What if the harvest doesn't come? Niagara icewine-making is 'an extreme sport'

The mild winter has meant some Niagara winemakers haven't been able to harvest for icewine. Now it's a weather waiting game — and there's a lot at stake.

Climate change has prevented wineries in Europe from making icewine

Icewine grower Jamie Slingerland examines his grapes. He looks after vineyards at Pillitteri Estates Winery. The mild winter kept Slingerland waiting to harvest his kilometre of grapes for icewine. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Jamie Slingerland knew it was coming. He just didn't know when.

At 2 a.m. Friday morning, it finally hit the magical –8 C, the bare minimum needed to harvest icewine in Ontario. With a small window, Slingerland's standby crew swung into action, harvesting as much of their kilometre-long crop as they could.

The mild winter weather kept Slingerland waiting. He looks after the vineyards for Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. In his 30 years making icewine, he has never missed a harvest.

He can't.

"There is so much at stake," he said. "We can make a million bottles of ice wine out of this field if the conditions were perfect. A million bottles is a lot of bottles of ice wine but if the conditions aren't perfect and we get half of that, it's a severe hit."

After the wait, Jamie Slingerland was able to harvest part of his crop early Friday morning. He figures the wait and the mild weather cost him 30 per cent of his grapes. (Jamie Slingerland)

Slingerland figures, due to the weather, he's lost 30 per cent of his crop. And he still has more to go. He's hoping for a cold Saturday night.

'Like a big anvil over your head'

It's been a tricky winter for icewine in Niagara. It hasn't been cold enough for long enough. There was a cold snap last November and some wineries decided to harvest then. But many grapes just weren't ready.

Harbour Estates Winery took the year off from icewine — they've been making it for almost two decades. Owner Fraser Mowat looked at his grapes in the fall and found they weren't in good enough condition. He's glad he skipped out.

Fraser Mowat poses with a bottle of his Harbour Estates icewine. He's taken the year off from icewine harvesting but hopes to do it again next winter. He said he has enough stock to get him through the year. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"It's a difficult year to harvest," he said. "[In] 2001, we had only three nights that we could get icewine off. Every other year since then, until now, we've had lots of nights to be able to get icewine off."

David Sheppard agrees. He's now the winemaker at Flat Rock Cellars, but made icewine for more than 35 years at other local wineries. He's thrilled he doesn't have to do it anymore.

"I feel badly for the guys that are, because this would be one of the tougher years," he said.

Not every winery grows grapes for icewine. You can tell what wineries by the netting covering the vines. It keeps the birds out. There are 13-and-a-half rows of grapes for icewine harvesting at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Sheppard said waiting for the harvest was the worst part. It's like being on call all winter long. "It's one of those things that's just looming like a big anvil over your head hanging by a rope."

'You gotta believe'

The icewine harvest gets harder the longer you wait. Grapes dehydrate and dry out. And then there's the birds.

Slingerland estimates birds ruin one to two per cent of the grapes each day from December on. Pillitteri Estates has a full-time employee who drives around the vineyard, making noise and firing flares to scare birds away.

The mild winter has meant some Niagara winemakers haven't been able to harvest for icewine. Now it's a weather waiting game - and there's a lot at stake. 7:07

Sue-Ann Staff is still waiting on the perfect night. She runs the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in Jordan, Ont. It has a smaller bounty — there are 13-and-a-half rows of grapes. She can harvest them in a single night.

"To me, it's an extreme sport," she said. "You have to be willing to go the distance and live a little bit on the edge or else, don't bother." 

Sue-Ann Staff is still waiting to harvest. The minimum is -8 C but she prefers -10 or -11 C. She has been making icewine for 22 years and has never missed a harvest, so she's confident this one will come. She will reassess if she hasn't harvested by mid-February.

She has made order commitments in other parts of the world and doesn't have enough stock from last year to fill them. Climate change has prevented wineries in Europe from making icewine so the pressure is on for Niagara to fill the gap.

"Those people are counting on this to happen as am I. That's why it has to happen," she said. "You gotta believe."

Adapting to climate change

Icewine makers in Niagara are well aware of the threat climate change poses to their livelihood. Slingerland thinks it will mean smaller windows for him to harvest.

So he's started to adapt.

He used to have people handpicking. But he has switched to machines. They can get it done faster if the cold doesn't last. He has also put up wind machines. They can heat the vineyard by three or four degrees if it gets too cold.

"It's a very high risk for us obviously but then the reward is worth it. It's a very sought after product," he said.

"There's a million Chardonnays in the world but there's such a small quantity of ice wine in the world and so few people produce it."

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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