Mid-January marks the time of year in Niagara when ice wine grapes typically are harvested.
The temperature must drop to -8 C before the frozen grapes can be picked to make the sweet wine that Niagara is known for around the world.
But this year, the mild winter has growers watching the weather forecast closely. So far, forecasts aren’t predicting temperatures cold enough in the next two weeks.
“The weather is concerning, it’s been mild, with lots of rain,” said Mattias Oppenlaender, chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario. He also s CEO and director of operations for Huebel Grapes Estates, which has 500 acres of vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“We are watching the weather every day,” he added.
Not only will the harvest be relatively late this year, it will also be the smallest ever.
The amount of grapes set aside for icewine this year totals just “1,068 tonnes, down significantly from last year’s 5,789 tonnes and setting a record low,” according to the VQA 2020 vintage report.
“Demand is down because of COVID, so growers are taking a step back this season,” said Oppenlaender. “Exports of icewine are down and we’ve had no international tourists since the pandemic began.”
Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture for Pillitteri Estates Winery, noted, “International tourists coming through on bus tours are a major source of sales for icewine.”
Exports were stable for Pillitteri in 2020, but Slingerland said he doesn’t know how 2021 will look, and the loss of sales from international tourists at the winery door means icewine inventories are higher than usual, which is why production is being reduced.
As to the weather, he said “we are farmers who are perpetual optimists … it will eventually get cold this winter, sooner or later.”
But he’s hoping “it will be sooner rather than later because the losses increase over time due to grape dehydration and birds that reduce icewine yields.”