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Earliest icewine harvest on record in Niagara, picked even before some table grapes

By Rick VanSickle

Let’s just call it now — the 2019 grape harvest in Ontario was (is) officially the wildest ride anyone can remember.

The fact that the last of the grapes, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, will finally be harvested beginning Monday with a carpet of snow covering the vineyards, while the first of the icewine grapes were picked Nov. 12, the earliest on record, is testament to that.

Ontario harvest
First icewine grapes from 2019 harvest at Cave Spring. (Cave Spring photo)

Icewine grapes before Cabernet Sauvingon? Yes, you heard that right. And it’s not just Cabernet Sauvignon. There is also some Cabernet Franc still to bring in (and likely a lot of unplanned late harvest grapes), with wineries we spoke to planning a harvest blitz to haul in the rest of the grapes this week.

VQA Ontario’s Katherina Radcliffe confirmed to Wines in Niagara that icewine grapes picked on Nov. 12-13 by at least three wineries — Cave Spring, Reif and Southbrook — was the earliest harvest since data has been kept beginning in 2000. The previous record was Nov. 19, 2014.

Last year was another early harvest for icewine with a few wineries picking frozen grapes on Nov. 21, with Stratus being first out of the gate.

Icewine grapes are left on the vine until a sustained temperature of -8 C or lower is reached. Depending on the season, this generally occurs anytime from December to February. During the time between the end of the growing season and harvest, the grapes dehydrate and the juices are concentrated and develop the characteristic complexity of icewine.

Photo by Cave Spring

During icewine season, wineries and grape growers keep a careful watch on the weather forecast looking for an optimum stretch of temperatures between -10 and -12 C. This temperature range will produce juice in the range of 35 to 39 Brix (roughly equivalent to the percent of sugar in the juice). Typically, a period of at least 6 hours is needed to harvest and press the grapes – and it is usually an overnight job. Most small and medium sized wineries harvest by hand, often with volunteers who are enthusiastic icewine lovers and want to experience the harvest first hand. Warm clothing is required. Mechanized harvesting has been developed in the past few years and is now an option for larger vineyards.

It’s a rarity (less so, lately) that icewine grapes are harvested before December, and even more rare that icewine is picked before red table grapes.

An unusual sight to see at the Heron Pond Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench. Graham Rennie is picking this Cabernet Sauvignon starting Monday.
The wintery view from the Heron Pond Vineyard.
Despite the late pick, the Cab Sauv fruit looks gorgeous.
Graham Rennie doesn’t mind picking late as these grapes are for his appassimento wines. (photo by Graham Rennie)

Wines In Niagara toured wineries from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Beamsville Bench on Saturday. At the Heron Pond Vineyard, owned by Graham Rennie on the Beamsville Bench, it was an eerie sight to walk into the vineyard that was covered in snow and the Cabernet Sauvignon for his appassimento-style wines still hanging. Rennie said the grapes are being harvested Monday and wasn’t concerned about the late pick.

“This early winter weather has created a natural appassimento opportunity for those of us who utilize this Old World technique — fruit tastes beautiful and sweet and is very clean. Just another challenge to manage when you’re making vino in Wine Country Ontario,” he said.

Two Sisters in Niagara-on-the-Lake was ready to pick the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon as was Southbrook. Owner of Southbrook, Bill Bill Redelmeier, and winemaker Ann Sperling were at the winery and told Wines In Niagara that the last of both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were due to be harvested Monday.

Redelmeier gave me a tour of the winery. Some cool things were on their way to fermentation. See photos below:

Southbrook owner pops the top on the new amphora the winery purchased. The Petit Verdot is fermenting and smells incredible.
A closeup of Petit Verdot
Here’s the amphora that’s filled with Petit Verdot. Note the colmatore, which is filled with wine and keeps air out. (Photo by Ann Sperling)
Vidal for orange wine is fermenting in tank.
Gorgeous Cabernet Franc