02/08/2014 06:30 EST | Updated 04/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Polar Vortex Claims Another Victim: Ontario Grapes

Image by Jason Bouwman via Getty Images

For Ontario grape grower Hank Hunse, 2014 will be remembered as “the year of the grape-killer cold.”

In a newsletter to his customers last week, Hunse, who owns the winery Small Talk Vineyards, said he has lost almost all of his Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc crops for 2014 due to the extreme cold.

The lack of lake effect may have contributed to the damage, Hunse said. Cold-air masses usually come from the northwest and warm up as they cross Lake Ontario. This winter, however, the cold winds came mostly from the west.

While some Ontario grapes seem to have fallen victim to this winter's notorious polar vortex, experts say it's too early to tell the extent of the damage.

The final verdict on how this winter will have affected the sensitive perennial crops won't be available until June, according to Grape Growers of Ontario's CEO Debbie Zimmerman.

The organization, which represents over 500 grape growers in the province, is currently collecting samples at vineyards across the province to study the buds, Zimmerman said. Starting in spring, it will also look at vine health.

“If the vines have been affected, that's when we have broader concerns,” she said.

Jim Willwerth, senior scientist in viticulture at Brock University, echoed Zimmerman's sentiment.

"It's only February. We don't know what this winter is going to bring at the end of the day," he told CBC Hamilton.

Grapes' cold-hardiness is location and variety-specific, said Willwerth, who oversees the university's Vine Alert program that tracks the survival rate of grape buds. For example, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc are three of the most sensitive crops, he said.

There have also been "hits and misses" across  the province, Willwerth said. Vineyards on Lake Erie's north shore are more vulnerable than those on the Niagara Peninsula and in Prince Edward County.

High-quality ice wine crop

What does all this mean to consumers?

The damage doesn't immediately translate to empty wine racks, both Zimmerman and Willwerth said, thanks to the surplus from previous years that saw mild winter and balmy temperatures.

Hunse also said he has enough inventory to last him for two seasons.

The bitter cold also means an early harvest season for ice wine, resulting in "a very high quality crop," Hunse said.

Because of the reduced crop, however, Hunse informed his customers that he will be increasing the prices for both red and white wines to mitigate the loss.

Like many growers, Hunse carries crop insurance, but it's not enough to cover all the cost, he said.

That's a trend that can be expected across the industry, he said.

“If I see a 10-per-cent increase in the next few months, I wouldn't be surprised,” he told CBC Hamilton.

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