Being a Viticulturist in Nova Scotia

Driving past a Nova Scotia vineyard in Summer, Fall, Winter, or Spring, chances are you will see a tractor creeping along or people-sized dots moving diligently through rows of pristine vines. These are local vineyard workers. Throughout rural Nova Scotia, they tend the vines and manage the vineyards. This is the science of viticulture – or the cultivation of grapevines. If there is one person in Nova Scotia who understands the grape it is Patrick Cantieni. His full-time job is  Vineyard Manager at Grand Pre Winery. In his downtime, he looks after his own 12-acre vineyard, and since 2009 he’s been teaching Grape Growing courses through continuing education at NSCC Kingstec campus. To say Patrick is well rooted in Nova Scotia grapes would be an understatement.

I caught up with Patrick on a gorgeous summer day as he was in the vineyard moving between the rows, removing leaves to expose the precious grape clusters to the warm valley sun. At Grand Pre, Patrick manages 40 acres of estate vineyards and 6 full-time employees during the peak summer season. He tells me that growing grapes is a hands-on job. Each grapevine is handled at least 10 times before the grapes are harvested. Beginning with pruning in the winter, through removing last year’s fruiting canes and tying down in the spring, to the constant tucking of growing shoots between the wires to keep a tidy canopy. Late in the summer, the vineyard crew removes the leaves around the clusters to amp up sun exposure and air flow. Next, its time to thin the crop by removing clusters – keeping only the best for harvest. Then there’s the work to the vineyard itself. Mowing, fertilizing, spraying, cultivating, weeding, and netting in early Fall to keep the wildlife at bay.

Long days in Nova Scotia vineyards come with challenges but offer mostly reward. It was the emergence of Nova Scotia as a young wine region, “where nothing was set in stone,” that drew Patrick from his home in Switzerland. To have the opportunity to experiment with different grape varieties, find the ideal grapes for our climate, and sort how best to grow them.

Our weather is the main challenge and what keeps his job interesting. The need to constantly adapt to mother nature – different every year – and adjust vineyard practices accordingly. “It’s our Nova Scotia climate that keeps grape growing interesting and exciting.” And the best reward “is seeing happy and healthy grapes come into the wine cellar at harvest.”

Our conversation about the challenges of our climate quickly turns to 2018’s unprecedented late Spring frost. In the early morning hours of June 4th – a date that will go down in Nova Scotia wine history – the untimely frost took its toll. Damage to vineyards across the province was varied, making it hard to estimate the overall impact to the industry. Patrick notes the vineyard around the winery escaped unscathed while only a few kilometres away, their Gaspereau vineyard lost close to 90% of the crop. After the initial freeze, the shock to the vines stunted growth, and it took about a month before the secondary buds made their appearance. Thanks to a hot and humid July, “If you look at the vines now they look the same as they would at this point in the summer,” he says. “The difference is there are hardly any grapes.” Patrick hopes this is a one-time event in Nova Scotia wine history but notes that grapevines bounce back and so will the local wine industry.

As the total acreage of grapes continues to grow in Nova Scotia so does the number of people working in and managing the vineyards. With growth comes the need for education and training. Patrick has been involved, as an industry expert, in the development of an exciting new program at NSCC Kingstec campus, Cool Climate Wine & Viticulture. The 1-year certificate program is scheduled to begin January 2019 and is designed to give the students an overview of growing grapes in Nova Scotia, winemaking, and the business of wine – brilliantly balancing in-class theory with practical experience in the fields.

There is never a dull moment for a viticulturist in Nova Scotia, and we owe the lot of them our thanks for every delicious glass poured!