Icewine: Our Canadian Love Story

We’re treated to a spectacular sunrise over the south Okanagan

Icewine: our Canadian love story

We poke fun at what makes us Canadian. Things we’ve adopted as identity, like maple syrup, toques, and back bacon – or Canadian bacon, as Americans know it. While our country gains international recognition for an increasingly more refined and diverse wine portfolio, one strong identifier remains: we’re known as the icewine country.

Canadians love our seasonal changes, and the winemakers who live here are no exception. We can grow grapes in climates that see temperatures below the freezing point. We’re still experimenting with what grows best where, but thanks to latitude and ingenuity we can make magic in the vineyard when few else can.

Every year, employees from office staff to the CFO at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards participate in their icewine harvest. This year, EAT was invited to join in the ‘fun’. I donned snow pants and trudged into the vineyard to get a closer look at the journey from frozen grape to specialty wine.

the following events transpire in the early hours of January 12, 2013

12:05am: (text message to Tinhorn Creek vineyard manager Andrew Moon) “-11C tonight? Or is the Weather Network lying?”

12:07am: (reply from Andrew) “It’s correct, stay tuned. J”

My phone rings at 4:15am with a wake-up call to get dressed and head to the winery for a pre-dawn picking session. Coincidentally, this is the time my bed feels coziest.

4:45am: (text message from marketing coordinator Lindsey) “Forgot to mention – wear snow pants.”

By 5:00am, Tinhorn Creek’s one-acre block of Kerner icewine grapes looks like it’s under siege. Tractors and trucks rumble in the pre-dawn silence, their bright lights illuminating dark vineyard rows; bundled workers hunch against the cold, untangling nets. It’s a search and rescue mission, one 400ft row at a time.

I’m handed a yellow plastic bucket – like a big grocery basket without handles – and am pointed in the direction of a large work light stationed mid-row. My instructions are to pluck the frozen clusters in a “milking motion.” This is difficult for several reasons. First: I’m wearing bulky but warm ski mittens because it’s -14C. Second: frozen grapes are like marbles: they slip, slide, and go everywhere but the bucket.  Third: the clusters are hidden in dead leaves and shadows. But, I try.

5:20am: Despite having excellent winter footwear, three toes on my right foot are numb. Not shockingly numb, but in need of foot stamping. I’ve managed to pick one bucket of frozen grapes.

By the time I trudge through mid-calf-deep snow to add my inventory to the large bin depository, one row is almost done (experienced pickers are quite fast). When asked how many rows there are to harvest, winemaker Sandra Oldfield replies “Twelve.”

6:10am: I take a break to snap a few photos. This means exposing my skin to the cold. I get a few shots and quickly shove my hands back into the mittens. Even in that short time I can’t feel my fingertips.

While we pick, the tractors do a slow dance at the end of the rows to keep maximum light on the workers. Bins fill quickly and we shuffle from vine to vine in the pre-dawn darkness. Employees toss jokes across the rows, quid pro quo. It’s obvious that regardless of the early hour and cold, this is a group of people that really like what they do.

6:30am: We’ve picked all 12 rows clean. I have warm hands and numb toes. My contribution to the ice wine harvest: 5 buckets.

While my group gathers in the tasting room to indulge in snacks and warm beverages, the cellar crew begins pressing our harvest. The grapes (little frozen marbles) are frozen and the temperature drops even lower inside the press. It’s the start of slow and tedious work.

To get an idea of how challenging pressing frozen grapes can be, imagine holding a glass of water filled primarily with ice. Tip the glass too quickly, and the ice slides toward you in one chunk. The grape press is a little like that – but it’s a 400 liter tank. Turning a large vessel holding several tonnes of frozen grapes (like one big ice cube), without causing damage, takes time and patience.

At 8:00am I head to my warm house and leave the cellar crew to transform our morning bounty. Later that day winemaker Sandra reports that a small percentage of grapes (around 5%) had a touch of botrytis, which adds complexity to the flavour profile. We harvested 1.5 tonnes of grapes, resulting in approximately 500 liters of juice – about half the amount squeezed from the same tonnage of non-frozen grapes.

Like many Canadians, I choose to live through our cold winters. Part of this is for the beauty of it, but it’s also for the bragging rights. Perhaps it’s why we have something of a love affair with icewine. Working in freezing temperatures, risking blocks of precious grapes if the weather doesn’t cooperate, pushing machinery to its limit – it’s a tough love, but it’s ours.


Kerner icewine grapes picked at 5:00am by the author


Pre-dawn harvest of Kerner icewine grapes. By BCWA regulation, the grapes must be harvested at -8C or below at 32.0 Brix. Tinhorn’s harvest was at -14C, and the grapes came in at 46.8 Brix.













A forklift shuttles icewine grapes from bins to the outdoor press

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards harvested their 2012 Kerner Icewine on January 12 2013 at -14C. A frosty morning.


























Each grape bin is weighed and recorded before being added to the press

Liquid gold: a relatively normal flow rate from a press loaded with frozen, marble-like grapes.













Social media meets winemaking: winemaker Sandra Oldfield tweets as she tastes freshly pressed icewine.

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer.\r\n\r\nWith her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal \r\n\r\nmeasures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, \r\n\r\nshe quit ...

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