Cold Snap Speeds Ice Wine Harvest

Washington and British Columbia winemakers call November pick the earliest in years

by Peter Mitham
Chateau Ste. Michelle Ice Wine grapes
Chateau Ste. Michelle harvested clusters of Riesling for its ice wine program Nov. 15, earlier than normal, due to below-freezing temperatures at its Horse Heaven Vineyard in Paterson, Wash.
Prosser, Wash.—The past week brought cold weather to the Northwest, just days after many wineries finished bringing in the 2014 harvest.

But the opportunity to pick grapes for ice wine trumped fears of frost damage for many vintners, with initial reports suggesting that conditions hit a sweet spot for capitalizing on wintry conditions.

Chateau Ste. Michelle harvested 15 tons of frozen Riesling grapes from its Horse Heaven Vineyard in Paterson, Wash., on the morning of Nov. 15, when temperatures dropped to 6º F.

The block—one of several set aside for late-harvest wines, sits low in the Columbia River Valley and is known for its ability to capture colder air.

“We specifically left some Riesling out in the hope of making some ice wine, because it’s a unique style of wine. You can’t do it everywhere in the world,” winemaker Wendy Stuckey told Wines & Vines. “(The) little area in the Horse Heaven Hills where the vineyard is is a low spot, and when it does get cold, it gets cold enough.”

The grapes harvested will yield about 200 cases of ice wine, marking the eighth time Chateau Ste. Michelle has been able to make the product. Unusually, it is also Washington state’s second straight year of production—the first back-to-back ice wine harvest since 2002-03.

Riesling grapes are the usual variety of choice, though in 2006 a Chenin Blanc ice wine also was produced.

“Chenin has lovely acidity, like Riesling does,” Stuckey said.

British Columbia
Further north, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, temperatures dipped to 10.4º F on the morning of Nov. 12, allowing wineries to gather grapes for the province’s second-earliest ice wine harvest on record.

The industry’s earliest ever ice wine harvest occurred Nov. 5, 2003, with recent years also seeing several harvests starting shortly after the harvest for still wine grapes. In 2011, harvest began Nov. 19, and the year before, picking began Nov. 22.

This year, however, the cold weather was a generalized phenomenon that saw properties from Tantalus Vineyards above Kelowna, B.C., to Nk’Mip Cellars in heat-baked Osoyoos, B.C., harvesting ice wine grapes earlier—and in greater abundance—than in previous seasons.

“This really caps off an incredible 2014 vintage where we had ideal growing and harvest conditions throughout the year,” winemaker Randy Picton of Nk’Mip Cellars remarked in a vintage update, adding that temperatures were a balmy 61º F the week before the cold wave. Nk’Mip gathered a total of eight tons from two separate vineyard locations in the South Okanagan, just north of the border with Washington state.

Jane Hatch, manager of Tantalus Vineyards, was equally effusive in a statement the B.C. Wine Institute released regarding the harvest.

“The grapes are in pristine condition, and the resulting juice will be clear and very, very pure," she said.

By law, ice wine must be made from grapes frozen on the vine at temperatures of -8º C (17.6º F) or lower, and the pressed grape juice must be a minimum of 35º Brix.

All told, 29 wineries in British Columbia registered an intention to pick grapes for ice wine, with the harvest projected at 931 tons from 235 acres. The figure is similar to last year, when 29 wineries registered intentions to harvest upward of 1,000 tons of grapes.

Typically the harvest is far less, as not all wineries follow through on their intentions (some make late-harvest wines instead). However, without registration—part of the industry’s efforts to provide assurance to consumers and control the provenance and authenticity of a lucrative product frequently subject to counterfeiting in foreign markets—wineries can’t produce the wine.

Ice wine elsewhere

Ontario, which produces the lion’s share of Canada’s ice wine, is readying for harvest later this winter. Ontario growers typically harvest 5,500 tons of grapes each season, but temperatures tend not to drop sufficiently low for ice wine production until mid-December.

This year’s harvest of ice wine grapes in the Northwest comes on the heels of record yields for wine grapes, with the latest buzz in Washington state pegging volumes at 240,000 tons. Combined with Oregon and British Columbia, the region’s harvest could easily approach 315,000 tons.

The quick shift to cold weather isn’t apt to have a devastating effect on the vines, however.

Unlike when a snap frost cut harvest short in October 2009—or a hard frost swept through the state in November 2010—Chateau Ste. Michelle expects little damage from the first blast of winter.

Michelle Moyer, assistant professor in the horticulture department at Washington State University and a viticulture specialist with the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, says damage is unlikely to extend beyond 10% of vines—if that.

“I wouldn’t expect there to be too much fall-out from it, provided growers take the time to do a quick damage assessment prior to pruning,” Moyer said. “It was a cold event that is very manageable. And in Washington, we are primed for dealing with these kinds of events.”

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