By JAMES MCALPINE
Students, faculty and friends came out early and faced -16°C weather to harvest grapes for icewine in what has become an annual tradition at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus Food and Wine Institute.
Seeking to harvest the grapes early in the day before the warmth of the sun could de-thaw them, at 6 a.m. on Jan. 13, roughly four dozen eager people awaited the beginning of the harvest at the college’s vineyards where there has been an icewine harvest every year since the Food and Wine Institute opened its doors in 2000.
The history can be traced further, however, to around 1975 when Niagara’s Inniskillin Winery was formed under the leadership and watchful eye of Donald Ziraldo, and his partner Karl Kaiser. Ziraldo can be credited for driving Niagara icewine to being an internationally recognized luxury product by, through Ziraldo and Kaiser’s own volition, the creation of wines which could be taken seriously on an international level at competitions, wine tastings and through their reception in the global market.
The harvest this year at the Niagara College vineyards, brought in enough to produce, as Canadian Food and Wine Institute faculty Thomas Schulz believes, about 300 litres of Vidal icewine, from approximately 600 kilograms of harvested grapes from the vineyard.
This icewine is produced by pressing the grapes, while they are still frozen from the harvest, to create a concentrated liquid bearing the special sweetened taste of icewine, its defining characteristic.
Described in an email from the college’s Communications Specialist Julie Greco as “liquid gold”, the 2014 harvest is expected to go on the shelves for sale at the institute this time next year according to Gavin Robertson, a former student of the Winery and Viticulture Technician program and now a faculty member at the institute.
The cost is determined by quality of a harvest and by economic factors such as demand, inflation and competition. However, the price will likely range between $25 and $75 when taking into account prices from previous years.
First-year Winery and Viticulture Technician student Emma Smalley said there was a large turnout for the harvest this year as many of the second-year students had just been returning from their placements.
After the harvest pickers were able to go inside to enjoy hot drinks and food provided by the culinary department.
Schulz states the program here is the only wine school in the world to do this type of event, and says the support received from the rest of the Food and Wine Institute helps make this event seem “more fun” and less like typical work.
With new wineries opening every year in Niagara and other parts of Canada, such as British Columbia and Nova Scotia, the demand for educated people with the hands-on skills taught in the Winery and Viticulture Technician program is steadily increasing. By limiting the number of accepted applicants, it creates the opportunity to help secure a job market for Niagara graduates for the next decade, says Schulz.
“There’s always a harvest somewhere,” says first-year Winery and Viticulture Technician student Saul Warren when asked where he would consider applying for placement. “I’m going try and find work in this area, but when you’re starting in the field you kind of need to go where the work is.”
“I would maybe consider staying here for the placement, but I’m also looking into BC [British Columbia], and after the program I would love to go to South America,” says Smalley.
Doug MacKenzie, another first-year Viticulture Technician student, said, “I kind of feel like Niagara is an up and coming leader to be on the map in the wine world soon, so being a part of what is Niagara, it would be really awesome to just be a part of the growing region and growing in size and in quality of wine; it would be awesome to be part of.”