Icewine Harvest Good Start to New Year

January 5, 2016 | Niagara Advance
By Penny Coles, Niagara Advance

Klaus Reif of Reif Estate Winery said Monday was the perfect day for harvesting frozen grapes to make icewine.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

The first harvest of frozen grapes began early Monday morning, when everyone was expecting to go back to work after having time to spend with their families and celebrate the holidays, said Klaus Reif of Reif Estate Winery.

They were prepared for the drop in temperature that would send them out to the vineyards, he said, thanks to Friday’s weather forecast that allowed them to plan for the morning harvest.

“It happened just like the forecast said it would,” he said. “They were right bang on, with wind,direction, temperature and snow. That is so helpful.”

The reliability of weather forecasts has improved in recent years, said Reif. He can recall times when a drop in temperature to -14°C was predicted, and a crew would be called to pick, and the temperature would be -7°C - and other years, when the reverse happened.

His work began as planned about 7:30 a.m. Monday, when the temperature was -11°C, and the sweetness of the grapes, at 42 brix, was perfect. It was an anomaly, but a welcome one,that the temperature didn’t plunge to its low point until after daylight - traditionally, plans are made the evening before for a picking to begin at midnight or 1 a.m.

There was a time, when icewine was still a novelty, the midnight picking would attract media and spectators, along with pickers dressed to face frigid temperatures.

Now, most grape growers have harvesters, and at Reif, the scheduled picking required just six people, instead of 40, and would be completed much quicker. He was hoping to harvest all 18 acres in one day, and would if the temperature remained at -10°C - that would be ideal, he said. But even if a few hours on a second day is required, he expected to get the bulk of the crop off the vine and pressed Monday.

“The sooner the better, and now, the first day back after Christmas and New Year’s, it’s ideal - just perfect.”

Although it’s been a different winter so far, he expected the same quantity as last year, and quality will also be consistent, he said.

After 28 years of making ice wine, “this is so much easier, less stressful, than having to call in 40 people and maybe have to send them home and wait for another day. I loved it then, but this is better.”

With a harvester to do the work, he needs one person to drive it, one to deliver the grapes to the presses, and four men to work the presses, he said.

“It’s going really well. After 28 years of making icewine, this is great.”

He said he wasn’t sure what to expect earlier in the season - after all the talk about El Nino, and the warm winter, he was concerned about what would be left by the time the grapes were harvested.

“This turned out to be much better than we expected,” he said.

Joe Pillitteri of Grapeview Harvesters sells the machines that are easing the burden on grape growers. But it’s not the harvesters themselves, it’s the design of the nets that has revolutionized the process, he said.

Up until a few years ago, farmers would cover the grapes with nets to protect the fruit from hungry birds, and when the temperature dropped enough, pickers would go along and pull back the net, shaking the grapes off into buckets.

The nets used now have holes that are large enough for the grapes to fall through as the harvester shakes the vines, but are designed so that the birds can’t get at them, said Pillitteri.

“In 12 hours, a harvester can do the work of 100 men,” he said.

“Most growers have a harvester, so this gives them another way to use it. There might be a few who still pick by hand, but not many. This is much more efficient. There used to be a sort of romance associated with picking grapes in the freezing cold in the middle of the night, but it became tougher and tougher to get people to do it. It is a harsh work environment, not really romantic at all. And the product these days is better than it’s ever been.”

At Pillitteri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, work started full-bore at 6 a.m., with the harvest continuing non-stop to be finished by early Tuesday.

“It rolled out well today,” said Jeff Letvenuk, Pillitteri marketing and media manager

“We were a little nervous at the beginning due to the unseasonably warm weather. But in the back of our mind, we know it’s always reached minus eight before, so there weren’t any real concerns it wasn’t going to happen,” he said, as a mechanical harvester rolled past him .

“But everyone’s a bit tense … when it’s as high as 10 to 12°C leading up to Christmas.”

Letvenuk said there have ve been years when the pick hasn’t taken place until mid January. However, since icewine production began at Pillitteri in 1993 there’s never been a year where -8°C hasn’t been reached.

“It hasn’t been unusually long for the grapes,” he said. “And they do look pretty consistent with the quality we’ve had in past yearsm” he said, of the predominantly Vidal harvest that will see many of its bottles destined for Chinese, Asian and European markets.

With files from Don Fraser, Postmedia Network