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Okanagan growers poised for icewine harvest

The Okanagan's annual icewine harvest is expected to get underway later this week.
The Okanagan's annual icewine harvest is expected to get underway later this week.
Image Credit: Eric von Krosigk

Okanagan icewine makers are anxiously watching the thermometer this week as Environment Canada is forecasting icewine harvest temperatures for the first time this winter season.

The crop needs a hard freeze of -8 Celsius or colder as well as frozen berries to qualify, as determined by the Vintners Quality Alliance.

Icewine is produced from grapes harvested while naturally frozen, and pressed in air temperatures of -8 C or colder. No artificial refrigeration is allowed in the process.

Ruiping Cheng is vineyard manager for the 1775 Winery in Naramata. He says he’s organizing pickers in anticipation of harvesting Thursday or Friday night this week, as the forecast calls for a low of -9 C in Penticton Thursday night and -11 C overnight Friday.

Cheng says he has a list of 20 or so pickers, but those numbers often get thinned out around 9 p.m. on picking night as some pickers get second thoughts.

“It’s easier without snow. The grapes can be hard to see and can get dropped on the ground. They can’t be picked with a great deal of speed,” Cheng says.

He plans to start picking in a Keremeos vineyard, then move on to other locations in Okanagan Falls and Naramata. It’s not only air temperature that’s important – the grapes must be frozen before picking can begin as well.

With around 50 acres to pick, Cheng says he lines up more pickers than will be needed to make up for those who don’t show up.

The job pays well, at $25 an hour.

“Generally speaking, everyone is paying the same, otherwise it’s hard to find people, especially this year with COVID-19. There aren’t as many pickers around,” Cheng says.

“Icewine is a big challenge. The crop is weather dependent, and while you’re waiting for the right harvest conditions, birds can take 25 per cent of the crop,” he says.

Kelowna's Summerhill Pyramid Winery winemaker Michael Alexander says he has 25 tonnes of icewine grapes, mostly ehrenfelser, waiting to be picked.

"We're eyeing Thursday and Friday night. The temperatures are looking good and we've got bins ready and a crew on call," he says.

Director of winemaking for Inniskillin Wines, Derek Kontkanen, says it looks like Thursday night is a possibility for the harvest to begin, but Friday is “looking really good” with a forecast low to -11 C .

Inniskillin has icewine grapes in vineyards just south of Oliver totalling around 10 acres.

He says there was a small window for picking that presented itself on Christmas Eve, but that’s been about it for icewine harvest weather so far this year.

“We find there is generally one cold snap at least every winter in B.C. that provides an opportunity to pick. Fortunately, we machine harvest so we only need four or five operators and a couple of other crew. We get it off pretty quick,” Kontkanen says.

“It will be nice to get it picked.”

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