Kyp Rowe, vineyard manager and cellar master at Rollingdale Vineyards, shows Pinot Blanc grapes that are going to be picked for icewine, as soon as it gets cold enough.
If an expected Arctic cold front pushes the mercury below minus 10 C, the owner of Rollingdale Winery plans on giving a late-night phone call to a half-dozen friends to help pluck chilled Pinot Gris grapes from the West Kelowna vineyard.
"We've asked them to be ready to come if it gets as cold as the forecast says," Dale said Tuesday. "This would be one of our earliest-ever ice wine harvests. Normally, it doesn't get this cold until sometime in January."
Dale has set aside about two-thirds of his entire grape crop for ice wine. The fruit reaches just the right combination of slushy sweetness at temperatures between minus 10 C and minus 14 C.
"Our happy spot is right at minus 12, but I have picked at minus 10 some winters when I wasn't sure it was going to get colder than that," Dale said.
Measured against the total volume of wine grapes grown in the Okanagan, the fruit earmarked for icewine production accounts for just a small percentage. In 2011, for example, just 670 tons of the 23,000 tons of wine grapes were used for ice wine.
However, the returns for individual wineries can be substantial, with small bottles of ice wine selling for $60, and higher on the export market.
An early harvest is prized by icewine makers as it means they don't have long to leave the grapes out on the vines, where they can be eaten by birds or shrivel up due to dehydration.
The proliferation of counterfeit icewines in Asia has eroded that export market for some Okanagan vintners. But Dale has been making icewine for a decade, and has long-standing contracts with major buyers such as an Asian supermarket chain.
"We've been able to sell our icewine before it's even bottled," Dale said. "But we've set aside even more grapes for icewine this year just so we have some to sell here at the winery as well."