It's a week before Christmas, it's 7 degrees Celsius outside, and it's pissing rain all over Quebec.
A year ago, the province was getting pummelled by snow in one of the most brutal winters in recent memory, but this time around, Quebec looks more like the Pacific Northwest than le grand nord Canadien.
"Last winter was brutal. It made no fucking sense how cold it was," Jean Joly says. "Because my vines were protected and buried, it was fine. The only ones that didn't survive were my merlot."
Normally, losing that much merlot would be a crisis for any vineyard, but Joly is the owner of Vignoble du Marathonien in Havelock, Quebec, where he makes a wide range of wines—the most sought-after of which is his ice wine.
For those uninitiated with the golden nectar of the North, ice wine is a very intense, very sweet dessert wine made from grapes that have been frozen on the vine. It's a process which naturally extracts water by freezing it, thus concentrating the sugar of each grape and giving the wine its signature sweetness. Obviously, for this to happen, you need a lot of cold weather, which is why Canada is a global leader in ice wine production.
Given that frost is quite literally the mortal enemy of grapevines, Canadian winemakers have to resort to pretty extreme means of protection to protect their harvest. These methods include burying the vines underground, installing huge frost towers, or even renting helicopters to fly over vineyards and keep as much cold air away from the vines as possible.
Ice wine makers, on the other hand, actually welcome the cold, and with a particularly warm winter ahead, many ice wine producers are having to contend with an entirely new set of challenges. "I've been making wine here for 25 years," Joly says. "And this is the first time that it's been so warm so late in the year, and it's looking like it's going to stay this way until early January."
While many wine producers in the province are embracing warmer temperatures and seizing the opportunity to grow Vinis vinifera grapes like chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet—inconceivable a generation ago—ice wine production is actually averse to the sharp climb in temperature. "The danger right now is that the grapes are very soft right now and very fragile," says Joly. "If it were colder, the grapes would be better protected."
The structural issues of the grape are complicated by the fact that not just any frozen grape can be used to make ice wine. It's a tightly controlled industry, and in order to be classified as a proper ice wine, the grapes have to reach a temperature of –8 degrees Celsius. Right now, at 7 degrees, it's about 15 degrees too warm.
As a result, there is a possibility that the Marathonien vineyard makes no ice wine at all this year. "It's too early to tell," says Joly. "I haven't made a decision yet. But if things continue like this until mid-January, then it's something we're going to have to consider. We have no choice but to adapt to the climate."
But for Joly, a former engineer for the province's electricity monopoly Hydro Québec who also taught electrical engineering in university, these challenges have to be approached with rigour. "There is no direct link between winemaking—which is more about chemistry—and engineering, but there is an indirect one. You need to be disciplined and systematic, which is something that's served me well in managing a vineyard and making wines."
Given how intimately related ice wine production is to cold weather, it's no surprise that Quebec winemakers have an ambivalent relationship with climate change. "For winemakers in Quebec, climate change is, fortunately and unfortunately, beneficial. It's unfortunate for the planet but, as a winemaker, you have to adapt and take advantage of the climate."
But Joly isn't taking this winter's warming lightly, and for him, while this year may be exceptional, it fits into a larger picture of global warming—a trend he says he's noticed in the 25 years since he took ownership of Marathoniens.
"They're predicting that Ontario won't be able to grow ice wine within the next 20 years, because it will be too hot," he says. "I think in Quebec, we'll be OK for at least the next 15 years, but who knows? Climate change is a real thing, I firmly believe it. I'm a member of the board of the Québec Winegrowers Association and this seems to be the consensus among winegrowers."
With this gloomy (and balmy) forecast, it's not surprising that Joly, like other forward-looking winemakers in Quebec, is looking to grow grapes which are almost impossible to accommodate a few years ago. "We're experimenting right now, but I think it's going to happen. I've been growing merlot here for 20 years; we also have so cabernet. We're already getting three more weeks every season over the last two decades. The number of growing degree days is also on the rise, on average."
Earlier this year, MUNCHIES spoke with climate experts and winemakers about how climate change could actually be a plus for the province's wine industry. "For the wine industry, it will be good. Winters will be less harsh most of the time," climatologist Philippe Roy said. "The probability of having a winter as cold as the last two is decreasing. It's not the ideal place to grow Vitis vinifera, but it could become more widespread in coming decades. Still, our winters will remain a problem even in 2050."
For Joly, the writing's on the wall. There may be more and more scientific data pointing towards changing vegetation in Quebec, but you don't need a weatherman to know which way the grapes grow.
"It's slowly changing. It won't be overnight, but my Vinis vinifera are doing much better since last year, compared to when I planted them 20 years ago. Look at France: in Côtes du Rhône, they're up to 14 percent ABV. It's getting too hot there. It's all moving north in France. But, you can't put all of your eggs in one basket, either. We're really at the mercy of the temperature."
Clearly, as in all things weather-related, there is a lot of uncertainty right now, but the name of Joly's vineyard, "Marathonien" suggests that he's in it for the long haul.
"It's a metaphor for running. I was a marathon runner for a long time. Making wine in Quebec is not easy, it's like being a marathon runner, you need endurance, perseverance, will power, and you have to be a little bit crazy."