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Early Ice Wine Harvest

British Columbia wineries picked frozen grapes this week

by Peter Mitham
Tinhorn Creek
No snow is required to produce a fine harvest of grapes for ice wine, as seen at British Columbia's Tinhorn Creek.
Kelowna, British Columbia -- One of the latest grape harvests in memory has been followed by the second-earliest harvest of frozen grapes for ice wine ever recorded in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

A string of cold days culminated in air temperatures of at least minus-8°C (17.6°F) on Nov. 22, triggering ice wine harvest -- the earliest since the freakishly advanced harvest of Nov. 5, 1993.

Quails’ Gate Estate Winery near Kelowna began picking approximately four tons of Riesling grapes in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, completing harvest within hours. The gradual drop in temperatures through last weekend made for slowly frozen grapes with a good concentration of flavors, said Tony Stewart, co-owner of 50,000-case Quails’ Gate. A touch of Botrytis late in the season also helped dehydrate the grapes and concentrate flavors.

Quails’ Gate’s Botrytis-affected Optima grapes, used for late-harvest wines, were harvested at approximately 52°Brix but ended in the low 40s. Stewart expects similar results from his ice wine grapes. “Typically what happens when they first press off, they’re looking at about 60°Brix, and then they kind of line in at around 39° to 40°,” he told Wines & Vines.

Quails’ Gate began making ice wine in 1993; its most recent vintage was 2008. This year’s cool growing season has Stewart especially curious to see how acids show in the finished wine. Many winemakers are reporting slightly higher acid levels than usual.

Sandra Oldfield of 35,000-case Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C., is among those reporting higher than usual acid levels, but prefaced her comment with two words: “Quality awesome.” The acre of Kerner vines Tinhorn harvested yielded grapes with sugar levels registering 41°Brix.
Tinhorn was among the first wineries to pick on Nov. 22, but Oldfield said the early harvest was ideal, given growing conditions this year.

“I don’t feel the grapes would have lasted long this year, due to all the rains we got during the season,” she said.

Beating the early birds to harvest

The early harvest also forestalled depredation by starlings, which were particularly active this year, according to Stewart. In recent years, overwintering Canada geese have shown a liking for ice wine grapes.

“Canada geese have figured out the ice wine grapes actually taste pretty good,” Stewart said. “By picking it in November, I think we get it before they even become aware of it.”

Geese have become a particular problem only recently, and Stewart said netting isn’t an effective control measure. The geese easily rip through netting to reach grapes, which are well within reach of their characteristic necks. Stewart said the best remedy is to scare the geese, shooing them out of the vineyard. They’re quick studies and don’t soon to return to spots where they’re unwelcome. “Once you scare them out, they don’t come back right away,” Stewart observed.

All told, 23 wineries registered intentions with the B.C. Wine Authority to pick grapes for ice wine production this year. This year’s harvest is estimated at 520 tons, with approximately 360 tons harvested on Nov. 22-23. This compares to a harvest of 232 tons by 14 wineries last year.

Washington wineries have not reported harvesting grapes for ice wine this year, despite blizzard conditions across the state this week. A prolonged cold snap in December 2008 allowed Chateau Ste. Michelle to harvest Riesling grapes for ice wine from vines in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, when temperatures hit a chilly 2°F (see “Ice Wine Plucked in Pacific Northwest,” Dec. 17, 2008).

By law, wineries in British Columbia must register an intention to harvest grapes for ice wine production with the B.C. Wine Authority, which oversees wine quality standards in the province. Genuine ice wine is legally defined as being made from “grapes that have been naturally frozen on the vine while the air temperature is minus-8°C (17.6ºF) or lower, and pressed in a continuous process while the grapes are still frozen.”
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