Niagara-On-The-Lake Town Crier
By Melinda Cheevers

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — It wasn’t just those ardent fans of a white Christmas that were cursing the warm weather seen in late December, icewine makers found it a little worrisome as well. Those fears were pushed aside this week, however, when temperatures dipped below -10 degrees Celsius long enough for icewine harvest season to get underway.

At Pillitteri Estates Winery on Niagara Stone Road, it was an early start to the day. Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at the winery, started monitoring the temperatures around 2 a.m. when it sat at -8 degrees Celsius — the minimum temperature required to harvest icewine grapes. At 3 a.m., he headed out to the vineyard to check things out for himself and opted to wait a bit more. Finally, at 6 — when the temperatures dropped below -10 degrees Celsius — the crew came together, Slingerland fired up the harvester and got to work.

“This is average,” he said of the Jan. 4 harvest date. In some years, they’ve picked in November or December, while other years it’s been later — including one time when harvest took place in March. “Although the cold spell is less severe this year compared to the last two it is still cold enough for a majority of the Icewine grapes to get frozen enough to harvest.”

While others may have been taken off guard by the cold spell, Slingerland said he was prepared for it.

The beginning of January, he said, is a time when there is often a cold fluctuation in temperatures.

It’s not just Mother Nature the grapegrowers had to contend with — birds are a problem too, Slingerland said. The grapes prove to be a tempting treat for the feathered foes and the longer the grapes sat on the vine, the higher the chance they would be eaten by birds.

Harvest should be complete in the small window of the cold spell this week, he said. In the past, when grapes were picked by hand, Slingerland said the process took much longer. They’d have groups of up to 100 people out picking during the icewine harvest. With such cold temperatures, he said enthusiasm and as a result, picking speed, often waned after the fourth, fifth or 10th hour.

“With mechanization, we can now harvest five times the volumes of grapes per cold period than when the crop was hand harvested,” he said. Slingerland was operating the harvester while other crew members manned the trucks and presses back at the winery.

While Slingerland awoke at 2 a.m. to monitor the vines and temperatures, that’s when winery founder Gary Pillitteri was heading to bed.

“I stayed up watching and once it hit (-8 degrees Celsius), I went to bed. I knew it was on,” he said.

Just a few hours later, at 5:30 a.m., he was up again ready to watch the start of another icewine harvest.

“In the 30 years I’ve owned the winery, I’ve never missed the start of the harvest,” he said.

Mother Nature was on his side this year, as that afternoon Pillitteri was scheduled to head down to Florida.

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