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Aug. 15, 2020 | Saturday
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Niagara College students brave cold at annual winter grape harvest

More than 50 people braved the sub-zero temperature in the wee hours of Thursday morning for what was expected to be an icewine harvest.

Grapes must be harvested when a temperature drops to -8 Celsius or lower to be legally considered icewine, explained winemaker and college professor Ron Giesbrecht.

The weather on Thursday, Jan. 9, was about -7 degrees Celcius or warmer, Giesbrecht said.

“There are several designations below icewine,” Giesbrecht told The Lake Report. “Of course, icewine is the cachet, it’s the one that everybody recognizes. But just below icewine is special select late harvest, so we’re hoping for that.”

Bundled up in layers, students from the Niagara College’s Wine and Viticulture Technician and Wine Business Management program as well as faculty and staff gathered at the Niagara College Teaching Winery for a short briefing and warm-up before heading to the 40-acre vineyard located on campus.

With the help of headlights coming from several vehicles parked in front of the vineyard, pickers were moving from row to row quite rapidly, picking grapes by hand. Some people were also wearing headlamps.

When the college’s Vidal grapes are netted in the fall, the college staff and faculty don’t know yet whether the grapes will be used for an icewine or another type of dessert wine, such as special select late harvest wine, Giesbrecht said.

Giesbrecht said he expected to have about less than two and a half tonnes of grapes collected at this time of the year.

Once the grapes are harvested, they will be pressed in a basket with wooden staves and a hydraulic plate that comes down pushing the grapes and squeezing the juice through the staves. This process is “age-old,” Giesbrecht said, adding the college does have modern presses, but those presses are designed to be gentle, which isn’t good for the icewine process.

“Because the grapes are frozen, gentle doesn’t work,” he explained. “So, you have to really press. We need something a little stronger, so we have to put them into an old-style press.”

The wine is made on-campus and then sold at the college’s wine store.

Students don’t get any class credits for the harvest, which makes it’s amazing so many were willing to get out so early, Giesbrecht said.

Some returning students noted the weather this time around was a lot warmer than last time.

“It’s easier than what you expect,” said Glen Fraser, a second-year wine and viticulture technician program student. “Once you get working, you warm up a little bit.”

“The grapes break off easy which speeds things a lot,” said another second-year student Eamonn Donnelly. “And the amount of people is more this year.”

First-year student Catriona McConnell said she’s been excited to have a hands-on experience.

“I didn’t know what to expect but this is fun. Although navigating the nets is tricky.”

Another first-year student Kennan McEachern said he didn’t get much sleep the night before harvest.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Most of the grapes fall off and you pick them up with your hands. The hardest part is opening the netting.”

Wine professor Tom Schulz said he brought his dog Spotty with him to put students in a good mood. Spotty, who’s been coming to the icewine harvest since 2007, was running around the vines with a collar with a tiny flashlight hanging from her neck.

Schulz commended the college for being the only school that allows students to make icewine.

“It’s also the month of the Icewine Festival. Fits perfectly with today’s event,” he told The Lake Report.

In his 36th year of doing winter harvest, Giesbrecht recalled the earliest harvest that occurred in November 2018 when the temperature was -10 or -11. That year’s yield was also “fantastic” because not many grapes had been lost yet to weather and birds after the regular fall harvest.

Many local growers and wineries opt for mechanized harvesting but it can turn into a more “industrial and commercial” job, taking away the fun aspect that comes with hand picking, he said.

“This is a lot more collegial and celebratory.”

“The smiles on everybody’s faces, it’s great that way. You get a group of people together doing something like this, that’s a little bit unique. And everybody’s dressed in winter clothes, it’s fun.”

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