The expression “turn lemons into lemonade” has a figurative equivalent in icewine: If late-season grapes freeze before they are harvested, winemakers use them for this sweet, relatively low-alcohol wine.
German vintners originated icewines in the 1700s, and they remained a salvage operation until well into the 20th Century. Odds of an early freeze increase along with degrees latitude, and 43° is close to the northern extreme for growing grapes. To make the best of the inevitable, winemakers in Canada’s Niagara region set out 35 years ago to produce top-end icewines.
Vineland Estates Winery has established itself as one of the premium icewine suppliers, with recent vintages retailing for as much as $80 a bottle. A command of viticulture and winemaking expertise only goes so far, however; to take icewine, and the rest of its portfolio, to the next level, Vineland embraced a vision-based sortation system that represents a new state of the art for winemakers worldwide.
With annual production of 50,000 cases, Vineland is too big to be called boutique but well short of big time. Most of its grapes are grown on the surrounding 120 acres on the Niagara Peninsula, 20 miles west of the Falls on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. While optical sorters are in common use for produce inspection in many food plants, grapes are a special case.
Brian Schmidt, Vineland’s winemaker, began eyeing the technology in 2008, when the first specialized machines started entering the market. But automated grape sorting wasn’t ready for prime time until 2014, when Vineland took delivery of its French-made Pellenc system. It remains the only system of its kind in Canada and one of a handful in North America, according to David Hulley, director-customer experience.
“The selectivity wasn’t as attuned in the first generation of machines,” Hulley explains. “Grapes are pretty messy, and the spray fouled the optics.” Another issue was complete removal of petioles, the narrow stems that attach leaves to the vine. Late harvests are plagued by a higher volume of petioles, “and even small amounts left behind are undesirable because of the bitter taste they impart in the wine,” he says. Vibratory fingers in the destemmer upstream of the sorter dramatically reduce the petioles scanned and air-blasted away, making complete removal much more likely.
Pebbles, leaves and other materials other than grapes (MOG) make it past the destemmer, and the sorting machine quickly identifies and removes MOG. The real quality improvement, as it processes 10 tons an hour, is the pass/no pass decision it makes for 2,000 pieces of fruit per second. Raisins and not-quite-ripe grapes are among the rejected pieces, but many of the unripened grapes “are ideal for rose wine,” according to Hulley. A second pass sorts the pieces of rose fruit from the rest.
Winemakers were so pleased with the results, they began referring to the sorting system as “the Game Changer.” The machine spawned its own series of red and white blends with names that salute individuals committed to continuous improvement, such as the winemaker’s father (Visionary) and the vineyard’s viticulturist (Obstinate).
A lifestyle choice
Napa Valley may be the gold standard in North American wine production, but the Hudson Valley is home to the continent’s earliest viticulture. From there, winemaking gradually spread northward, to New York’s Finger Lakes area, and westward toward the Niagara Escarpment, the geological formation that extends east from the Falls in an upward arc tracing through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and down through Wisconsin’s Door County and points south. Vineland is part of Twenty Mile Bench, a sub-appellation of the Escarpment and part of Canada’s largest wine-producing region.
Vineland Estates provides a lifestyle model as much as premium wines to its fan base, which includes 1,100 wine club members, many of whom are regular winery visitors. The estate includes a restaurant, accommodations and event space and is ranked among Trip Advisor’s top destinations on the Ontario wine trail, drawing about 100,000 visitors a year.
Prohibition dealt a serious blow to the region, which spent decades trying to recover its former stature. Vineland’s founder began planting grape vines in the St. Urban Vineyard in 1979. Soil conditions are particularly amenable to Reisling wine, as well as Cabernet Franc and Vidal blanc. Discounted icewines gave way to premium versions in the 1980s, when provincial authorities established a standard of identity that stipulated the grapes could not be harvested until a sustained temperature of -8° C/17.6° F was reached.
By then, dehydration has occurred, leaving a concentrated nectar with elevated sugars (approximately 37 Brix). Yeast cells are overwhelmed and die off quickly during fermentation, leaving a sweet wine with about 9 percent alcohol by volume.
Natural variations from harvest to harvest are inevitable, even desirable, but vision sortation has smoothed out the peaks and valleys, making crop yield the biggest wild card and improving overall quality. The technology did not come cheap: The Pellenc S.A. system came with a $500,000 Canadian price tag, according to Hulley. Cleaning cycles take 2.5 hours, and ROI is stretched out by the truncated, six-week timeframe of the harvest.
Consequently, the system operates as a tolling service. To date, 11 area wineries have availed themselves of the sortation system. “All boats rise with the tide,” Hulley says simply. “We live by that.
“You have to make money, it’s a business, but we make something that speaks of the place and a sense of the pride and joy it brings,” he continues. Unexpected expenses and major purchases like the Pellenc machine require deep-pocketed ownership. The estate’s former owner was a millionaire who sold to a Toronto billionaire.
“If you invest $30 million in a winery,” he laughs, “I hope that’s not your last $30 million.”