Warm winter puts Ontario's icewine harvest on hold

Niagara icewine producers are waiting for some real winter weather before they can pick grapes for the sweet Canadian drink.

Producers waiting for cold snap of at least -8 C before picking

Ontario icewine producers are waiting for a cold snap of at least -8 C before they are allowed to harvest their grapes.

A mild winter has put the annual grape harvest for icewines on hold for now, but Ontario producers are hopeful there will be a cold snap in the next few weeks.

"There is some risk with this year's weather being warmer," Louise Wilson, international sales manager for Andrew Peller Ltd., in Grimsby, said in an interview Wednesday. "It is, of course, on everyone's mind."

But Wilson noted their wineries - which include Peller Estates, Sandhill and Wayne Gretzky - have had a successful harvest every year since 1983 and they don't anticipate 2016 being any different.

Regulations surrounding icewines state the temperature must be -8 C or colder before producers can pick grapes for icewine. Anything warmer than that but picked weeks to months after the grapes for table wines is considered a late harvest.

Wilson said they wait until the temperature is -10 C because they find it produces more flavour. The grapes must be frozen when they are picked and then they are pressed outside in the cold as well. It means the grapes release just a few drops of sweet concentrated juice, which is turned into icewine.

When it is time to pick, the vineyards have sensors throughout that will alert pickers if the temperature changes or starts to warm up, Wilson said.

We're always at the mercy of Mother Nature.- Paul Speck, Henry of Pelham

Paul Speck of Henry of Pelham in St. Catharines said Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 is the "sweet spot" for picking. But looking at the forecast, the weather is not even close to where it needs to be, he said.

"We're always at the mercy of Mother Nature," he said Tuesday.

He said 1997 was another bad year for the icewine harvest due to El Nino conditions, which is also why this winter has been milder than usual. In an image released Tuesday, NASA said the current El Nino is showing similar patterns to the weather phenomenon in December 1997.

Speck said they have picked grapes as late as March, but the yields decrease significantly, mostly because the grapes become dehydrated and even with nets, birds and deer eat the sweet grapes for dessert.

A later harvest may also mean more expensive icewine, Speck said. With fewer grapes, fewer bottles of icewine are produced and the bottles that are released can be highly sought after due to their rarity.

Change in plans

For Greg Wertsch of Between the Lines winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the milder winter weather was a factor in a decision by himself and his brother, Yannick, to skip making icewine this year.

"We decided against it and went for a late harvest," Wertsch said. "In hindsight, we think it was the right decision."

He said growers in particular are the ones hurt by waiting for the cold snap. When it's a good year, the growers get paid very well but in a year like this, a smaller yield means the growers won't make as much off their crop.

Their decision to go with a late harvest wine instead of an icewine wasn't one they made lightly, though, especially considering their 2013 vidal icewine was chosen as the official gift the Ontario Speaker will give in 2016.

But Wertsch said the vidal grapes they use for their icewine are also used in a new product called Origin, which they are debuting at the Niagara Icewine Festival starting Jan. 15. The canned single serving sparkling wine includes a small shot of icewine to add some sweetness. The O is a zero to indicate it was canned at 0 C.

Good winter for vines

The warmer weather will benefit the vines because it will give them a break after two very cold winters, Wilson said. Colder winters, such as the past two, can damage the vines, but what the grapes will really need is a warm summer to produce the best harvest, she said.

Wertsch agreed, saying they saw some damage to their vines after two tough winters. With the milder weather, the vines will get a rest.

He said he anticipates a winter that is "not too cold, a good growing season and we're back in business" with a solid crop next fall.

Icewine 'knocks your socks off'

Wilson said the quality of icewine is always pretty much the same because the process of making the wine does not change - the only difference is how many grapes they can pick.

Icewine is one of those products Canada does very well and it is highly sought after around the world, she noted.

"There are so few places in the world that can make it," she said. "It's such a unique and special wine… it kind of knocks your socks off."

Icewine fans and producers will be keeping an eye on the forecast in the coming weeks, hoping for the cold snap that is necessary to begin picking and pressing.

"There is elevated risk the longer the grapes are out there," Wilson said. Producers don't need a whole winter of cold weather — just a few nights — and, she noted, "There's a lot of winter left."


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