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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.

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