A Fresh Look at Old Vines

A Fresh Look at Old Vines

Ten years after Redtail Vineyards first opened its doors, Lee Baker is giving it a fresh start. The original vineyard was modeled after high density European sites, with narrow row spacing designed for a horse and plough. The wines were made in a natural style, with low-intervention and sustainable principles carried from the vineyard to the cellar. But by 2018, the vineyard had fallen into disrepair. It was sold to Thomas Stallinga, a Dutch investor looking to develop a winery in the relatively young Prince Edward County region. He brought on vineyard consultants to assess the damage, and was heartbroken to find less than a quarter of the vines were alive. Thomas turned to Lee, a local winemaker with firsthand cold climate viticulture experience and a passion for natural winemaking, to come up with a plan. To rehabilitate what was left would have been risky. The Pinot block, seemingly ideally situated on a gentle, south-facing slope, terminated in a low-lying area prone to water retention. Any vines that did survive would be at risk for waterlogged soils and root rot in the future.

Wiping the Slate Clean

Lee made the difficult decision to pull the existing vines out, install drainage where needed, and replant the vineyards with wider row spacing to allow for safe tractor passage. The new vineyards will be Lee’s first chance to build the foundation for his wines from the ground up. His experience at a multitude of different wineries across three Canadian wine regions has taught him lessons about how to do it right, and—more importantly—how to improve.

The most paramount of all County viticulture problems, the overwintering of vines in extreme cold temperatures, is one Lee has become intimate with over the past few vintages. Fall 2018 was long, cold, and wet. The annual practice of cultivating the soil between vineyard rows and ploughing the loosened earth on top of the vines to create an insulating blanket is labour intensive at best. The constant onslaught of mud made it nearly impossible to drive a tractor through the vineyard. As the months went on, temperatures dropped, and the muddy soil began to freeze. In the end, most vineyards in the County made it safely underground. But there is a better way.

Some County wineries have begun experimenting with geotextiles—fabric designed to cover a crop and protect it from the wind and cold of Canadian winter. It has been a resounding success, with vineyards under geotextiles producing larger yields of higher quality fruit. Redtail will be the largest vineyard in the County completely under geotextile, with a purpose-built trellising system unique to the area.


A Vintage With No Vineyard

For now, Lee is working with what he has. No vineyards meant no fruit to harvest, and the current winery’s ongoing upgrades meant there was no place to process it even if he could find it. Redtail still had wine to bottle from their previous winemaking consultant, but to be a winemaker with no wine felt wrong.

Lee went on a mission to source fruit for 2019, calling on old friends and colleagues from his days in the Niagara wine industry to share the love. In what has been a difficult growing year for grapes, he was able to find Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Gamay—varietals that would one day grow in the Redtail vineyard. He found a temporary home at Hinterland Wine Company, working with winemaker Jonas Newman to share production equipment and cellar space.

The pieces have fallen into place, but the next few years hold many more challenges to come. While Lee waits for the Redtail vineyard to start producing, he hopes to source County fruit from nearby sites, keeping production close to home where he can keep an eye on vineyard management and quality. The fruits of these labours will make wines reflecting Lee’s hopes for Redtail’s future, with some from this vintage released as early as Spring 2020.