Farm great grapes, make great wine

Vancouver-based wine journalist and wine judge extraordinaire Treve Ring recently wrote an article about Nova Scotia wine in Wine Enthusiast magazine, which is based in the United States. She began her article with the following statement: “Somewhere at the intersection of the adages that good things come in small packages and great wines come from fringe places, you’ll find Nova Scotia’s wine industry.” It’s a beautiful statement about exactly what makes our wines here in Nova Scotia unique and sought after. Our industry here is small — exceptionally small — on both the national and international stages. But we have exceptional wines, which makes them marketable. And those exceptional wines are directly related to the adage that great wines come from fringe places.

Nova Scotia is classified as a cool-climate wine region — in fact, one of the coolest of the cool! We are pushing the viticulture envelope of each vintage to ultimately grow grapes that are as definable as our maritime climate and to produce wines that are as unique as Nova Scotia itself. That is our grapes and their capacity to reveal the expression of the climate that makes our wines stand out from the crowd.

Our wines are essentially made by the grapes, confirming the adage that any wine lover, enthusiast or advocate would exclaim: “wines are made in the vineyard.” Just this past March, Nova Scotia Deputy Minister of Agriculture Frank Dunn announced that as of last year there were 360 hectares (or about 890 acres) of grapes growing in the province. That is up from just 255 hectares (or 630 acres) of grapes in 2014. That is an almost 40 per cent increase in land under vine here in our province. That is significant. But what I find even more notable is that over half of the current acreage is used exclusively by farmers growing grapes to sell to the wineries.

It is also important to note that farming grapes for wine production is no easy task. Each vine requires detailed care and attention. It is estimated that a grapevine could be touched by a farmer up to 15 times before the grapes are harvested. The process begins in the winter when most of the growth from the year before gets pruned away, leaving a cane or two for the new shoots to develop from. The old canes get pulled from the trellis system, and in the early spring the remaining canes will bear the fruit for the new season. These will be tied all neat and tidy to the trellis, ready for bud break, and the growth for the new season begins. Summer in the vineyard is all about managing the vines and the elements. It’s about keeping the canopy in check, controlling pests and keeping the weeds at bay. It is also the time when the grapes form and when the decision is made about crop load management. Choosing how many clusters to leave on each shoot is a difficult one for a farmer. Do you sacrifice a larger quantity of grapes by removing some of the clusters? Or do you reduce the crop so that the vine will ripen a reduced number of clusters and thus ensure higher quality grapes? In the fall, the fruit of the farmer’s labour is realized, the grapes are harvested and the tonnage is calculated. For grape farmers, there is not much rest for the weary, and soon the cycle begins again in mid-winter. Nova Scotia is a beyond-cool-climate, maritime-influenced grape-growing region, so extra care is required, and there are a unique set of risks here. There is the increased risk of vine death in the winter, for instance, and disease and mildews can persist. By late summer, the grapes have ripened in the vineyard and the battle with the wildlife in our rural settings begins. The risks for a Nova Scotia grape grower are high, but the payoff in the bottle and the rewards to us, the consumers, are spectacular.

The Grape Growers Association of Nova Scotia (GGANS) currently has 115 members. That’s 115 risk-taking farmers that are working towards the organization’s goal of growing good grapes for Nova Scotia. Let me rephrase that. The organization’s mission, as their new strategic plan says, is “to grow the possible grapes for Nova Scotia.” This means that quality over quantity is their number one goal. To accomplish this mission, they have outlined some key goals. The number one goal is to improve quality by collaborating with some of the key building blocks of the industry, including the Winery Association of Nova Scotia, government organizations and training partners such as the NSCC. In turn, this will strengthen the foundation and the direction of the entire industry.

Most of the grape farmers have very small grape acreage, and many would call themselves hobby growers. This is perhaps due to the fact that establishing a vineyard comes at an excessive cost. Reports estimate that cost to be approximately $36,000 per acre to establish a 10-acre vineyard. In addition, there is close to a $7,000 per acre per year cost of production. And when you consider that the first full harvest does not happen for four years, it’s, therefore, a huge investment and a long wait before the farmer sees any return on their investment.

Considering the risks, high capital investment and long wait before any return can be seen, I wonder why anyone would consider becoming a grape farmer. I went out in search for answers. I wish I could tell the story of each farmer, all 115 members of GGANS who have made the decision to plant grapes in Nova Scotia. But for sake of time, I went out to visit two farmers, Steve and Karen Ells.

Their farm is nestled among the undulating hills of Sheffield Mills. The farm is tucked away, nestled in the Annapolis Valley, just outside the village of Canning. As you drive out to the vineyard there is no doubt in your mind that you are in the heart of farm country. The patchwork of farmland that makes up the quilt of the Valley is evident as you pass by field upon field, tilled and ready for the next harvest of vegetable, fruit or hay. That is until you reach the Ells’ farm. The contrast of neatly placed rows of vines makes it immediately evident that a new cash crop is rooted in the rich Valley soil: grapes. These farmers’ story is fascinating, to say the least. Steve Ells was a truck driver; he owned a truck and had a contract hauling cars. Traffic was getting crazier, and he knew it was time for a change. He and his wife Karen live in the Valley, and Steve grew up on a farm in Sheffield Mills. The land was calling him back, and he thought about trading his truck keys in for some tractor keys. He and his wife considered all types of farming, including vegetables that they could sell at the farmers’ market. But eventually, they decided on grapes. So, with this decision and their initial planting of four acres of L’Acadie Blanc grapes, they became the eighth generation of Ells to farm on the hills at the base of the North Mountain.

As the vineyard grew and they began taking fruit off the vines, they quickly realized the fit between their land and the grapes they had planted. They soon surpassed their initial goal of 25 acres and currently have 32 acres under vine. Their plans for growth have not diminished. They have now increased that goal to 60 acres, and the planting of vines continues. For the first six years of the farm’s development, Steve continued to drive the truck to supplement the lack of a harvest and continued investing in the vineyard with new plantings. Just over a year ago, he sold the truck and is now only a farmer, making a go at being a commercial farmer and adding to the foundation of Nova Scotia wine.

Wonderful things are built from a solid foundation. The foundation rests below the ground and is often overlooked. We must recognize that it is the wineries that are at the heart of the industry. We must also recognize that the wineries are also farmers of grapes and the reason the industry exists. They are the building blocks that make the wine industry in Nova Scotia thrive. They craft the grapes into wine and offer an exceptional visitor experience. But with every end post that gets driven into our agriculture land, the building of our small wine industry continues.

The next time you are enjoying a Nova Scotia wine, remember that it is the growing of the grapes that yields the character of a wine. Appreciate the fact that exceptional wine is grown in fringe places. Take a moment to reflect that for every glass of Nova Scotia wine consumed, we have a farmer to thank. So to every grape grower out there, and if I could borrow some insightful words from AC/DC, we salute you!