Summer in the Vineyard

…A chat with veteran Ontario winemaker Derek Barnett

By Shirley Roy – Savvy Sommelier

Derek Barnett driving tractor at Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County. Photo Credit: Sherry Karlo

Over his 30 years of experience as a winemaker, Derek Barnett has spent a lot of time both inside a winery amongst the barrels and tanks as well as outside in acres of vineyards. As one of Ontario’s highly acclaimed winemakers, Derek is the winemaker for Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County and operates his own virtual winery, Meldville Wines in Niagara.

While working in the vineyard one day, I chatted with Derek to get a snapshot of some of the important things that happen  during the growing season. Here’s his inside scoop about what happens over the summer!

“The work actually starts before the snow has completely melted. We’ll do a lot of pruning of the vines in March & April to prepare for the upcoming growing season. It’s always wonderful to get back into the vineyard after the winter sleep…I see it as a new beginning and like to imagine what wonderful wines will be made from this vintage.

“Sometime in May, depending on how warm the Spring weather is, we will usually see the buds appearing on the vines – what we call ‘bud break’. Once the buds are out, the vineyard crew will start the work to thin out the buds if necessary, to ensure there’s no overcrowding on the vines and allow for proper airflow. Those new buds will flower within a couple weeks and usually the flowers last until mid-June, when the tiny baby grapes start to appear.

“We also spend a lot of time in the spring managing the emerging weeds, just like in flower and vegetable gardens. Weeds can take away important nutrients & moisture from the vines so there’s constant work to keep them under control.  

Working in a vineyard will definitely keep you in shape!

“By June, the vineyard crew walks up and down the rows again with cutters, this time to remove the small shoots or suckers that have grown on grapevine trunks in the spring. These shoots suck energy, water and nutrients away from developing fruit. This process, called ‘suckering’, is done by hand and requires constant bending down & getting up.

“By July, the grapes are growing and so are new leafy canes. Those canes need to be constantly tucked into the wire trellis to make the vines stand up rather than flop down and cover the fruit. The grape bunches need sunlight to grow. We always hope for a little rain, though, as the vast majority of Ontario vineyards do not have elaborate irrigation systems. Vines do benefit from dry conditions though, as it forces the roots to go deeper in search of moisture and minerals.

Excitement builds in late Summer as the grapes ripen. 

“In August, we do ongoing trimming, or ‘hedging’. We don’t want really tall vines, so at a certain point this month we cut them at the top and trim them, so the vine directs more energy into growing the fruit rather than growing leaves. The vineyard team does a lot of leaf pulling to expose the grape bunches, which allows for airflow through the vines and discourages fungus and mildew growing on the leaves and grapes. More & more vineyards are turning to organic & sustainable growing practices to control weeds & prevent rot on the grapes. 

“By mid to late August, red grape varieties go through véraison – the ripening process of grape bunches changing from green (looks like green peas) to red or purple in color. Véraison always signals that harvest is not far away – usually 45 to 48 days!

“In September, winemakers like myself start walking in the vineyard almost daily to check sugar and acid levels in the grapes. We need to keep an eye on the sugar and acid levels in the grapes as achieving a balance in those is important when making harvest decisions, but of course Mother Nature plays a role in everything, including the timing of the harvest.

“Harvest can start anywhere between the end of August to mid-September in Ontario and it continues until all of the grapes are collected. Depending on the weather, this could be anywhere between mid to late November.”

While many of us likely imagine a Summer in the vineyard experience to be sitting down among the vines while sipping on a glass of delicious wine, Derek and many, many others are working in the vineyard all season to ensure top notch grapes are growing so we can have top notch wines!

So the next time you’re able to visit one of the many beautiful vineyards in Canada’s wine regions, think of Derek and all the other hardworking winemakers & vineyard workers while you’re sipping on their great wine.  All of us on the Savvy Team raise a glass to them and look forward to discovering the latest bottles and sharing them with you in our wine club, online tasting events & Savvy Care Packages!  

A lot of fingerprints go into making a great bottle of wine.



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