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Niagara Falls
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Relieved growers finish icewine harvest amid unseasonably mild winter
Harvesting icewine grapes for Huebel Grapes Estates, January 14. Supplied

Make hay while the sun shines, or in this case, pick grapes while the temperature plunges.

Grape growers in Niagara have had only two short windows of opportunity to harvest their icewine grapes this winter.

Temperatures must be -8C, or lower, in order to pick grapes for icewine and the first time the thermometer dropped low enough was with the winter storm that arrived on the doorstep of Christmas.  

Workers at Huebel Grapes Estates on Line 3 Road, like many, harvested what they could during that first, and short, cold snap. 

“We picked around Christmas, but we could only get about half our crop in,” said Aaron Oppenlaender, vineyard manager for Huebel Grapes Estates. 

“It was cold enough for two nights, but the first night we had that blizzard, and we just couldn’t get out. We didn’t want to put anyone in danger, so we picked early Christmas Eve morning.” 

It was a similar situation elsewhere.

Wade Stark, vineyard manager for Andrew Peller Ltd. said, “We picked the morning of the 24th, we harvested Riesling off a Creek Road site, and Vidal in Queenston. The grapes had frozen thoroughly during the previous 24 hours in the driving blizzard.” 

Vidal grapes at another site weren’t fully frozen that morning, so they were left on the vine to await the next cold spell. 

That came over this past weekend and had growers heading out to the vineyards to take advantage of the frigid dip. 

“We picked on Saturday in NOTL on Line 2 and on Line 4 in Queenston. It sure is nice to have it all in,” exclaimed Oppenlaender.

“The quality and flavour in the grapes is excellent,” he said, adding the downside is that the longer the grapes have to wait on the vines, the more the volume decreases.

“Between birds eating the grapes and the grapes dehydrating, we could have lost as much as one-third of our yield,” he said. 

It has been a mild winter, with few nights cold enough for harvest, and none in the forecast.

“December was very mild until we had that storm near Christmas,” said Geoff Coulson, a meteorologist with Environment Canada.

After that storm, “December finished very very mild. On Dec. 30 the high in Niagara was 14 and the trend has continued almost unabated for January,” said Coulson.

“So far, January has looked more like late November,” he said.

According to Coulson, the long-term mean temperature for January in Niagara is -3.7C.  This January, so far, the mean temperature is plus 0.8C, a great deal warmer. 

Another comparison, between average highs and lows, shows the same trend. 

Coulson said long-term average temperatures for mid-January are highs of -2C and lows -8C.

Instead, the average temperatures so far in January have been daytime highs from plus 2C to plus 5C, with overnight lows of plus 2C to -2C.

Only two mornings last weekend have had normal cold temperatures and the forecast again is milder than normal.

The volume of grapes harvested for icewine is down this year, according to the VQA  Vintage Report released last week. 

The report notes that For 2022, icewine grape registrations total 763 estimated tonnes, down substantially from the previous year. With the total wine grape crop in Ontario roughly half of that harvested in 2021, grapes are in high demand for table wines. This has contributed to the reduction in grapes netted for icewine.”

For 2021, 1,952 tonnes were registered for icewine. 

Another factor is the reduced demand for icewine since COVID. Travel restrictions have had a significant impact on icewine sales and they still have not fully recovered to pre-COVID levels.

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