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The big chill

Cold snap just in time for Okanagan ice wine makers

There probably isn't anyone who cares about the weather as much as a ski bum – except perhaps a farmer.

The weather can make or break a farmer's year, just as it can ruin any dedicated ski bum's season.

And while ski conditions have been pretty good here this winter, the mild winter has been wreaking havoc on the ice wine harvests in the Okanagan Valley.

Luckily, the cold snap over the past week has allowed many of the roughly 30 Okanagan wineries that make ice wine to salvage at least some of their harvests.

"Our best guess now is about a 50 per cent (yield) of a normal year, so it's down substantially," said Len Bykowski, the president of the B.C. Wine Institute.

Ice wine growers had been waiting anxiously for the temperatures to dip below -8 C in the valley for two days in a row in order to begin their harvesting. That temperature is set by an international wine agreement but throughout December and most of January, the temperatures were not even close to being that cold.

Last year was a far different story, when most grapes were picked in early to mid-December. This year the winemakers had to wait at least another full month before they had the required temperatures.

With each passing day of the mild winter, their yields got smaller and smaller as the grapes succumbed to the various elements working against them the longer they stayed on the vines. "It's a gamble," said winemaster Howard Soon, with Calona Vineyards. "That's part of farming."

The Okanagan Valley is one of two places in Canada that usually have conditions suitable to ice wine making. The other area is the Niagara Region in Ontario, which is also experiencing some unseasonably warm temperatures. And while that might be good for golfers in the region, it does not bode well for ice wine makers there. Most of their ice wine grapes are still on the vines, just as they were in the Okanagan up until earlier this week.

"This fruit has been hanging there for three additional months and eventually the bunches let go... It's a matter of self-preservation in that you lose some," said Ingo Grady, the director of trade development for Mission Hill.

Animals, rot, mould, rain, wind and sheer time on the vine, all play a factor in the farming process.

When Calona Vineyards harvested their grapes this week, the yields were significantly lower than predicted. Unfortunately, there were expecting about four tonnes of red Pinot Noir grapes and were only able to salvage about one tonne. This one tonne will make only 50 to 60 cases.

They were also expecting about eight tonnes of the award winning Ehrenfelser white grapes. Instead they picked just under five and a half tonnes, enough to make about 330 cases.

But the winery was lucky to salvage any ice wine berries at all.

Likewise, Mission Hill's two and a half acres were originally projected to produce about 1,000 cases of ice wine this year. But the delay in picking the grapes means that they are now looking at about 800 cases (or 3,600 litres).

"We had some unseasonably mild temperatures so there is also the danger that the grape will start to rot like any fruit that's left," said Grady.

And while the harvest is netted to prevent animals from helping themselves, the winery still loses grapes every day to hungry deer, coyotes and especially birds.

Mission Hill, which has been making ice wine since 1992, also battled with a mould called botrytis, also known as noble rot. This disease is a spore that attaches itself to the grape, making a needlepoint sized prick into the skin. The grape is then left to shrivel.

Regardless of the large loss of grapes, as soon as those temperatures sank this week, the growers were out in the field picking the remaining grapes from the vines.

Usually the harvest takes place during the night, when the temperatures are at their lowest.

"As a rule the harvest often takes place under artificial light. Everybody drives their pickup trucks to the border of the vineyard and leaves their lights on," said Grady.

As soon as the grapes are picked they are loaded onto a truck and taken directly to the winepresses where they are pressed immediately.

"We do what we call a whole cluster press so the berries, the actual grapes, remain on the stems and are placed into the presses and the juice is then collected. It happens very, very swiftly," he said.

Ice wine gets its very sweet flavour from the high concentration of sugar in the berry.

"When they're frozen that solidly on the vine, when you press the fruit, the resulting juice has actually doubled its concentration of sugar. So I'm now harvesting grapes (where) close to 60 per cent of the juice is fermentable grape sugar. So it's very viscous, highly concentrated in both sweetness or residual sugar and acidity," said Grady.

This distinct sweet flavour and the relatively high cost of ice wine makes it somewhat of a rare commodity.

"Ice wine is not necessarily a populist beverage. It's a rarity. It's a specialty that Canada seems to be able to produce on an annual basis," he said.

The only other countries that produce ice wine are Germany and Austria.

But this year's small yield may mean that the prices for ice wine will be even higher than normal.

Currently a 375 ml bottle runs in the $50 to $60 price range.

"Anybody who makes ice wine this year will probably be charging quite a bit for it, provided the quality is up to par and we're quite confident that it will be," said Grady.

Bykowski said it is too early to predict if the prices will go up. But he thinks the quality of the ice wine will be higher than average this year because it was a gradual frost that allowed the grapes to ripen and mature over a long period of time.

"They had a very full-bodied finish to them prior to the frost," he said.

Had the temperatures not dipped over the past week, there may have been no ice wine production in the Okanagan Valley this year, he said.

This is the risk the farmers take every year when they leave the grapes hanging on the vines for ice wine production. They know that the harvest is based on the whims of the weather and that producing ice wine involves a certain risk.

"It's one of those things that you can't fight. If you get it, it's great. If you don't get it, it's not a big tragedy," said Soon.