Ice Wine Industry Challenged by Climate Change

Many prestigious winemakers in the Czech Republic are relieved this week after an Arctic blast drove temperatures below 19 degrees Farenheit (-7 degrees Celsius), finally allowing for the harvest of frozen grapes used to make ice wine.  “Thanks God! It’s minus 13 (Celsius) today,” said Antonin Zatloukal, deputy director of the Znovin Znojmo.  “We never picked the grapes so late before ….. [p]reviously, we always managed to do it before the year’s end.”  Indeed, many winemakers in the Czech republic had given up hope this year, daunted by warm and rainy weather.

Other countries around the world have also struggled with this year’s ice wine harvest.  In Austria, one winemaker stated:  “We normally harvest around 8 December or around the Christmas holidays. That it normally time enough”.  In the Mosel, temperatures were so high that a German Wine Institute representative told Decanter earlier this winter that “it is unlikely Eiswein will be produced this year.”  However, a cold snap during the third week of January saved the Eiswein harvest.

in the United States, Ohio and New York vintners struggled with frustratingly mild temperatures, picking the first week in January – about a month later than usual.  “It was one of the latest ice wine pickings we’ve had,” said Donniella Winchell of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.  These late and light yields led many makers to forgo their ice wine vinification altogether, sadly leaving grapes desiccated on the vines.

In Nova Scotia, winemakers adapted and embraced the narrow window of harvest temperatures, noting that inconsistent freezing and thawing has been making for some interesting wines.  “The (ice wine grapes) need freezes and thaws to enhance the late harvest flavors,” John Warner of Warner Vineyards in Nova Scotia.  We actually need those temperatures going up and down to get the real deep flavors.”  On the other side of the continent, producers in British Columbia got one of their earliest “first harvests” and one of the latest “last harvests” in ice wine history.

Canada has had some interesting struggles of its own associated with ice wine production.  In Canadian Parliament there is currently a debate over the promulgation of a national standard for what constitutes an “ice wine.”  The Canadian government is apparently concerned about “fraudulent” ice wine in the market in proposing a standard that would require ice wine “to be made only from grapes naturally frozen on the vine”.

In Quebec, most wineries do not leave the grape bunches on the vine to freeze, rather they are cut off and left in nets above the vine because cold temperatures and snowdrift in Quebec force wineries to bury their vines under soil during winter.  Other provinces may not need to bury their vines to keep them from dying off over cold winters, but, like in Germany, they do collect grapes that fall off the vine into nets and then freeze – grapes that are allowed to be used in ice wine.

The tightening of ice wine regulations really seems to point to a concern about China’s new palate for ice wine and the likelihood that China could become a player if loose standards do not prevent them from moving grapes grown in vineyards in the south to vineyards in the north where they would be frozen – or just frozen cryogenically.  This concern is a bookend to concerns that up to 80% of ice wine sold in China could be fake.

The temperature at which ice wine may be harvested is regulated in most countries.  Producers, in order to preserve some sort of authenticity and tradition, seem intent on distinguishing their climate-dependent product from artificially frozen grapes.  It is easily anticipated that the price of ice wines is likely to increase over the long-term due to a decrease in supply over time due to warming trends.  And perhaps it may be said that authentic ice wine is effectively a threatened species under the Endangered Wine Act.  Of course there is no EWA – but if there were, many would likely agree that icewine would be among the first wines to be listed.

Climate change will push many winegrowers to adapt to changing weather trends.  In some areas, changes in weather patterns could yield a better product, as was noted by winemakers in Nova Scotia and British Columbia this season.  However, many vineyards other areas – such as New York, Ohio and Austria – did not see harvests at all.  What is clear is that winegrower adaptation and flexibility are key, as in the instance of New York’s January harvest, where there was a shorter window of opportunity for harvesting frozen grapes required fast action.  Yet what the 2011-2012 ice wine harvest reminds us above all else is that climate change will create winners and losers in the wine industry. 

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A discussion about wine, the environment, and climate change