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British Columbia Ice Wine Intentions Rise

But as winemakers wait for cold enough weather, the harvest may shrink

by Peter Mitham
british columbia wine authority
A growing number of British Columbia wineries are planning to make ice wine, but overall production is expected to fall. Source: British Columbia Wine Authority
Penticton, British Columbia—The number of wineries planning to make ice wine in British Columbia this winter is up, but odds are in favor of lower overall production.

British Columbia Wine Authority general manager Steve Berney told Wines & Vines this week that 30 wineries registered by the end of October to pick grapes for ice wine production, up slightly from 27 last year. Registration occurs well before temperatures dip to the levels required for the ice wine grape harvest.

(Government regulations require that ice wine grapes be harvested only after they’ve frozen on the vine while the air temperature is -8°C (17.6°F) or lower. The harvested grapes must be “pressed in a continuous process” while frozen and the juice must register no less than 32°Brix after pressing and residual sugar of at least 100 grams per litre in the bottle.

The lag time between registration and harvest means that wineries intending to pick grapes for the sweetest slice of the B.C. vintage know which blocks they’ll leave for the winter weather. This year, 218 acres are allocated for the harvest and Berney estimates the harvest at approximately 778 tons.

But plenty can happen between Halloween and the hallowed days of winter when air temperatures become cold enough to freeze the grapes.

Wildlife can diminish yield
The hang time results in dessication of the fruit, concentrating flavors while cutting tonnages; meanwhile, hungry birds and other wildlife further diminish harvest volumes.
Two years ago, the harvest began Nov. 22 and the crop was approximately 80% of expressed intentions; last year, the initial grapes were harvested Nov. 19 but the largest harvest occurred in January, with a yield 75% of initial intentions.

Moreover, some wineries decide to make late harvest wines with grapes originally tagged for ice wine. Berney said at least four wineries have done so this fall, which will likely reduce the total icewine production. In each of the last two years just 22 wineries brought in ice wine grapes, fewer than stated an intention to do so.

Consequently, Jim Stewart doesn’t expect this year’s intentions to boost the number of wineries or wines competing for market share. “What actually gets harvested starts, right about now, to decrease considerably,” said Stewart, president and CEO of Paradise Ranch, which represents about a tenth of the registered harvest intentions. “Anything picked in the first half of December is in pretty good shape – not too much has been damaged, not too much dehydration, not too much bird or wildlife loss.”

But with only late harvest grapes picked to date, Stewart sees the harvest being well below last year’s 654.5 tons. (Based on recent averages, the harvest would be in the range of 575 tons.)

Winemakers bullish
Stewart attributed the increase in intentions to smaller wineries seeking to expand offerings in their wine shops, and other wineries aspiring to enter export markets.

Miles Prodan, executive director, B.C. Wine Institute, received a similar sense during a meeting last week with winemakers.

“With the health of the crop this year, and the demand for export of ice wine, people are bullish on ice wine,” he said. “But it’s subjective, so in the end we won’t really know until the season’s done.”

Stewart, for his part, isn’t expecting the aspirations to translate into significantly greater activity. “In terms of really going after the ice wine market as an integral part of their business, there’s very few wineries,” he said.

Wineries targeting export markets, particularly in Asia, may even face disappointment.

“It’s harder to sell wine into Asia than people sometimes expect,” said Stewart, who focuses on export more than any other B.C.-based ice wine producer. “I am not expecting growth in that market, for the simple reason that market is fairly reliant on the Chinese market, and it seems to be softening up, generally speaking.”

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