From Vine to VQA Wine: Our Sustainable Niagara Winery
Ever wonder how wine goes from vineyards full of fruit to a unique glass that you enjoy with dinner? The journey from vine to VQA wine is a carefully thought-out process where every step plays an important role in how the flavours and aromas end up in your glass (from the soil the grapes are grown in, to the climate where the vines begin to transform from buds and finally the picking of the grapes at harvest time). The natural environment around us is a key factor when it comes to wine production, and while we can’t always control the environment, creating a sustainable process is essential and manageable. At every step of the way, Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery is following Sustainable Winemaking Ontario standards to ensure the land we’ve had for six generations remains healthy and viable for the future generations.
Here’s a breakdown of our ‘Vine to Glass’ Journey:
Where it Grows
Much of the credit for the character of a VQA wine produced goes to the soil the grapes are grown in. Our soils are heavy, clay-like soils which yield smaller plants which produce fruit of higher quality and more flavour. Much of our land is subject to large amounts of watershed and so to help protect the roots of our vines from the excess water and to prevent soil erosion, our vineyards are under-drained. This practice provides the opportunity to improve the quality of the groundwater that both enters and leaves our Niagara winery.
Time to Harvest
From good soil, grows good fruit. Knowing when to harvest the grapes is the next step. Wine grapes get harvested in September or October, with the only exception being for ice wine where the grapes get harvested in the winter months when they are fully frozen. Winemakers will look at the colour of the grapes, the colour of the stems and look for that sweet flavour to know when the fruit is ready to pick. The natural world has a way of telling us when the fruits are ready…the birds flock to eat the ripe fruit. At Henry of Pelham, we have adopted a practice of leaving dead trees for falcons to perch in, this benefits us as the falcons scare off the grape eating birds during harvest. Our Ontario winery is also home to many woodland creatures as we’ve created wildlife corridors in order for them to share the space. To protect our grapes from these friends, we use reusable fine mesh netting. Once it’s been determined that the fruit is ready to go, it is either picked by hand or machine depending on the wine and sorted to ensure all grapes going into VQA wine are of good quality.
Once the ripe grapes have been picked and sorted, it is time to get the juice out. The grapes are destemmed and then crushed, lightly breaking the skins of the grapes. Depending on the wine that is being made, the grapes will either be pressed and have the skins removed, for white wine, or the skins will be left on for fermentation for red wines, such as our world famous Baco Noir. The colour of a wine comes from the amount of contact that the juice has with the skin of the grapes. In our practice of being a more sustainable Niagara winery, much of our leftover materials including skins, seeds and stems are organic so we compost them and then return it to the soil. After the grapes have been crushed and/ or pressed they are transferred to prepare for the fermentation process.
The Fermentation Process
The fermentation stage is where the magic happens. This is when the sugars in the juice turn into alcohol and VQA wine is made. The fermentation happens when yeast is added into the tanks. The fermentation process can take a few days to a couple of weeks depending on the wine variety.
Once the fermentation process is complete, red wines are pressed to remove the seeds, skins and pulp. During this stage some filtration takes place as the wine moves into tanks or barrels and most solids and precipitates are left behind. Then comes the hardest part-waiting. The VQA wines are aged in oak barrels to add more complexity and depth to the flavour, or stainless steel tanks to allow the wine to evolve on its own. In order to regulate the temperature of the tanks at this time (while keeping our energy use to a minimum), we’ve wrapped our steel tanks in foil-coated bubble wrap. It’s not the most glamorous, but it keeps our carbon footprint down. For the same reason, we’ve designed our Niagara winery in a way that allows us to regulate temperatures in different areas independently and often with natural air from outside. Our cellar for our barrels is underground which takes advantage of the naturally cooler temperature which the ground offers. The aging process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on the desired outcome of the wine.
Bottling and Enjoying
When a VQA wine has aged for that perfect amount of time, it’s time to bring it out to be enjoyed. After a wine is done aging, it may go through a filtration process to remove any unwanted sediment. This extra filtration is sometimes skipped depending on the winemaker’s vision. Once a wine has been bottled, the last step on the journey is to be sipped and enjoyed.