Cave Spring Cellars is classified as a sustainable grape grower and wine producer, which is to say that we intervene minimally in the vineyard and in the cellars in order to allow nature to take its course as much as possible in the growing of our grapes and the making of our wine. Our goal is to minimize our impact on the environment so as to preserve the natural world we live in for future generations, while recognizing the need to produce wines that meet the expectations of the marketplace, and are economically viable in the long term.
It is important to understand from the outset that the Niagara Peninsula’s cool, continental climate makes for very humid conditions during the growing season. Our region is, in fact, one of the highest-pressure viticultural areas in the world for harmful fungal diseases. These include powdery mildew (oidium), downy mildew, as well as botrytis bunch rot (grey rot) and black rot. It is important to note that there is no organic treatment available to combat black rot. In regions such as ours, fully organic grape growing is extremely difficult and can easily compromise the soundness of the fruit at harvest. This often leads to unnecessary and severe reductions in yield and a negative overall effect on wine quality.
The flipside of this, however, is that because our climate provides ample precipitation throughout the year, we do not need to irrigate. Irrigation is commonplace throughout the wine world, yet it is often forgotten that it can place great stress on the environment. Not only does irrigation deplete precious water sources in arid areas, but also it often requires great amounts of energy, as well as elaborate and environmentally invasive infrastructure, to distribute water over vast distances. Many organic wines come from drier climates that, while not experiencing high fungal pressure, do require irrigation. As a result, the sustainability of these wines can be called into question.
Nestled up against the Niagara Escarpment on a gentle slope of the Beamsville Bench, Cave Spring Vineyard has many natural advantages in terms of sustainability. The constant air turbulence at the vineyard caused by the collision of on-shore breezes from nearby Lake Ontario with the steep Escarpment cliff at the site is very important to our grapes. This wind helps to mitigate cold temperatures that may cause frost damage in the winter, spring and fall. One benefit of this is that we do not need the large, fossil fuel-burning fans that vineyards in other areas of Niagara employ to artificially create air movement. These natural breezes also aid in drying out the soil and grape canopy after rainfall, thereby helping to decrease humidity and lessen fungal disease pressure. Similarly, the gentle slopes and stony soils of our vineyard allow for natural water drainage, which also helps overall vine health. Unique to Cave Spring Vineyard is a series of ground water springs that supply highly mineralized ground water. These subterranean flows pass down through layers of sedimentary Escarpment rock above the site to the sub?soils of the vineyards below, helping to provide moisture to the vines during dry periods. In short, the natural attributes of climate and geology at Cave Spring Vineyard provide us with natural frost protection, water drainage, and irrigation, thereby lessening the need for environmentally demanding interventions.
At Cave Spring Cellars, we believe that to produce the best wines you must begin with the cleanest fruit possible. Above all, this means controlling fungal infections on the vine and its fruit. In certified organic vineyards, these diseases are controlled mainly using the natural elements of sulphur and copper, along with sodium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite, all of which we employ extensively. In fact, these materials comprise 30 to 50% of our fungicide regime, depending upon the season. However, if these substances are used to the exclusion of other treatments, toxic accumulations of the heavy metal copper, in particular, can build up in the soil to the point where they impede the uptake of vital nutrients by the vine’s roots, thereby threatening overall vine health. Moreover, the frequency of application in an organic spray regime is increased by up to two times that of a more balanced, sustainable program. By implementing a treatment regime that balances organic and synthetic elements we use 40% less fuel. Overall, this program has lowered our carbon footprint and has contributed to healthy soil and crop productivity. Additional spray treatments necessitated by organic methods involve a significant increase in tractor usage and, hence, greater fossil fuel consumption and soil compaction. The latter is particularly detrimental to soil structure and microbiology, thus compromising the health of the vine’s root system.
Weed proliferation is another threat that can increase fungal disease pressure if left unchecked. On this front, we also employ a mixture of techniques. For example, we sow a mixture of grasses between the rows that impede weed growth, prevent erosion and improve nutrient levels and water availability in the soil. We also hill-up the soil beneath the vine canopy in the fall.
This is done partly to protect the vine trunk from winter injury, especially for younger vines. More importantly though, hilling?up helps to control weeds beneath the vines. Come springtime, as the weeds begin to sprout, the hill of earth is tilled, thereby preventing weed proliferation. This form of mechanical cultivation is repeated during the growing season and serves not just to stunt weed growth, but also to till and aerate the soil. Most importantly, this technique allows for increased airflow beneath the vines which in turn aids in preventing harmful mildews and molds from developing in the vine’s fruiting zone, thereby reducing the frequency of fungicide treatment. While we are continually working to reduce our use of herbicides, we do apply them sparingly to supplement mechanical methods, always selecting materials for their ability to control specific weeds while minimizing their impact on the natural environment of the vineyard floor.
Another threat in the vineyard is insects, which is generally not a major problem in the Niagara Peninsula. Unlike more temperate wine regions, our northern climate has the advantage of cold winters that naturally control insect populations of all kinds. Where there are threats, however, we use natural methods as much as possible. By maintaining healthy ground cover and soil conditions, we provide an environment in and around our vineyards that encourages the proliferation of beneficial predatory insects to control pests such as grape berry moth, leafhoppers and mites. Pest populations are measured and scouted parcel by parcel and any intervention using insecticides is highly targeted and absolutely minimized.
