Thanks to cold snap, Northwest ice wine harvest comes early

By on November 21, 2014
Walter Gehringer and his brother, Gordon, make wine for Gehringer Brother Estate Winery from estate vineyards on the Golden Mile Bench in Oliver, British Columbia, which is just north of Oroville, Wash.

Walter Gehringer of Gehringer Brothers in Oliver, British Columbia, is thrilled to have his ice wine harvest already complete. (Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Frigid temperatures throughout the Pacific Northwest have given winemakers the chance to pick grapes for ice wine harvest earlier than expected.

In Washington, British Columbia and Idaho, winemakers took advantage of the cold snap to get their frozen berries in well before Thanksgiving.

“It’s completely done,” said Walter Gehringer, owner and winemaker of Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery in Oliver, British Columbia. “It was a textbook vintage.”

Temperatures that dropped well below 20 degrees Fahrenheit gave workers in the Okanagan Valley two nights to bring in the grapes. Gehringer brought in three varieties for ice wine: Riesling, Ehrenfelser and Cabernet Franc. He picked at 43 brix, a measurement of sugar content; grapes for dry table wines typically are picked at 24 to 26 brix.

“It wasn’t too cold, but it was cold enough,” Gehringer told Great Northwest Wine. “It’s nice to say we’re actually done. We don’t have to worry about doing this on Christmas.”

Gehringer said because this year’s ice wine harvest is so early – he’s picked ice wine as late as February in past vintages – the yields are higher because fewer grapes have been lost to wind, deer and bears. He also said the grapes held onto more all-important acidity and should result in brighter, fresher flavors.

Ste. Michelle gets 8th ice wine harvest

Ice wine harvest in Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Frozen Riesling clusters await harvest at Horse Heaven Vineyard near Paterson, Wash. Chateau Ste. Michelle harvested for ice wine for just the eighth time in its long history. (Photo courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle)

In Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle picked frozen Riesling grapes for only the eighth time in its 80-year history. Last weekend, temperatures plunged to 6 degrees at the estate Horse Heaven Vineyard in Paterson. The winery machine-harvested 15 tons of frozen grapes, which yielded 850 gallons. That’s enough for about 600 cases of half-bottles.

The resulting wine will go into the Eroica brand, said Wendy Stuckey, white winemaker.

“Yields are about a third of what you normally get (when harvesting for table wines),” she said.

For Stuckey, this is her third ice wine harvest since arriving in 2007. Her first was in 2008.

“I remember driving out to the vineyard and it was minus-10 on the thermometer in my car,” she said.

Stuckey never saw those kinds of conditions in her native Australia.

“You never see snow much in the Barossa Valley,” she said. “It snows about every five years and melts when it hits the ground.”

It’s an experience she’s glad to take part in.

“It’s fun,” she said. “It’s quite an unusual concept that you would want your grapes to freeze and make wine out of them.”

Stuckey and her crew also were able to harvest for the exceedingly rare Single Berry Select, a trockenbeerenauslese-style wine that is made only when botrytis infects the grapes. Botrytis, known as “noble rot,” is a fungus that infects clusters of grapes and pierces the skin. The result is that the grapes become raisins, and what little juice is left is squeezed out to craft a stunning, spicy dessert wine.

The Single Berry Select clusters and raisins were picked by hand, and the harvest of 1.5 tons resulted in about 120 gallons. This wine also will go under the Eroica label and, at $200 per half-bottle, it is the most expensive wine made by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Most of it is sold directly to Chateau Ste. Michelle wine club members.

Big ice wine harvest on Red Mountain

Scott, John and JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards & Winery

Three generations of the Williams family stand above the Kiona Chenin Blanc vineyard: Scott, John and J.J. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

On Red Mountain, winemaker Scott Williams produces a Chenin Blanc ice wine nearly every year for Kiona Vineyards & Winery. Last year, he skipped it for the first time because he needed the grapes for his dry Chenin Blanc program.

But this year, he was able to bring in about 2,000 gallons of juice from the frozen Chenin Blanc grapes, which were picked last week.

“This is pretty close to the normal time for us,” Williams said. “We’re usually right around Thanksgiving. We’ve done it as early as Halloween and as late as January.”

The grapes come from a vineyard near the winery that is in a dip where cold air pools and freezes the fruit. Williams said that on the day the grapes were harvested, the grapes were “slushy” around 3 a.m. but were frozen marble hard by 6 a.m.

He’s happy to have harvested completed.

“It feels good to have everything done before Thanksgiving,” he said. “I like doing it early because the further away from harvest you get, the less enthusiastic you are (to pick for ice wine).”

Idaho winemaker thrilled with ice wine harvest quality

Ice wine harvest takes place in Idaho's Snake River Valley.

Workers pick frozen Riesling clusters for Koenig Winery in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. (Photo courtesy of Koenig Winery)

In Idaho’s Snake River Valley, Greg Koenig of Koenig Winery in Caldwell is thrilled about his ice wine harvest, which he is just now wrapping up.

“It’s absolutely the best ice wine year we’ve had,” he said. “It’s miserable to work in, but weather-wise, it’s just awesome.”

Thanks to an early freeze, Koenig is counting on his biggest ice wine harvest ever. Once temperatures dropped to about 8 degrees last weekend, he began picking.

“I bought our pickers new gloves, and they’re happy,” he said.

Koenig also is excited because part of his crop was infected with botrytis, so he will make a trockenbeerenauslese wine for the second time in his winery’s history. The first occurred in 2010, and the resulting wine was tremendously received by consumers and critics alike. He calls the wine “Total Botrytis Affected Riesling” so it uses the same initials as trockenbeerenauslese – TBA.

Koenig is wrapping up Riesling ice wine harvest today, but he still needs to bring in Cabernet Sauvignon for a rare red ice wine. He said that could take place next week, but because of the Thanksgiving holiday, he might wait until December.

“We still have lots of winter left,” he said.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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