Autumn marks the beginning of the wine harvest in Europe as well as on the Prairies, with many wine-loving Manitobans raising a glass year-round to the fruits of their labours.
On November 11, a date that in past centuries was observed as Thanksgiving, some will celebrate the Feast of St. Martin's, patron saint of winemakers.
Artisanal grape growers in Manitoba harvest their hand-picked crop each September. The fruit is pressed in makeshift areas in their basements and garages, yielding juice or wine, then stored in freezers or wine cellars for enjoyment at mealtime, celebrations or whenever friends and family get together.
Tom Menold, a Carman-area farmer who moved to Manitoba from Germany about 30 years ago, comes from a long line of grape growers. Back home, his family has been making wine for several generations and have its own wine label.
"Grape-growing is in my blood," said Menold, a grain farmer who has been experimenting for 25 years with different varieties of grapes purchased from across the country. Today, his tree-sheltered Tobacco Creek Road vineyard grows 400 grapevines, some of them 15 to 18 years old. Not all of them are named varieties or hardy to our climate.
Menold has tried growing both chardonnay and merlot grapes, but lost them. He's also experimented with cabernet sauvignon grapevines and a Pinot Noir variety with similar results. "The vines were growing, but the fruiting buds would not mature," he said.
Lending assistance with this year's harvest were Ulrich Menold, Tom's brother who lives about a half-mile away, and good friend Murray Dudgeon. Ulrich has a smaller vineyard with 150 plants and Dudgeon, who lives in the town of Carman, has eight vines in his backyard and another 140 on his farm.
Carman's sandy loam soil is suitable for growing most types of grapes, which need good drainage. Tom Menold's deeply rooted grapevines are grown on a trellis system in long rows -- the image is exactly what you might expect to see in a traditional vineyard. Dependent on natural precipitation for irrigation, the vines reach a height of about seven feet and have been trained to grow on lateral wires strung between wooden posts. A piece of rebar, sunk into the ground, is used to assist the vine in reaching the trellis wire.
In the fall, the occasional beer bottle can be seen suspended from wire for the purpose of trapping wasps, which can do considerable damage to grapes (and are also a hazard for pickers).
"They crawl right inside the grape and eat it from the inside out," Menold said. " Only the skin and seed are left."
Other threats to his grape harvest include birds, deer, raccoons, and Asian ladybugs or sap beetle (also called picnic or beer beetle). In order to keep out deer, a high fence surrounding the vineyard on three sides combines with a moveable net 'curtain' strung along a wire that can be pulled so equipment and workers can get into the vineyard. An artificial owl has had some success in scaring off birds.
While this has been a banner year for growing grapes, two years ago Menold's crop suffered badly as a result of minimal snow cover. For winter protection, Menold takes more tender varieties down from the trellis and pegs the canes to the ground, much like tender rose canes, to ensure bud survival over the winter.
Dudgeon is working on creating a lower trellis for his crop that will make it harder to pick the grapes during harvest time but will ensure more snow cover.
Each year the new growth dies off.
"An immature greenish branch has a lot of water in it," Menold said. "When it matures and turns brown, it has more sugar in it, which acts like antifreeze and it doesn't die off from the cold."
While temperature and soil quality are a major factor in quality grape production, proper pruning is critical in order to ensure strong vines and large clusters of grapes. Menold prunes in April with some additional pruning in summer.
The hand-picked bunches of grapes, harvested by cutting the stalk with pruners, are used for homemade grape juice and wine. Some of the freshly pressed grape juice is given away to friends and the rest is frozen. The shelf life in the fridge is only a week because there are no additives or preservatives.
Menold owns a 180-litre bladder press with a perforated stainless-steel mesh on the inside and cheesecloth in the liner. Air pressure inflates the central bladder, pressing the juice out through the perforated sides. The rich wine-coloured juice flows out and is pumped into stainless-steel vats.
Dudgeon's wine 'press' is in the form of a pot and a potato masher. Nevertheless, he made 54 litres of wine. "Do you know how much stomping it would take to get that much juice? You get a pretty good yield in a crop's third year," he said, adding his attempts are not always drinkable but rather a work in progress.
"If it tastes a little rough, my wife, Lorraine, cooks with it. A cup of wine in your stew tenderizes the meat nicely."
Dudgeon, a serious gardener who grows multiple vegetable crops on a large scale, said more and more northern states are getting into grape production. South Dakota, for example has 20 vineyards. The University of Minnesota has a wine grape research program that evaluates wine produced from experimental grape varieties.
Graduate student Tyler Kaban at the University of Saskatchwan's widely respected fruit program is cross-breeding a number of superior wine grapes, including pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. His research is sure to have a promising impact on grape-growing and winemaking on the Prairies. For detailed information on hardy grape varieties for Manitoba, visit www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture.
Frank Ferlaino grows Vitis Vinifera Strawberry grapes on a trellis in his Winnipeg backyard for the pleasure of eating fresh, but the harvest is not enough to make a quantity of wine.
This year, Ferlaino bought 11 cases of cabernet sauvignon and three cases of merlot grapes from DeLuca's. Both types are red grapes from the Bordeaux region of France and, combined, should result in a very dry wine, enough for a one-year supply.
"You can use any mix you want," said Ferlaino, whose family in Cetona, Tuscany, has their own vineyard and label, Ferlaino Hand Crafted Wines, growing between 40 and 50 different varieties of grape.
"All grapes taste different, even if they have the same name. The flavour depends on the quality of the soil they are grown in as well as the weather; for example, how much it rained. The quality of the grape you use is directly related to the quality of wine produced."
Ferlaino has tried store-bought kits but has not been satisfied with the results. His main concern is the kits may contain preservatives or added flavours, whereas his homemade wine has only one ingredient: grapes. No additives or yeast.
The grapes are pressed in Ferlaino's neat and tidy garage using a wooden-basket ratchet-style fruit and wine press or torque. This is the traditional way, outside of crushing the grapes with your feet, something Ferlaino has tried in the past. The pressed, de-stemmed juice, or mosto, is removed from a waiting pail to a fermentation container made of wood and cast iron where the grapes are squeezed again. September's outdoor temperatures of 20 to 22 C were ideal in order for this step to be completed in about five days. Ferlaino times his wine-making so that by November 11 the wine is ready to be either bottled or stored in 54-litre glass vats that are equipped with taps and stored in a cold room, or cantina, in his basement. The wine will be allowed to age for about five or six months at an optimum temperature of 10 to 12 C.
Tempted to try growing grapevines next year but want to start out (really) small? Next spring, look for pinot meunier pixie, a natural dwarf grapevine that you can grow on your windowsill and promises clusters of deep purple grapes.