Niagara ice wine harvest... from 2009
Niagara ice wine harvest… from 2009

With this weekend’s projected record-warm temperatures, it feels a little weird to be preparing for a weekend of ice wine themed activities across the border. In a region that can usually set its watch to that first big, bone-chilling weather event in early January, Mother Nature has only teased Niagara with a very narrow window for an ice wine harvest so far this year and people are wondering if there will be a full harvest in 2013.

“I haven’t started getting nervous yet,” says Jonathan Oakes, winemaker at Leonard Oakes Winery.

Ice wine guru, Jonathan Oakes
Ice wine guru, Jonathan Oakes

Oakes is the go-to winemaker in Niagara USA on the topic of ice wine production thanks to his responsibilities at Schulze Vineyards and his own Leonard Oakes Estate Winery – the two largest growers and producers of estate-grown ice wine in this region. Typically the first week in January has been friendly for harvest — but not this year.

“Right now we’re just in a hold pattern. Everything’s been netted since November and everything is still looking well out there,” say Oakes. “We’re looking at another system moving through next week, I just don’t know how cold it’ll get.”

And when it comes to ice wine how cold it gets — down to a fraction of a degree  — can make a world of difference for winemakers. The narrow window I mentioned was cold enough for wineries like Vineland Estate in Ontario and Casa Larga in New York to pull the trigger during the first few days of the year yet Oakes was not seeing the same conditions on his farm.

“It wasn’t quite cold enough here,” says Oakes. “I think we hit 17º or 18º for a couple hours but that was it and it warmed right back up and I don’t think that was remotely close to what I like to see, which it at least 13º or 14º F for a minimum of four hours before I even consider it.”

How can wineries like Vineland Estates take advantage of such a narrow window? For one, machine harvesting only requires a fraction of the time that hand harvesting does. Oakes also points to larger wineries having two basket presses, which allows them non-stop pressing during those critical coldest few hours.

For the first time, Oakes has left some cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc on the vine in hopes of adding a new label or two to Leonard Oakes’s list. He admits it may not have been the best year to do it as there’s already quite a bit of raisining going on. The vidal on the other hand is hanging remarkably well.

“With the warmth during the growing season this year the concentration of sugars is not going to be an issue at all, if anything we may just have to add some acid to adjust the pH,” says Oakes.

He’s also not worried that a second window won’t happen soon enough.

“We’re just hoping that it won’t be like last year and we’ll end of with more than one day to do it all,” laughs Oakes.