Waiting for Icewine

December 14, 2015 | St Catharines Standard
By Don Fraser, QMI Agency

For Lou Puglisi, the waiting is the hardest part.

Puglisi has netted about five acres of Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc icewine grapes. And they all need a blast of deep-freezing before they can become Niagara’s sweet delicacy.

But this December’s tropical ways have resulted in a picking delay that could stretch into January.

“We are waiting patiently,” said Puglisi, owner of PondView Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “And I don’t think the crop has been affected just yet. If it continues to be warm, obviously it’s going to be a concern.

“But we do live in Canada and winter will eventually come, we’re waiting for that cold snap,” he said.

On Monday the thermometer shot up to 20°C, smashing a one-day 16.1° record achieved in 1975 and continuing a warm spell with legs.

A strong El Nino, with its superheated swath of Pacific Ocean, is to blamed or credited for the unseasonably mild weather in these parts.

But Jamie Slingerland said sultry El Ninos are par-for-the-course in grape growing, and specifically harvesting icewine.

“We’ve gone through this before,” said the director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. During the winter of 2001-02, pickings could only be done New Year’s Eve and one day in late March.

That said, “as an industry, we’ve been able to mechanize to a very big degree now,” said Slingerland.

That means required days of laborious manual handpicking can be done quickly by mechanization, when grapes are at their frozen best at -8°C.

“Obviously colder days earlier are always better, because the percentage of crops you harvest are always the highest,” Slingerland said. “But this is an historic pattern; we have years of great cold years and then we have challenging years.

“We’ve gone through this so many times before, a lot of farmers take it with a grain of salt… we have to work with it,” he said. “We’ll still get there.”

Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario, said “the birds are always the threat… and as the vines go to sleep the grapes start to dry up and you don’t want to get them as they become completely dessicated.”

“But right now, we’re good, still holding and January is really what we’re looking for (in a cold-weather) break.”

Climatologist Anthony Shaw, a professor in Brock University’s department of geography, said the El Nino good news is the likelihood of less snow this year. That means a break on municipal slow clearing and winter maintenance budgets.

However, it could be problematic for retailers of winter items and ski-resort operators.

“And for heating … the bill will also go down quite significantly,” Shaw said.

Meanwhile for tender fruit and grape growers — and other than icewine-grape holdouts — this winter could bring relief after two brutal, bud-killing seasons.

“It could be positive news, if temperatures don’t drop dramatically,” he said.

The problem is a mild winter could prompt early bud-swelling “and it doesn’t take very cold temperatures to bring about major damage,” said Shaw, who teaches meteorology and climatology and focuses his research on climate change impact on the wine industry.

That’s especially a concern with January thaws “followed by a very cold snap,” he said. “There (can be) a lot of volatility in the weather.”

Meanwhile, Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips can’t help but feel a little smug.

His universe is unfolding as it should.

“You always feel kind of good when you say ‘this is going to happen and … it plays out like it should, and as the models say,’” said Phillips.

“It really is very balmy, and I just don’t know where you’re going to get a white Christmas,” he adds.

While the warming El Nino effects could weaken by January, the next winter phase could see thaws and freeze-ups.

“So don’t procrastinate if you’re an icewine picker or a skiier,” said Phillips.

Twitter @don_standard

Icewine in Ontario- 2015

4,317 tonnes of grapes have been left hanging for icewine production in 2015. This tonnage has potential to produce 647,550 litres
Grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine and reach a sustained temperature of minus 8°C or lower.

Source: Grape Growers of Ontario