With warmer-than-average December temperatures in the books, it seemed like the conditions needed to pick grapes for icewine might never arrive.
“There’s no snow, no ice on the Great Lakes. Everyone’s thinking the season’s over for icewine,” said Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture for Pillitteri Estates Winery, describing the situation for grape growers entering the new year.
But how quickly things change.
Thanks to January’s polar vortex, temperatures plunged over the weekend: overnight Sunday into Monday, they surpassed the magical threshold of -8 C as set out by Vintners Quality Alliance standards.
Frozen grapes were ripe for the picking and their journey to becoming one of Niagara’s sweetest vintages officially began.
In fact, on Sunday night, temperatures hit -10 C.
“We love -10 C,” Slingerland said. “(The grapes) are harder to press but we also get higher Brix values.”
Brix value is the amount in degrees of dissolved sugar in a liquid solution. The VQA standard level for the juice is 32 degrees after pressing.
“The cold temperatures had helped brown the grapes,” Slingerland said.
At one time, the Pillitteri winery made more than a dozen different kinds of icewine but now it focuses on one or two varieties with Vidal making up the vast majority of its offerings.
“It’s the most aromatic icewine of them all,” Slingerland said. “It has such tough skin. It holds up.”
Slingerland has been heading up the icewine harvest for 35 years and he said if there is one thing that can be certain, it’s how no two harvests are alike.
“There are always challenges but we manage to make it work year after year,” he said. “It is amazing that no two years are ever the same.”
While the harvest was going on at Pillitteri and other wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the next generation of winemakers at Niagara College’s NOTL campus had its own harvest to reap.
Under the supervision of Gavin Robertson, a professor in the college’s winery and viticulture technician program, about 50 students braved frigid temperatures and snow on Tuesday to harvest grapes from the school’s teaching winery vineyards.
The resulting Vidal icewine will not be made available to the public, but rather it is a project for students.
“Groups of one or two students will be allocated the juice and will need to come up with a winemaking plan,” Robertson said, adding that if the plan is deemed workable, the process of making the icewine will begin.
“They get to handle it from juice to the bottle,” he said. “It really is an experiential learning opportunity.”
As the case is at Pillitteri, the college used Vidal grapes due to their hardiness.
“They’re resistant to the cold,” Robertson said. “There’s lots of good juice.”
While the size of the crop at the college – close to a metric tonne – pales in comparison to the ones being picked at NOTL’s wineries, Robertson was impressed with the haul.
“I think it’s a good-sized crop,” he said.
Back at Pillitteri, Slingerland said the Ontario industry is continuing to make a comeback from COVID-19 when crop yields had dropped close to 1,000 tons.
He expects that when complete, the province’s 2024 harvest will be in the 2,000- to 3,000-ton range. That’s still a long way off from pre-COVID harvests that would could about 5,000 tons.
Pillitteri brought in about 850 tons from more than 100 acres of vines in this harvest, Slingerland said.