An estimated 450 tonnes of frozen grapes for producing the premium icewine were picked in the Okanagan over the weekend, as temperatures dipped to the -8 C required by law.
Steve Berney, general manager of the B.C. Wine Authority says 27 wineries picked grapes to make icewine this year, the same number that committed to pick the 2011 crop as well, although only 22 wineries picked last year.
It was an earlier harvest, though, so quantities were higher, at 654 tonnes.
There were 419 tonnes picked to produce the 2010 vintage of icewine, with 22 wineries participating.
The popularity of icewine is not high amongst local residents, although there is some demand from visitors. The most interest is in Asian markets, noted Ed Schiller, a Kelowna grower and director on the board of the B.C. Grape Growers Association.
He pointed out that when pressing the rock-hard, frozen berries, only a minimal amount of juice is released, so the production for icewine is only a fraction what you’d get from fresh, ripe grapes at the normal fall harvest time.
Crushing is usually done outside, and it can cause damage to the press, because the grapes are so hard. The resulting nectar is very sweet and flavourful, because the water is left behind as ice.
Andy Gebert of St. Hubertus Estate Winery in Kelowna estimated you would only get about half the tonnage from icewine grapes than you would from fresh ones.
He estimated this year’s B.C. harvest is worth in the neighbourhood of $25,000 to $35,000 on store shelves.
It was still dark when vineyard workers began layering on warm clothes Saturday morning in the Okanagan and made their way into the vineyard under large spotlights to begin plucking the frozen grapes.
It was -12 C at Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna when workers assembled about 4 a.m. and winemaker John Simes had been up since 2 a.m., watching the temperature and arranging for pickers to unexpectedly crawl out of their warm beds and marshal in the snowy vineyards.
It’s a totally different scenario from the normal autumn grape harvest, when pickers can often pick wearing shorts, instead of ensuring that every bare patch of skin is covered to protect it from frostbite.
Simes said it’s late in the season this year, so he estimated they’ve lost half the crop to weather, wildlife and normal dropping as the berries mature.
However, he’s philosophical about it. “Losses are part of what happens with this late a harvest,” he commented as he gazed out over the snow-covered vineyard, the lake beyond, and a sun that was just beginning to nose its way into the frozen valley.
Mission Hill also picked icewine grapes in Oliver and Naramata over the weekend.