As the grape clusters reach veraison and continue to ripen through to harvest, certain bird species become an issue in our region. Starlings, in particular, can ravage the crop by damaging clusters, which, in turn, can cause the rapid spread of rot. In addition to the use of re-usable netting to protect vulnerable areas of our vineyards, our site also benefits in this regard from its unique environment. The spectacular limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment above Cave Spring Vineyard provide the perfect natural habitat for many species of predatory raptors, including Red-tailed, Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks as well as Northern Goshawks and Turkey Vultures. We manage the forests surrounding our vineyards so as to attract these rare and beneficial birds of prey, many of which help greatly in warding off flocks of Starlings.
One final aspect of our vineyard management is soil management. Here we implement completely natural techniques. For example, we make our own compost, which is composed of manure from local farmers and grape pressings (pomace) from our own wine production, spreading it throughout our vineyards. As well, the selection of grasses that we sow between the rows, which helps to squeeze out unwanted weeds and discourage erosion, is tilled into the soil annually. Both of these techniques are designed to augment the organic matter in our soils and maintain healthy soil ecology.
Cave Spring Vineyard is blessed with very balanced soil structure throughout its many parcels. The soils are quite rich and fertile given that they were largely fallow fields and pasture prior to the establishment of the first vines in 1974. As a result, very few additions are needed to supplement the natural fertility of our soils. However, to ensure a proper balance in the vine canopy, soil and leaf samples are analyzed throughout the growing season. From this information, nutrient amendments of nitrogen, potassium, calcium and magnesium, along with micronutrients, are made, but only when necessary. As well, foliar applications of kelp and calcium are sprayed to help elongate the clusters and strengthen the berry skins in an effort to combat the onset of fungal disease.
Many of the practices and controls that we employ in the vineyard are natural and sustainable. However, if disease undoes the great effort that goes into training the vine from bud break through harvest, resulting in great loss of yield, winemaking quickly becomes economically unsustainable. With this in mind, we find that an integrated approach using natural techniques and elements as much as possible to prevent disease, combined with highly targeted and minimal interventions only when necessary, provides for an optimal balance of sound fruit, soil conservation, vine health and above all, wine quality.
Upon receiving our grapes at the winery our philosophy is to allow the sound, ripe fruit that we harvest to be expressed vividly in the finished wine. Our intention is that the unique nature of our vineyard be captured with precision and detail in the glass. This is accomplished by minimizing intervention at every step in the winemaking process. For example, we use a variety of yeasts, including indigenous and selected strains, and avoid the use of enzymes that are used by many vintners to increase juice yield at the press and enhance aromatics. Due to the attention to detail in our vineyards and high quality of our fruit at harvest, we also avoid the use of energy intensive and highly invasive technology such as reverse osmosis. It’s also worth noting that after fermentation we absolutely minimize the use of additives with the exceptions of sulphur for preservation (especially in the whites), and, occasionally, natural fining agents for tannin management in the reds. As well, while many vintners utilize ascorbic acid as a preservative in white wines, we completely avoid its use. For the wines that require oak ageing we rely on traditional oak barrels and eschew the use of oak derivatives such as chips and staves. Finally, it is important to remember that sulphur is a natural by-product of fermentation and, therefore, present in all wines. Again, because we start with very sound fruit from our vineyards, we add only minimal amounts of sulphur to our finished wines. In sum, from press to bottle, we endeavor to absolutely minimize the use of additives and simplify the winemaking process. By making our wines as naturally as possible, we are able to reduce our energy draw hence the carbon footprint involved in our winemaking.
It is also worth noting that Cave Spring Cellars is located in a village setting with access to municipal water supplies. As a result, there is no need for water to be transported to our facility or to tap into local aquifers to supply our needs. In 2015 we installed an in-house wastewater treatment system, which uses natural bacteria to pre-treat wastewater prior to entering the municipal sewer system. This treatment means that the municipal infrastructure is not overburdened by wastewater discharged from the winery. Cave Spring’s wastewater treatment system is a pioneering initiative in the development of sustainable practices within the food and beverage industry in North America.
To learn more about our wastewater treatment system, please refer to the following news and video links:
Our facility is also located in what was an abandoned winery with underground cellars dating back to 1870. By renovating an existing building, we have preserved a major piece of Ontario’s winemaking history, and returned it to its original purpose. As such, we reversed the decay of a useful structure, avoiding the energy-intensive alternative of new construction as well as the wasteful land-use associated with building on prime viticultural land. This choice has also significantly reduced our carbon footprint by virtue of the fact that 80% of our production cellars are located underground, greatly reducing the need for electricity by allowing the natural movement of the wines in the winemaking process to occur in large part by gravity, and also reducing the power needed to chill or heat these spaces. Furthermore, the temperature control of our storage warehouse is powered entirely by solar panels. In fact, the surplus energy generated by these panels returns enough power to the local grid to offset 25% of our total electricity consumption. Our commitment to diminishing our carbon emissions is further reinforced by the fact that we are converting all of our lighting fixtures to LED technology, which will reduce overall energy usage in our winery and vineyard buildings by an additional 25%.
In bottling our wines, we use lightweight glass for the majority of our releases, greatly reducing greenhouse emissions resulting from the transport of our wines to markets in Canada, the USA and overseas. As well, by choosing cork closures for many (though not all) of our wines, we employ an organic material that is entirely renewable. In the printing of our labels we rely upon state-of-the-art technology that is not only among the most energy efficient available, but also completely eliminates the use of harmful polymers and metals and greatly reduces volatile organic compound emissions as well as landfill waste. We have also streamlined our production and packaging processes at the winery to the point where we divert 93% of our solid waste materials away from landfill and into recycling streams. Finally, in the transport of our wines we have eliminated shrink-wrap film in the stabilization of cased goods – a technique that is commonly used throughout the world – thus greatly reducing the amount of plastic waste directed to landfill sites around the globe. In short, we work to minimize our impact on the environment at every step in the packaging of our wines.