Niagara College Teaching Winery pioneers rare vines in Niagara

Ron Giesbrecht, faculty and coordinator of Niagara College’s wine programs, is pictured with newly-planted Georgian vines at Niagara College Teaching Winery’s on-campus vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Rare grape varieties from the oldest viticultural region in the world have arrived in Niagara and have taken root in Niagara College’s teaching vineyards.

On June 24, College practicum students and staff planted Georgian vines at the Niagara College Teaching Winery’s on-campus vineyards, located at the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus.

“Some of the grape varieties are thousands of years old, originating in the cradle of the vinifera wine and the viticultural/winemaking ground zero 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains,” said Ron Giesbrecht, faculty and coordinator of the College’s wine programs who initiated the project.

Giesbrecht became interested in planting the Georgian varieties due to reports of their high cold tolerance – the importance of which has been made clear during severe damage to certain varieties in Niagara during the past two winters. More than 470 vines from 11 Georgian grape varieties were sent to the College, ordered through Agriculture Canada via the research plantings of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Vancouver Island, B.C. where they were grown in quarantine to develop. Niagara College’s teaching vineyard was given priority in the dissemination of new varieties due to it its institutional research status. Vine Tech Nurseries of Niagara-on-the-Lake completed the grafting and propagation work before the vines were delivered to the College.

Geisbrecht noted that the Georgian vine varieties have never been tested in Niagara and are not grown widely in any other wine region in the world. Until recently, Georgian wines have been isolated from the modern wine world and have been distributed primarily in the Soviet Union where they have been very highly regarded. Now, trade restrictions have stopped the flow of Georgian wines to Russia and the CIS and the country has opened them up to the rest of the world.

According to Giesbrecht, the vines are expected to produce fruit in a few years, as early as 2017. Whether the new varieties yield improved grapes well suited to the Niagara region remains to be seen; however, the rare vines plant the seed for exciting and unique academic opportunities for Niagara College students. Giesbrecht noted that the unique vines will expose students to ancient winemaking techniques that were practiced with the varieties in Georgia.

“I doubt that there are any similar plantings at institutions in North America, and it would be very uncommon or unlikely anywhere in the world, outside of Georgia, for students to have the opportunity to work with some of these varieties,” he said. 

The unique genetic material of the vines may also open up future research opportunities for the College, with the possibility of using them in combination with other varieties to maintain their desired advantages.

“We will be the pioneers for these varieties under our conditions,” said Giesbrecht. “It may not work out at all, but there may also be the next ‘new and improved’ grape that is very well suited to our region – yet is also very old.”

Niagara College is home to the first and only commercial teaching winery in Canada.

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