Mild winter delays ice wine harvest, but results could be 'fantastic'

Local wineries typically harvest ice wine grapes in December, but with the wonky winter some of the picking couldn't be done until late this month.
Canadian federal law states the grapes must be at -8 degrees before they are harvested. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

It's typically a December tradition for local wineries: getting out in the cold, often deep in snow, to pick the grapes to satisfy true oenophiles.

It's the annual ice wine harvest. But because the winter weather has been so wonky, small wineries like Puddicome Estates in Winona, Ont., had to wait until the cold snap last week in January to harvest their grapes.

"It took longer than normal," said Lindsay Puddicome, the Estate's winemaker since 1999. "We typically harvest in December [for ice wine]."

This year, Puddicome had a marathon session of harvesting their grapes beginning at 4 a.m. on Jan. 22 and ending that evening.

"You can't play with Mother Nature," said David Hulley, director of customer experience at Vineland Estates Winery. "You run, you don't saunter."

Vineland Estates, located in Vineland, Ont., was one of the lucky ones. It's also a larger winery, so manpower was on its side. Hulley said they managed to harvest the full crop on Jan. 1 and 2.

"We had a great harvest and did extremely well," he said. "Many of our neighbours still had grapes on their vines."

Canadian federal law states the grape temperature must be at -8 degrees Celsius, or frozen on the vine, before they are harvested.

Hulley said the longer the grapes stay on the vine, the more of their water volume they lose, making it harder for them to freeze.

So once grapes at Vineland hit the legal freezing temperature, Hulley said they "worked around the clock" to harvest.

Back at Puddicome, because the grapes were on the vines about a month longer than normal, their volume is reduced. That means a smaller yield.

"We got about 50 per cent of what we normally get," Puddicome said. "It's not as much as we'd hoped."

But the fact that the grapes stuck to their vines for a longer time will also make for a treat once drinkers are ready to pop the corks on this year's yield.

"The sugars will be high," Puddicome said. "The quality will be fantastic."

As per the rules of supply and demand, a smaller yield means ice wine consumers might pay a premium for the coveted product.

"It will definitely affect the price of the product," Puddicome said. "But since we're a grower and a winery, we can keep costs down. We still want to make the product affordable."

Puddicome said they are reviewing numbers this week, but expect the price for a bottle of their ice wine to increase by a few dollars.

Hulley said Vineland's customers won't see a change in their price point.

Wine consumers won't feel the 2013 pinch for a while, due to the time that must pass between the harvest and the point where wine is ready to sell. In the spring, Puddicome plans to bottle their 2011 harvest for a release in a couple of years' time.