A journey through Niagara wine country is a feast for the palate as well as for the eyes.  Make a trip to the Niagara Peninsula in summer and you’ll enjoy the sights of the rugged Niagara Escarpment, the shimmering waters of Lake Ontario, and if you look closely, roses are in full bloom at the ends of many rows of grapevines.  These rose bushes naturally contribute to the beauty of the vineyard, but they serve a practical purpose as well.

Roses: The Canary in a Coal Mine

Think of the roses as a canary in a coal mine.  Rose bushes and grapevines have similar needs when it comes to moisture, pH level, and nutrient requirements.  They are also both susceptible to some of the same types of fungal diseases.  In fact, roses are more susceptible to these diseases than grapevines. This is why they make a great early warning system.  If the rose bushes are showing signs of fungal infection, the vineyard manager knows that he or she should take steps to prevent the grapevines from becoming infected as well.  If the roses are healthy then the grapevines should be too. This means the vineyard manager can forgo applying chemical sprays, which saves money and the environment.  There are two types of fungal diseases that can attack grapevines.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery mildew is a fungal infection that appears as a white, powdery growth of spores on the green parts of the plant.  If the infection spreads to the fruit, the fruit will fail to grow properly and it will eventually split open and rot.  A plant that has been infected by powdery mildew cannot be cured. However, preventative measures can be taken to stop the infection before it begins.  A sulfur spray can be applied to the vineyard to prevent the onset.

Downy Mildew

Downy mildew is a fungal infection that first appears on the undersides of leaves and causes yellow blotches as it matures.  The infection inhibits photosynthesis and eventually causes the leaves to drop off.  Like powdery mildew, there is no cure for this disease. However, a spray of copper sulfate and lime can be applied as a preventative measure.

Before Tractors there were Horses

There is a story that comes out of Australia that offers an alternative reason as to why there are roses planted at the ends of rows of vines.  A hundred years ago, horses were used to perform towing work in coal mines in the Hunter Valley.  Prolonged exposure to poor air within the mines would, unfortunately, cause blindness in the horses.  When this occurred the animals would be retired from mine work and would be relegated to pulling vineyard machinery.  Roses were planted at the end of each row of vines to offer the blind horses a signpost at the end of the row so they would know when to turn.  Unable to see the end of the row, the horses could smell the roses.

Some suggest that roses were planted to discourage horses and oxen from trampling vines.  As the animals pulled machinery through the vineyard they would sometimes “cut corners” and make tight turns that could result in a machine knocking down the last vine in a row.  The animals would make wide turns near the rose bushes to steer clear of the thorns.  How much truth there is to this is hard to tell, but there is enough sense to it to satisfy an inquiring mind.

By: Michael Twyman
Sommelier and Niagara Wine Smart Guide