Ice wine grapes can be delicate and thin-skinned, depending on the variety, and must freeze on the vine in order to be considered an authentic ice wine. In November, the ice wine grapes are netted to protect them from hungry birds. Then, the grapes are left on the vine until they are frozen and ready to be picked, which can be anywhere from December to February.
Mild temperatures like the ones experienced this past winter can be worrying for ice wine makers. For Inniskillin’s Senior Winemaker Bruce Nicholson, warm weather is not an extreme threat to his grapes, just something to adapt to. “Milder temperatures mean you’re just waiting. The process of thawing and freezing actually is a good process, meaning not to the point where you have to pick it.”
Deborah L. Pratt, the Public Relations representative at the award-winning ice wine company, seconds Nicholson’s opinion. Being mindful of weather changes and patterns is important and can help guarantee a good output. “We’ve always been used to fluctuating in the temperatures for winter, so we watch the extended forecast. We have picked as early as December 2nd, as late as March the 5th.”
Apart from the more obvious freezing process for which the product is named, ice wine makers must also follow strict Vintners Quality Alliance rules when it comes to harvesting. A sustained temperature of at least minus 8 degrees Celsius must be reached over the period of a few days.
This rule is based on the origins of ice wine in late eighteenth-century Germany, during a particularly cold spell when the grape harvest was frozen on the vine before being harvested. The Niagara region, with its warm, sunny summers and reasonably cold winters was the perfect region for German immigrants to introduce the production of the famed dessert wine.
Pratt emphasizes the importance of keeping in the tradition of harvesting ice wine. “If you start to make a product that’s already established in another country, you owe it the respect... We didn’t invent ice wine, and so out of respect for Germany, we set the rule saying it can only be called an ice wine if and only if it follows this set of rules.”
The typical Niagara winter is able to provide a string of consecutive days hovering around the minus 8 mark. With the mild winter this past year, the outlook for the usual stability of cold weather was uncertain. However, the vintners’ worries disappeared when a series of colder nights (which is when the grapes are usually harvested) made it possible to pick the grapes in early January. By the end of the first week of the month, Inniskillin’s Vidal variety grapes were harvested and ready for pressing.
Nicholson stated, “We like to have a freezing and thawing process. I don’t like rain, particularly, depending on the variety you have on the vine. Some of them are more susceptible to rotting because of the thickness of the skin. Vidal, which is the vast majority of the grapes left for ice wine, have a thicker skin, so they can handle winter in the milder temperatures a little bit better.”
Worrying about winter temperatures is all part of the finicky ice wine making process. Although there is always the possibility that the yield will be lower because of certain weather patterns, the quality of the wine always comes first.
Nicholson re-affirms his calm approach to some of the problems faced as a cause of the warm winter, choosing to see it as an advantage. “Freezing and thawing is what enhances the character. I believe that it actually removes some of the bitterness and sometimes, the medicinal characteristics that you’ll get if you pick them early, very early.”
Sounds sweet to us.