessary corrective action. The near real-time results help keep production moving smoothly at Vincor. As Kruger pointed out, relying on an outside lab can sometimes mean the situation with the wine in question could be quite different by the time you get the results back.
WineScan can also work similarly to preventive medicine. Regularly running tests is a good way to keep on top of quality control and catch any minor issues before they become problematic. Vincor is still doing the same testing as it was doing before. So, the WineScan hasn't changed the quality control procedures by adding new tests. What has changed is that the time savings achieved by using WineScan means staff don't need to be as selective in what they test. They can easily perform all tests and do it more frequently—that can only help with quality control. WineScan also reduces the potential for error in the lab. Trying to perform tests on multiple samples at once can be a little tricky if someone interrupts mid-way, Kruger pointed out.
But WineScan isn't a magic solution. In Vincor's experience its effectiveness is only as good as the efforts you put into it. In order for it to be truly effective the device needs calibration. Since it's performing its tests with infrared light and things can overlap in the spectrum, that can cause issues. But calibration and multiple samples sorts that out according to Kruger. When Vincor was initially setting it up, it took some time to get the analysis for volatile acidity, which is a complex one, just right. It also took longer for the machine to master the intricacies of single vineyard wines, such as the organically-grown Le Clos Jordanne line-up, than it did blends. The more reference data the machine has the better it performs, explained Kruger. So with more samples from more vintages over the years it should just keep getting better. She has yet to see an outside lab result differ from WineScan's figures.
The only other WineScan in Canada that Kruger is aware of is at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. She doesn't really expect to see too many more either. You need a fully functioning lab to do the baseline tests to calibrate WineScan and that requires a significant investment on top of the device. Since it also improves with more reference data, it just wouldn't make economic or practical sense for small wineries.
The machine can also be used prior to harvest, testing the grape for ripeness indicators. Right now Vincor uses it primarily to test brix (sugar ripeness). But, WineScan has the potential to test phenols, chemicals which are critical to a wine's taste, colour and mouthfeel, as well as anthocyanins, which interact with tannins and can affect aging. A lot of research is still being conducted to help demystify how these compounds affect finished wine. Kruger and Ward can see great potential in the future for technology that can measure when the desired ripeness indicators are achieved, thus helping take out some of the guesswork on exactly when to harvest.
Up on the Bench, the Vineland Research Centre is using new technology to try and alleviate another wine quality issue. It's one that can plague growers and wineries before the season even starts.
Even though Lake Ontario acts as a heat sink in summer and releases some of its collected warmth over winter, there's no getting around the fact that Ontario is one of the world's coldest wine regions during the vines' dormant season. In some years that cold can be a real problem. In the winter of 2004-2005, the tonnage of Ontario-grown grapes made into wine dropped 54%—largely due to vine injury and kill from a severe winter. That season the cold caused such a shortage of grapes that there was a one time exception made, dropping the minimum local grape content in International-Canadian Blends from 30% to only 1%.
In order to help mitigate winter damage, wineries begun installing wind machines. Working on the principle that hot air rises as well as convection, these machines take the warmer air from about 49 feet above ground and circulate it down to the tender buds of the vines below. This can raise the temperature at vine level by a few degrees. Although it doesn't sound like a lot, it can mean the difference between suffering no damage or reduced damage and suffering significant damage or total crop failure. It's especially critical for more sensitive grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, which can experience damage when the temperature drops into the mid-teens below zero degrees celsius. Hardier varieties like Riesling and hybrids like Baco Noir, can withstand temperatures in the mid-twenties below zero degrees celsius, so they are less of an issue.
It isn't just winter temperatures that wind machines protect against. They help protect grapes still on the vine from frost damage as the nights begin to drop into the low single-digits above zero degrees celsius, in early fall. Although this is less of a common occurrence in Niagara (Lake Ontario's heat sink means spring starts is a little cooler and later than most of Southern Ontario), wind machines can also help against early spring frost. 2010 was a good example where they helped protect some of the tender buds, which went on to become that season's grapes, against sudden temperature drops in March. In the 12 years that wind machines have been used in Niagara they've proven very effective. Paul Bosc Jr. of Château des Charmes, the first winery to install them, swears by them. He has every inch of the family's vineyards protected by wind machines. Since installing them the Boscs have suffered far less spring frost or winter damage than the overall industry average and in some cases no damage whatsoever when others have been hit. So, if wind machines work very well why bother exploring another technology?
Wind machines have limitations. By their nature wind machines require particular environmental conditions to be at their best, according to Darlene Homonko, Director of Business Development at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. They're unlikely to make an impact if the winds are over 7 km/h because there isn't likely to be significantly warmer air to pull down. They may be damaged when used if winds reach 13 km/h or more and it's unsafe to operate them when the wind reaches 21 km/h. Wind machines also don't work well in vineyards located in valleys or hillsides-–an ideal place for a vineyard. If the region has consistently cold winter air, like in Prince Edward County, they also aren't as effective, she said. Plus, many complain about the loud whooshing nose they make in the wee hours of the very early morning, when wind machines are often needed.
As an alternative or something to use in addition to wind machines, the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is studying something called the Tempwave from Raytheon–best known for military defense systems. Tempwave is essentially a small heater that uses radiant heat produced by low-level microwaves. It works similarly to the microwave oven in your house by causing the water molecules in the plants to vibrate slightly and heat-up. But, Homonko assures that the plants won't be cooked or damaged—the level of microwaves used is much lower than in the kitchen appliance. It also operates under radio frequency standards similar to mobile phone towers, so Homonko stresses that there's no cause for concern regarding people's safety. Just like wind machines, they're also likely to only operate in the very early morning hours when people aren't in the fields. Plus they only need to operate for that small 1-2 hour window when the vines are at risk.
The Tempwave towers have proven effective in the citrus orchards of Northern California. But when a researcher working at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre heard about the technology, it was decided that Raytheon would be approached about testing them in the colder climate of Niagara's vineyards. Right now the centre is in the very early stages of testing and will have some units operating in its vineyards of Pinot Noir this winter. Researchers are looking to test Tempwave's effectiveness in Southern Ontario winters and to try to optimise precise settings and operating conditions for winter protection of Ontario's vineyards and orchards.
Since it's still in the early stages Homonko doesn't have final costs, but right now the “unoptimised cost” is roughly $3,500 an acre, making it a bit more than the $34,000 for 15 acres Lakeview Vineyard Equipment presents as a case study for wind machines. But, that cost may very well come down after testing. The operating costs of Tempwave are anticipated to be less than a wind machine. It requires only a household outlet to power it rather than propane or diesel. The centre and Raytheon are also working on making them mobile—something that the large concrete base on wind machines makes impossible. If the technology proves effective it may even open-up the possibility of new vineyard sites, which would otherwise be unviable.
Although at first it may seem like science and technology might be at odds with the artistic side of winemaking, both the Tempwave and the WineScan come down to growing the best grapes possible and providing information that allows winemakers to make the most informed decision. Technology and science have had a big role in helping make this a period where wine quality is on average better than it has ever been. With both of these technologies in their early stages, there's still a lot of exciting innovations that may yet be discovered for Niagara and the Ontario wine industry.