Quebec winegrowers facing the vagaries of the climate

Quebec winegrowers must demonstrate more and more creativity and stubbornness in the face of climatic hazards. However, they believe in a bright future for viticulture in the province, a growing sector.

In his modest vineyard in Montérégie, Nicolas Baron removes a white grape from a well-stocked bunch, then brings it to his mouth. “Wow!” I expected more sour. At this time, the sugar level of Riesling surprises me, given the summer we had,” exclaims the winemaker from Domaine du Cap, in Acton Vale, about two weeks before the harvest.

This September day, rainy, but punctuated by clearings, is like the last few months: seesaws. The growing season for Mr. Baron’s and many other wine growers’ vines was marked by adverse weather events.

The first was a late frost in mid-May. Researchers and winegrowers note that, paradoxically, climate change increases the damage caused by frost. The problem often lies in climatic instability (early heat, late frosts in spring, early frosts in the fall, etc.), explains by videoconference Karine Pedneault, professor of plant biochemistry and metabolomics at the University of Quebec in Outaouais .

“If it’s 25 degrees in March, the plant tells itself that it’s spring. She is preparing to push and she is losing her acclimation to the cold. Except that, if it falls below zero, she doesn’t like it at all,” reports the researcher, who specializes in viticulture and climate change.

If the buds freeze while they are in the process of bud break, that is to say opening, the losses can be significant. “If the primary bud dies, a secondary bud can take over,” indicates Nicolas Baron. “But it will not bear as much fruit as the first. It will also come out late, which means that the season may no longer be long enough for the fruits to mature. »

Fires, wind, steam and greenhouse

Since he launched his vineyard project in 2017 with his partner, Mr. Baron has experienced problematic spring frosts almost every year. During each episode, he warmed his vines with methods used by a large number of winegrowers: lighting fires everywhere on his land and operating a wind tower, a kind of large fan that sends air towards the ground. warmer which is at height. He even turned on steam engines, meaning he boiled water in propane corn burners. But these means have never been sufficient. In 2021, he lost almost his entire harvest.

This year, he decided to innovate to prevent a disaster from happening again. He temporarily placed huge semi-transparent white canvases recovered on stakes above part of his vines, thus simulating a greenhouse. On the most critical nights, he added heating to this makeshift tent. This system, which will be refined for the next season, has given the expected effects. While the temperature plunged below zero outside, that in the shelter was maintained above five degrees, maintains the winemaker.

“There are gaps there. The buds must have frozen,” comments the winemaker, pointing to a row of pinot noir with scattered fruit. “But here, there are grapes in tabarouette. This is the result of the protection we have done. »

Mr. Baron believes he has saved at least 75% of his harvest. He even believes that his prototype could protect the plants from the rain. Because torrential rains are another plague – which is expected to be increasingly common – to have fallen on farmers this summer.

Beware of torrential rain

The precipitation this year gave Daniel Lalande and his team at Vignoble Rivière du Chêne, in Saint-Eustache, a hard time. “It required more work and quick reactions to clear the foliage and reduce disease symptoms. If you leave it around the cluster, you can promote a humid environment. If you raise it, it helps it dry out better after a rain,” he says, seated at the bistro located on the second floor of the main building of his vineyard. From there, he has a bird’s eye view of his lush green vines, spread over 16.5 hectares, the results of sustained efforts.

It required more work and quick reactions to clear the foliage and reduce disease symptoms. If you leave it around the cluster, you can promote a humid environment. If you raise it, it helps it dry better after rain.

It was also necessary to find a replacement for the usual treatments against illnesses: the products were washed out by the rain, “like sunscreen when you swim for a long time”.

For him too, the freezing cold of mid-May was quite a struggle. He even called in a helicopter to bring the hot air down to the vines. “We were on edge,” he testifies, recalling with emotion the disastrous freeze he experienced ten years ago. Furthermore, Mr. Lalande does not even dare to pronounce the word “hail”, for fear of attracting this scourge from which he has so far been spared.

But the winegrower also sees a little positive, for his vineyard, in climate change: he notices that the growing season of his plants is longer than it was 25 years ago, when he founded his company .

Positive effects?

A pioneer in viticulture, Charles-Henri de Coussergues, co-owner of the Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, in the Eastern Townships, is just as optimistic. “The growing season, between the last frost of spring and the first frost of fall, was on average 135 days when we started in 1982. Today, we have 185 days on average,” he observes. He also notes that the days are on average warmer. His grapes therefore reach more maturity, specifies the one who has just started his harvest.

The winemaker does not turn a blind eye to the difficulties resulting from climatic disturbances, such as yo-yo temperatures and the reduction in snow cover which insulates the vines in winter, but he believes that Quebec viticulture is a winner from these changes. “We are allowing ourselves to try to plant new grape varieties that could not grow here before,” says Mr. De Coussergues.

The industry is also on a roll, if we trust the Quebec Wine Council. The number of wine producers increased from 85 in 2010 to 165 in 2022. Based on current trends, the organization predicts that the number of bottles produced will double by 2030.

But the researchers consulted by The duty are not convinced of the possible benefits of climate change for the vineyards here. “Instability is always an enemy in agriculture,” emphasizes Karine Pedneault, especially as new pests are expected to appear in Quebec. And too much heat can give an undesirable taste to certain grape varieties, she adds.

According to Caroline Provost, director of the Mirabel Agri-Food Research Center, it is largely research into ways to protect vines from winter that allows the cultivation of certain popular grape varieties, but more sensitive to cold. “We developed geotextile fabrics, the best ways to install them and prune the vines underneath,” indicates the researcher.

Knowledge and know-how about growing vines in Quebec are improving. Winegrowers are increasingly equipped to choose the plants best suited to their terroir and extreme climatic phenomena. Technological and biological solutions exist to help local winegrowers offer quality wines. It remains to be seen whether they will reach the SAQ shelves and the hearts of Quebecers in large numbers.

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