About PIWI Grapes
PIWI Grape Varieties
PIWI Canada Issues
PIWI grape varieties are the future of the wine industry. However, there are specific issues for Canadian Grape Growers that need to be resolved before these grapes can be fully adopted in the industry.
Administrative PIWI Issues
1. Hybrid vs Vinifera Designation for Grape Growers
Because the Grape Growers of Ontario uses a pre-negotiated price schedule for each ton of grapes harvested and priced by the variety, depending on the future designation of PIWI grapes on the schedule, there could be a significant decrease in income for a grower. If a PIWI variety is designated as a hybrid/experimental grape, it could result in roughly 50% to 70% less income compared to vinifera varieties.
For example, an experimental white hybrid variety (Class 7c) in the 2022 Grape Growers processing schedule would be valued at $555 per ton. In contrast, an Experimental White Vinifera (Class 9h) would have a processing value of $1504 per ton, which means new PIWI grapes will only be valued at 37% of their vinifera counterpart, which could easily sway growers from planting these varieties.
Obviously, wineries do not have the same incentive as growers, but when it comes to achieving a critical mass of support behind these varieties, it could be a difference maker.
2. Labrusca content for VQA Designation
Currently, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) requires 0% labrusca parentage in a grape variety for it to be considered a VQA-designated wine. Of the PIWI grape varieties known to be available to Canadian growers, only two are free from Vitis Labrusca parentage (Monarch and Muscaris).
From the VQA website: “More specifically, hybrids with Vitis labrusca parentage are not permitted to be used in any VQA wines.”
And in Section III of the VQA Assessment & Evaluation of New Grape Varieties Policy states, “Proof of 0% labrusca parentage (Labrusca grapes are not permitted for commercial wine production in Ontario).”
However, the VQA has already approved multiple grape varieties with Vitis labrusca in their parentage, including Chambourcin, Marquette, Chancellor and Villard Noir, for varietal designation. And there are multiple varieties used in blending that have labrusca parentage, including Chelios, De Chaunac, Verdelet, GM 322-58, GM 318-57, GM 311-58.
It remains to be determined whether these were accidental/poorly researched designations, but reversing approval may be more difficult for the VQA.
3. Non-VQA Wines Have Additional Fees
Non-VQA wineries pay 28% more in provincial taxes/fees than their VQA counterparts when selling to restaurants. Since many of the PIWI grape varieties cannot be approved as VQA under the current requirements due to Vitis lubrusca content, this is another significant barrier to adopting PIWI grapes.
Artisan wineries want Ontario to drop extra restaurant fees for non-VQA bottles | CBC News
A group of small Ontario wineries says a levy for selling non-VQA bottles to local restaurants goes against the Ford government's "open for business" mantra.
4. Licensing Issues for Protected Varieties
European research facilities will license their varieties. However, in most cases, they will give a single North American license to a specific vine propagator. For example, Amberg Vines in New York has the North American license for the Frieberg varieties (e.g. Muscaris, Monarch, Cabernet Cortis, etc.) and Novavine in California has the license for the Italian varieties (e.g. Soreli, Cabernet Volos, etc.). That means Canadian propagators cannot create a domestic supply of vines until the patent protection expires, which is typically 25 years after registration. For example, Muscaris from the University of Frieberg was granted protection in 2012, so it will not be free of restrictions until 2037. Monarch was granted protection in 2004, so in 2029 it may be propagated without restrictions.
Because of the single North American license issue, there is an extra layer of expense (import fees) and difficulty (shipping and additional paperwork) when sourcing these varieties. Some US companies choose not to export to Canada because of the paperwork and hassle. There is also the issue that as PIWI vines grow in popularity, US suppliers may decide to focus on their local market and avoid exporting to Canada, especially if border issues create problems, such as pest and disease concerns, like Spotted Lanternfly or other quarantine issues.
5. Importing New Varieties
With new import regulations already in effect, it is becoming highly unlikely that modern PIWI vines can be imported from Europe by conventional means. The current requirement by the CFIA requires extensive documentation of disease testing and quarantine of propagation blocks from exporting countries. France is currently the only country that can export vines to Canada and the new Canadian requirements would require extensive procedure and risk analyses by other exporters, like JKI in Germany, that would take at least 4 years for them to implement. Unfortunately, for a small market like Canada, this is not worth their time or effort to rewrite their current procedures. The following is from JKI in Germany about meeting the new Canadian requirements.
“The responsible authority for the export program contacted me and told me there is no easy way to renew the export program for grapevines between Germany and Canada. It will require a completely new market opening proposal and procedure and thorough risk analyses to be able to move material to Canada. This process is very time-consuming (at least 4 years) and labour intense to an extent we as a breeding institution, cannot manage to work on. Therefore we, unfortunately, have to tell you that the export and licensing of our varieties in Canada is not possible at the moment.“— Oliver Trapp, JKI (Germany)
Resolving the first two issues would put Canada on a path towards modernization of its vineyards and allow growers to benefit from the already available PIWI varieties available in North America. Though there will be continued issues with obtaining newer vines, the current selection of vines does offer a reasonable starting point.