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The Niagara Region – The Ideal Location for Vineyards

There are a number of factors that must be considered to assure successful grape production and the making of quality wine. These factors must be taken into account both when seeking to establish a new vineyard, or when maintaining an existing one.

The 4 most important factors are:

  1. Geography
  2. Soil Conditions
  3. Weather
  4. Grape Variety

1. Geography

The Effects of Bodies of Water

Lake Ontario and Lake Erie’s close proximity to the Niagara Region’s vineyards help to moderate the temperatures by storing heat during the summer months and releasing heat in the winter. This creates an ideal growing temperature range.

Wind Patterns

Off shore winds from Lake Ontario in the spring are cool, making the air temperature along the lakeshore cooler than along the escarpment. Therefore, the lakeshore area vineyards encounter a later bud break as compared to areas near the escarpment. The growing season along the lakeshore extends longer into the fall, since the winds will then blow warm from the heat that was stored in the lake during the summer, onto this area.

Effects of Wind Patterns and the Niagara Escarpment

The Niagara Escarpment acts as a buffer for the winds from Lake Ontario. As the warm air rises over the lake it moves across the land and is deflected by the escarpment. The winds then return to the lake in these continuous air flow patterns.

Benefits to Wind Patterns

Through the movement of air, late frosts are not a threat. The air motion throughout the growing season helps to eliminate moisture (dew and rain) on the berries and vines, aiding the production of a healthy harvest. During the growing season warm air is trapped between the escarpment and the lake to provide slightly higher temperatures than the surrounding areas.

An Ideal Latitude

Ontario’s wine regions are located between 41° and 44° north.
The world’s wine regions are between 30° and 50° north and south.
The traditional wine regions are between 40° and 50° north.

2. Soil Conditions in Niagara

The Niagara Region has excellent soil conditions for growing premium grape varieties.

Location: The lakeshore area of Niagara.
Character: Excellent drainage capabilities with little obtainable materials. Easy penetration allows the roots to search for the obtainable nutrients. These vineyards produce fruitier, crisper styles of wine with more acidity. The vineyards also tend to be more vigorous in leaf production.

Clay Loam
Location: Central Niagara
Character: Loam is a combination of sand, silt and clay. This area has more obtainable nutrients than sandy soil and will therefore impart different characteristics into the grape and ultimately the finished wine. Loam is not as porous as sand, therefore underground drainage systems are installed to disperse excess water.

Location: The Niagara Escarpment (Queenston and St. Davids area)
Character: The soil is heavy and full of obtainable nutrients. Excellent for the production of full, rich, warm characteristics in wines, such are desired in certain styles of Chardonnay and Cabernet. The roots tend to be slightly shallower here and do not have to reach great depths to find the nutrients needed. Vines tend to struggle in the clay soil, though this is desirable as it adds more character and intensity to the resulting wine. The hillsides in this area benefit from natural drainage but underground drainage is still used.

3. Weather and Climate

The growth and productivity of the grape vine is influenced by a number of climactic factors.

General Climactic Requirements

  • Sun: An average of at least 100 “sun days” in the growing season.
  • Heat from the Sun: Average degree of heat units (degree days) during the growing season and moderate winters. The average heat summation for Niagara ranges from 1240 to 1376 degree days. The degree days are calculated by using a base figure of 10°C, because below this temperature very little vine growth occurs. The base figure of 10°C is subtracted from the average temperature of the month and then multiplied by the number of days in the month. For example, if the average temperature was 20°C the heat units would be (20-10) * 30 = 300°C for a 30 day month.
  • Frost: Absence of early or late frosts. The average frost free days for Niagara are May 1 to October 20.
  • Rainfall: Moderate rainfall throughout the growing season. The average rainfall for Niagara is 30 inches or 76.2cm per year, with the ideal rainfall being 2 inches or 5cm per month during the growing season.
  • Wind: Moderate circulation.

4. Grape Variety

Not all grapes will make good wine. There are 1000’s of types of grapes; some are best for producing grape juice, some for raisin production and some for the making of wine. It is up to the producer (and grower) to select grape varieties that are appropriate for the growing conditions and the market demand. The following is a list of some of the grape varieties that thrive in the Niagara Region.

  • Chardonnay
  • Riesling
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Vidal
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Merlot
  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay

Niagara is quickly becoming recognized and respected as one of the premier wine producing regions worldwide.

Sources: Peller Estates training manuals; Wine for Dummies; Jackson-Triggs winery tours; Peller Estates winery tours; Hillebrandt winery tours; Niagara-on-the-Lake Tourism Commission.

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