The rest of the population may not be pleased with the early cold snaps the Okanagan Valley is experiencing, but local icewine makers are ecstatic.
Wineries from Osoyoos to Kelowna are reporting that the cold weather has allowed them to get the grapes off the vines early.
“This is really early. Normally we don’t get cold snaps until January,” said Val Tait of Bench 1775 winery in Naramata. “There have been years when we have had to wait until the end of January, and in some years, there have been no icewine conditions at all.”
Tait said their first pick happened on Nov. 13 and now, after a second run of sub-zero weather, they have been able to get the majority of their grapes picked. But the first cold weather came so early, she said, that they had only just finished picking the regular harvest.
“We had to pick the last of our red wine, because it was going to turn into cold conditions for ice wine. We had to get our red wine fruit in, start that fermenting and literally, the next day we were picking and processing icewine,” said Tait, noting that they had also experienced a late ripening of the table wine grapes.
Rob Van Westen, of Van Westen Winery, started picking at midnight on Nov. 18, when the temperature dropped to -11 C.
“We started at midnight at we were squeezing them by 4 a.m. We were in a big hurry because it was going to warm up the next day. We were done shortly after 8 a.m.,” said Van Westen, explaining that as a small producer, he only had 1.7 tonnes to pick.
An early icewine harvest has a number of benefits for the wineries, starting with removing the risk and worry of grapes sitting on the vines.
“You have to leave the fruit sitting out there and there are so many things that can go wrong: thawing and freezing or you have problems with birds or animals. Because there are very few food sources left, they are super aggressive at getting into the fruit you have left hanging,” said Tait.
Another benefit, Van Westen said, is a higher yield of juice from the grapes when they are picked early.
Then there is the taste.
“The expression of the fruit is very vibrant and bright when it is picked earlier. It turns into more caramelized and oxidized flavours, more aged flavours the later you pick,” said Tait. While both are desirable tastes, Tait said the brighter flavour can move icewine from a dessert wine to pre-dinner.
“It goes really well with appetizers or consuming it before a meal with fatty cheeses for fatty fruit. It has this very nice vibrancy that goes with food very well,” she said. “They are quite nice, but I think it is just a matter of changing our perception of how we consume them and what we consume them with.”
Tait said icewines from this year’s harvest should be available in May, though a little aging in the bottle would go far.
“What would be really nice if they get some bottle time. The longer they age, the more interesting they become,” she said.
For Inniskillin Okanagan in Oliver, which harvested in mid-November, this was the earliest icewine harvest on record. Winemaker Derek Kontkanen said his crew began picking Riesling at 3 a.m. when temperatures in the Oliver vineyard had reached -12.2 C. Based on the 40 tonnes of fruit they brought in, he is expecting the quality of the wine to be very high.
“It is a great way to cap off an excellent year,” said Kontkanen. “Fruit quality was great for the table wines and I can see the great potential in the fruit harvested.”