SCOTT ROSTS/Niagara This Week
Celebration of the new year was short lived at Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery.
As the calender page turned over to 2013, the focus of the St. Catharines-based winery turned from celebrating the arrival of a new year to preparing for the annual icewine harvest.
After spending hours monitoring the thermometer in hopes that it would reach -8C, staff were in the vineyards around midnight January 2 starting to harvest whatever they could to ensure the grapes were harvested and pressed while the temperature was -8 or colder, to meet Vintners Quality Alliance regulations.
Turned out it was a false start. Just a couple of hours in, the temperatures didn’t cooperate and the picking was put on hiatus.
Just 24 hours later, however, a weather station set up in the vineyards at the west-end winery was reading temperatures as low as -13 by 1:30 a.m. and things were in full swing again.
Matthew Speck, who operates the winery with his brothers Paul and Daniel and also is the viticultural manager, said it appears to be a sweet vintage — with more sugar than normal in them, measured at 40 brix (one degree brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution). Normally with icewine grapes there’s little juice when they’re hauled in, but you could see it flowing early Thursday morning as Speck packed the presses with containers of grapes.
“The berries this year are really sweet. The juice is pretty phenomenal,” he said. “The season was so warm — it’s a function of temperature and the berries themselves. Some years you get 40 brix and the grapes are rock hard. Sometimes the warm weather dries things up, but this year it’s nice and the sugar’s there — a lot of flavour.”
In all, there are about 120 tonnes of grapes to harvest this year at Henry of Pelham. It will be about four full nights of work, said Speck, to complete the harvest. They hope the temperatures keep cooperating, as they’ve had a new adversary this year in addition to birds and the fear of rot due to warm weather.
“The deer have been our biggest challenge. They’ve been pretty bad with the Short Hills loaded with deer,” he said.
The icewine grapes at Henry of Pelham — Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc — are harvested by machine. In the quiet of the early morning Thursday, you could see the headlights of the Gregoire harvester travelling down each row, shaking off the grapes. A tractor transported containers full of the freshly harvested grapes to the winery, where Speck put them in the press. The press for icewine harvest is the opposite of table wines, squeezing at a much higher pressure.
“We run them for about two to three hours. It’s extremely high pressure, and it can trickle out for quite a while,” said Speck. “Then they’re pumped into the tanks.”
They start in the tanks by settling the juice, but once they get enough of the liquid gold they ferment it in stainless tanks.
The yield this year, said Speck, is light — possibly down as much as 40 per cent. In the end, he said, depending on temperature, they’ll be happy to bring in about 70 tonnes of the 120 they leave hanging for icewine.
“It’s a little early to tell, but I think we’re going to be down,” he said. “We’re still trying to wrap our brains around the math. The elements can play a role in how much of a difference there is.”
While the weather can be tumultuous — without consistent temperatures, ideally between -8C and -14C, the grapes can’t be harvested and they shrivel on the vine unfit for use — only Ontario has a winter climate sufficiently cold to ensure an icewine crop in most years, says the Wine Council of Ontario. To produce icewine, summers must be hot and winters must be cold and sharp.
It’s a gamble that pays dividends, however, when there is a successful vintage. The market for the icewine industry makes up a significant portion of annual sales according to industry data. Figures from 2009 show that the wholesale value of VQA sales for export to other countries was $30 million, with half from icewine.