From Oliver to Naramata to Kelowna, icewine lovers were in seventh heaven on the weekend as dozens of pickers braved temperatures down to -13 C to pick icewine grapes.
"It's been pretty incredible," said Lori Pike-Raffan with Great Estates of the Okanagan (Constellation wineries in B.C.: Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later, Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs).
"This morning brought ideal conditions at the Dark Horse Vineyard in Oliver for Inniskillin Okanagan to start its icewine harvest in the west. In an interesting coincidence, the Arctic outflow occurred on the same date in 2012, enabling this year's vintage to be picked on the exact same day as last year."
Vineyard manager Troy Osborne led 10-12 employees out at 2:30 a.m. Saturday and they finished harvesting four acres of riesling just before dawn at 7 a.m. He not only covered the grape vines with nets in early November but clipped them at the bottom so birds couldn't get in and any grapes which fell stayed inside.
"We saved most of the crop, 90 per cent. We were lucky to have this cold weather, the right temperature. The brix (sugar level) is ideal at 42. We try to get between 40 and 44 so it's really great," said winemaker Sandor Mayor who was concerned whether the grapes could be harvested for icewine after mild weather in early December.
This crop means he keeps his perfect record of 15 consecutive harvests.
"When I look back, the surprising thing is there was not one year that we were not able to harvest icewine. Sooner or later, it happened. Some years, it happened in late November or mid-December or mid-January. We were lucky to harvest in each year. A lot of luck."
His early assessment of the 2012 vintage is "exceptional. I'm surprised how much flavour we have in the juice."
He said he expects to bottle the icewine in May so it will be ready for sale during the summer. The annual average has been about 200 cases.
The 22-acre Dark Horse Vineyard, planted in 1990 under the direction of Mayer, is considered a "signature" vineyard by Inniskillin.
Jackson Triggs Winery/Okanagan Estates Vineyard just north of Oliver is one of the few in B.C. to use a mechanical harvester to pick icewine grapes. The machine and six to eight staff (for rows the harvester can't reach) started picking 10 acres of riesling at 12:30 a.m. Saturday when the temperature was -13 C and they finished at 7 a.m., said winemaker Derek Kontkanen.
The 15 tons averaged a "fairly high 45 brix, on the upper edge of where we like to be." A second pressing will lower the brix and the two pressings will be blended. They were in very good condition considering the date of harvest although only 50 per cent of the crop was left.
"Part of the problem was we got all this snow so there was not a lot of food for the birds. They go to the laziest opportunity which was the grapes. Whereas in years past, we haven't had any snow when we've picked and it's been good. This year, there was a lot of pressure; all the food was buried in a ton of snow," said Kontkanen.
Mechanical picking is quicker which is crucial in B.C. when the picking window isn't a week or two or four, he explained. And the quality of the fruit is better as the harvester picks only the grapes - no stems - which makes for much cleaner fruit in the press.
He's hoping to bottle in May and have about 650 cases of icewine ready in June-July. Both Mayer (in 2012) and Kontkanen (in 2011 and 2010) were honoured for best icewine at the International Wine and Spirits Competitions in London, England. It is considered one of world's most prestigious wine contests. They also won numerous other awards for their icewine throughout North America.
Pickers braved -12 C at 4 a.m. Saturday at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna. Winemaker John Simes estimated one-half of the crop was lost due to grape drop, wildlife and weather. The winery also picked in Oliver and Naramata.
At Tantalus Creek Vineyards in Kelowna, eight pickers started working in a one-acre-plus vineyard at
6 a.m. Saturday. Winemaker David Paterson expects to produce 60 cases of riesling and significantly less of shiraz, thanks to ravenous flickers and a pesky pileated woodpecker.
Red Rooster Winery employees
celebrated New Year's Eve in the Naramata vineyard.
"Not even an hour into the new year, we harvested 10.3 tonnes of riesling in -10 C (the coldest point of the night -14 C)," said its website. "It was not without any hiccups. Just as the last press was underway, the press started to give us trouble. Thinking it was the frozen grapes wearing on the press, we got the door to open and this is what we discovered: the bladder that makes the press .... was shredded in half. Ahh, the strains of pressing frozen grapes. Thankfully, it was the last press load."