Racing against the dawn in rare year for Niagara ice wine grape harvest

·3 min read

It’s 4 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, and under the light of a crisp, full moon, hardy Vidal grapes are being harvested for ice wine at Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

After a mild start to winter, temperatures had finally dipped low enough and a text message had come in hours ago from winemaker, Roberto Didomenico, confirming the harvest was on.

Grapes for ice wine are typically harvested at -8 C, but Didomenico likes to push it another two degrees.

“We find that extra two degrees gets (grapes) a little colder, a little bit more frozen and I get a higher concentrate,” he explained.

Didomenico is tuned into weather forecasts this time of year. The window of opportunity to get the wrinkled, frozen grapes off the vine before sunrise has narrowed since he became involved with Reif in the late ‘80s.

“As our climate changed a little bit, our windows became smaller,” he said. “I remember in the beginning, it was never an issue. We didn’t even think twice that we were going to get cold.”

“We have tonight, tomorrow night looks good, and that’s it — then the forecast is warm, like nowhere near ice wine picking temperatures,” he added.

Like Didomenico, the small Reif crew, a friendly and good-humoured bunch, are also tuned to their screens waiting for word of harvest.

That Reif went ahead with ice wine grapes at all this year is something of an oddity.

Most of the area’s wineries chose to forgo the Niagara tradition after the global health pandemic spoiled international appetites for the sweet elixir.

Reif’s sales have been hit just like everyone else, says Klaus Reif, the nephew of Ewald Reif, who founded the winery in 1982.

But Rief has been producing ice wine since the beginning — they’re not about to stop.

With grapes having to be left longer and an increasingly narrow window for harvest also comes more wasted grapes, significantly impacting this year’s crop.

“I’d say we’ve lost probably 30 per cent to birds, more than if we picked at the beginning of January,” Didomenico said.

“I lose on the birds, I lose on the fact that the gapes are shrivelling a bit, I lose on the fact that berries just start to fall through the nets and they land on he ground, so it’s a loss of product.”

They’ve already cut down to 10 acres from 15 in a typical year. Didomenico thinks 40 tonnes of grapes will be harvested, if he’s lucky. That’s down from upwards of 150 tonnes in a normal year.

In the vineyard, the otherwise frozen and serene countryside is punctuated by a tractor’s drone and the hot breath piped from an exhaust quickly vanishing into the early morning air.

Tractor lights beam down netted rows as the tires crunch through snow.

A blanket of clouds is pulled over the moon, and off in the east, soft pink and blue hues begin to leak through the grey.

By sunrise, around half of Reif’s 2020 ice wine grape harvest is complete.

Farther afield in the pressroom, 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch was slowly forcing down on the freshly harvested grapes, pushing highly concentrated juice from beneath grape skins.

Each press holds around a tonne of grapes in a slow process taking between two and three hours to squeeze juice free.

“Each berry has about a drop of juice in it, so to get that juice out of that frozen marble I have to put a lot of pressure in there,” Didomenico said.

Nearly 15 minutes later, the first drops of juice are seen, and then it's another several months of fermenting.

This year's harvest won't be bottled until the spring of 2022.

Until then, ice wine vintages from 2017 to 2019 are available at the LCBO and at Reif's online store.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week