Val Tait, general manager and winemaker at Bench 1775 Winery with some of the spent grapes following the ice wine processing. Mark Brett/Western News

Winter weather welcomed by Okanagan icewine makers

Late harvests of ice wine grapes happened last week for wineries that left their grapes hanging

With time running out, local wineries that delayed picking for the final time this season were rewarded with the arrival of last week’s arctic flow deep freeze.

“We’re breathing a sigh of relief, that’s for sure,” said general manager and winemaker Val Tait of Bench 1775 Winery on Naramata Road. “I would have pulled the pin a lot earlier, my cutoff is pretty well the middle of January and I’ve never had a season where we didn’t hit ice wine before the middle of January.

“But our vineyard manager was just like, ‘let’s hang on, let’s hang on until the end of the month.’ Then this weather system was forecast and it was right, it’s a good thing my vineyard manager was so faithful.”

General manager and winemaker Val Tait of Bench 1775 Winery with some of the grapes left on the vine following last week’s ice wine grape harvest.
Mark Brett/Western New

Her winery left 35 acres of fruit hanging and were predicting to harvest 100 tonnes, but due to the lateness of picking they only had about a quarter of that.

Bench 1775’s wines have earned it the distinction as one of the top eight wineries in Canada and top four in B.C.

Last year’s winter harvest began in early December, coming on the heels of the November 2017 earliest start to ice wine grape picking in the past decade.

The longer it takes for the mercury to reach the desired temperatures (below -8 C) for the required time, the greater the loss to the wineries.

“If we had picked earlier, it would have been better,” said Tait. “The fruit was pretty beat up by this point. Then there’s predation that happens and the fruit literally just starts to melt after awhile, so the yields were pretty low. Pretty small amount of fruit but the quality is very good.

“When you pick it earlier you have more of a fresh fruit kind flavours predominating and when you get the fruit in this late in the season you get more caramel and honey, more developed flavours that come from dried fruit characteristic — so they’re both equally beautiful.”

Related: The Okanagan ice wine harvest isn’t looking so hot

She added the challenge-reward factor of growing grapes in such a unique region makes a winemakers job particularly interesting.

“We see a lot of climatic variations and we never know what the weather is going to deliver, so the fruit is almost always different. I love that,” said Tait.”We grow the fruit to a certain style. You never know what you’re going to be delivered fruit wise. It’s beautiful to be able to play with that but sometimes it’s nerve-wracking like this year.”

There is the added stress on the crews of pickers and processors as the grapes must be processed while still frozen.

“It’s hard on the team because they’re working round the clock in such cold conditions and it’s a mad rush to get it off and processed as quickly as possible,” said Tait.

A few kilometres up the road winemaker Kathy Malone of Hillside Winery was also glad she decided to wait just a bit longer.

“I was planning to pull the plug. I had actually scheduled in that we would pick as a late harvest the previous week and then the forecast was for cold,” said Malone, adding the winery only got 0.7 of the one tonne they were hoping for. “I talked to the wine authority (B.C. Wine Authority) the week before and I think they said 2000 was the last time there was no ice wine harvest. Since 2002 we’ve very often had early arctic outflow, always nice when it happens in November because then it’s done. It’s really hard on the crew to come off this intense harvest cycle.”

Related: Icewine harvest begins for some Okanagan wineries

For the first time the winery actually transported its wooden hand basket press to their Hidden Valley vineyard to process on site.

“It was like the first scene from (the film) Les Misérables those guys cranking away at that press it really sounds like they’re maniacal down there,” she said with a laugh.

So come May or June there will once again be ice wines on the shelves the select local wineries that left the fruit hanging on the vines.


 

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