Grape growers and winemakers weren’t the only ones nervously checking the weather forecast all winter.
Brock University students Claire Findlater and Mario Spinosa were equally attentive to the January temperatures.
The two are the first students from the oenology and viticulture degree program at Brock ever to do an icewine co-op, and this was to be their first icewine harvest, at Pillitteri Estates.
“We were on-call for the harvest, waiting for the temperature to get to -8 or lower. It’s been mild this year, so I was rooting for the cold,” said Findlater.
“It was a waiting game.”
Conditions for harvesting icewine grapes are typically found by mid-January, or even earlier, but Mother Nature can be unpredictable.
“It was on-again, off-again as the forecast changed at the last minute, but we were all on-call, and ready to go,” recalled Spinosa.
Winter finally got a grip on Niagara in the last days of January and the waiting game was over early last Thursday.
“We were out very early in the morning, while it was still dark outside and cold,” said FIndlater. “We got to sit up in the big harvester and it was so peaceful. It’s exciting to be part of the harvest!”
For Spinosa, “it was pretty cool to see the harvesting being done by machine, I thought I’d be picking by hand! Now I realize why it’s done by machine.”
He explained the big harvesters allow the grapes to be picked quickly, while the cold weather lasts.
Once picked, the frozen grapes go straight from the vineyard to the winery for pressing.
Findlater and Spinosa worked on the pressing, which occurs in several steps.
First the grapes are placed into a huge stainless steel hopper and from there baskets are filled. The baskets go onto a hydraulic press to extract the juice, which is strained, then destined for stainless steel fermenting tanks. Each grape gives up just a few drops of the sweet elixir that will become this year's icewine.
Both Findlater and Spinosa said they love the hands-on learning opportunity they got during the harvest, especially now that most classes are online because of COVID.
“This semester, we’re learning about wine processing, so the equipment isn’t just on a PowerPoint slide. I get to learn it hands-on here,” said Findlater.
“At school, everything is theory, like pressing techniques, but here we get to see and do, which puts it into muscle memory,” said Spinosa.
For example, he describes the process for icewine pressing: “We use a hydraulic basket press for icewine because we need the pressure to get the small amount of juice out of the frozen grapes, whereas for other wines we use a bladder press, which just isn’t powerful enough for icewine grapes.”
The grapes form a solid puck after first pressing, but that’s not the end of the process. Those pucks will go back into the hopper and get broken up, then go through a second, and even a third pressing to extract every last drop.
No less enthusiastic than the students about the co-op program is Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture for Pillitteri Estates Winery.
“Claire and Mario are both great students who work hard and will have a bright future,” he said, adding that most of the wine production staff at Pillitteri Estates come from programs at either Brock or Niagara College.
Both students are in their third year of the program and will graduate with science degrees when they’re finished. Spinosa plans to return to his family’s winery, Exultet Estates, in Prince Edward County with all that he’s learned, while Findlater, from Toronto, hopes to travel to see some old world wine regions.
As for the 2020 vintage of icewine, expect it to be both rare and memorable.
Significantly less icewine is being produced because of the drop in demand overseas and the absence of international tourists last season. The relatively late harvest means the grapes were dryer, with a lower yield, but that translates into exceptionally concentrated flavours.