Niagara College Icewine picking by Lisa Andrews

Niagara College Icewine Harvest

By:Lisa Andrews, iYellow Ambassador, iYellow Wine Club Niagara College Campus Edition

As a student of the Wine Business Management Program at Niagara College, I don’t really get the opportunity to work in the vineyard or get the hands on experience that first and second year viticulture students do. I’m a bit envious of this, and I feel that it’s in my best interest to know the industry inside and out; plus it really does seem like a lot more fun than learning about the bottom line all the time!

For whatever reason, I was super elated when I heard about the school’s annual icewine harvest (though apparently I was the only one). First off, the fact that there were still grapes left to be harvested at the end of January seemed kind of strange to me, and also, this type of news or opportunity doesn’t usually reach us bizz kids. I immediately jumped at the chance to take part in this unique Canadian phenomenon and grew impatient with the warm weather we were getting. The temperature must reach a minimum of -8®C for 3 consecutive days and hold through for the whole harvesting and pressing to legally call it “Icewine” by VQA and internationally legislated standards. I know what you’re thinking: why on earth would you want to pick grapes in that weather. Well, these cold temperatures ensure that all the water in the grapes is frozen so that we only press off the concentrated sugary and viscous center that’s been called ‘liquid gold’. Let me tell you, it didn’t take me long to reconsider that earlier excitement and impatience when I woke up to a cold, snappy and blizzardly morning in downtown St. Catharines at 6:00am that Friday! Luckily I was able to convince one more classmate, Jon, to participate, and wouldn’t be the only one without a clue.

When we got there, it was still snowing and the first and second year viticulture students were just starting to filter into the vineyard with their pruning shears and buckets. I guess I looked lost enough because within 45 seconds of staring blankly, Jolanta, a first year student, was kind enough to show me how to take the netting off! When a vineyard is destined for Icewine, the vines are netted to keep the birds from eating all of our delicious icewine grapes throughout the months leading up to harvest. This is not 100% effective: rigid, obscenely preserved birds, come tumbling out of the netting, a shock to the uninitiated. This is the romantic grape harvest I imagined! And then there’s the cold…

Donald Ziraldo hit it on the head when he coined the term “Extreme Winemaking” in his latest book venture. Canada, along with Germany and Austria in their coldest years, is special among wine regions in the sense that we have two separate harvests, one in the fall and one in the winter. Only in Canada can we guarantee the frigid temperatures required to make icewine, year in, year out. What made the bitter morning not just bearable but even fun was being in a field of forty students, (most of them working not by choice, compelled by the requirements of their program, but smiling anyway), working as fast as we could to get the grapes in and get the heck out of the blistery weather. The coffee was great if you could get to it before word went around, and then you would have to get it down before it became ice in your cup. Mysteriously, as the morning wore on the crowd seemed to thin out a bit. I imagined students lost and freezing among the vines, like those mountain climbers on Everest.

And for my favourite part...the pressing! Chris and Ben, two students on co-op, along with our head wine maker Terrance (a.k.a - affectionately known as -T-Rex) were pressing small batches of icewine to be sent off for VQA testing. The first variety to come in was the merlot. I will admit, I did eat my fair share of them while picking - one for me two for the bin! The pressing has to happen quickly to avoid any thawing, but when I saw liquid gold pouring out of the hand-cranked basket press it suddenly made sense what we had been doing all morning. My favourite varietal had to be the Petite Verdot. Destined for blending with other red grape varieties – something that has only recently been permitted by the VQA - the juice coming off the press had the most beautiful fuchsia colour and delicious berry and rhubarb flavours, absolutely incredible! The pressing itself counts as hard labour in my books! It took all of my weight to get an ounce or so of juice! Bitter sweet.

So, aside from freezing my face off and losing my dear friend Jon’s keys in the vineyard, never to be seen again until spring thaw (very sorry about that Jon), I had a great time and a totally unique experience. I feel lucky and kind of proud to have been a part of it all. I will also hold the steadfast belief that this year’s icewine will be the best because I got to be a part of its process. This may be a matter of personal taste but I hope at least to inspire a new appreciation for icewine. Big thanks to Dr. Tom and Terence for making this happen, all the Vit students who helped me along, and of course, Jon for being a crazy volunteer with me and for forgiving me for losing his keys!


Song "Canadian Winter" written and performed by Kim Odine