It was only 3 a.m.on Saturday, January 14 but the Niagara College Teaching Winery was already buzzing with activity.
That’s when a crew of more than 60 students arrived, bundled up to brave the sub-zero temperatures, ready to participate in the College’s 2017 Icewine harvest.
Many of them hadn’t yet slept. But smiles bright and spirits were high as they made their way through rows in the vineyards, picking frozen grapes from the vines. Their mission: to experience first-hand what it takes to create one of Niagara’s sweetest treasures.
The Icewine harvest has become a rite of passage for students from the College’s Winery and Viticulture Technician, and Wine Business Management programs, who learn all aspects of Icewine production – from picking grapes in the cold weather, to producing the wine, to bottling by hand.
“Our program is based on hands-on and practical experience and it doesn’t get more real than Icewine picking,” said Craig Youdale, dean of the College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute. “The students are enthusiastic and passionate about the wine industry in Canada, and this is part of the legacy of our national brand.”
Several students expressed how they valued the opportunity to have this rare learning experience as they prepare for careers in the wine industry.
“This is the most amazing experience you can have at NC. It’s unbelievable that we, as students, get to participate in an Icewine harvest,” said Winery and Viticulture student Christian Huber, who came to NC from Indiana where his family owns Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyards.
Huber recently returned to NC after studying abroad. Last year he went to Italy where he worked at Paololeo Winery, and then moved onto Napa Valley, California where he worked at Domain Chandon for the fall harvest. He said the Icewine harvest is part of what sets Niagara College apart and is part of what drew him to NC.
“Noone other than Niagara College has such an in-depth program,” he said. “It’s not only about the technical skills and hands-on experience in the classroom, and out in the vineyards, it’s opened up so many different opportunities for me.”
For Winery and Viticulture student Charles Denault, it was his second Icewine harvest at NC and his third overall. Denault is from a Quebec where is family owns a winery, Vignoble Sainte-Pétronille. He enrolled at NC to gain the experience he needed to follow his family’s tradition and pursue a career in the wine industry.
“It’s nice to be out here. It’s a sacrifice we make for Icewine, those who really like Icewine,” said Denault. “It’s a part of our industry that we need to learn and need to continue.”
The crowds of bundled-up students who participated did not only include wine students. About a dozen students from the Ecosystem Restoration program joined the action.
“It’s such a unique experience. Our program has students from across Canada and around the world so the word about this spread through our class,” said Ecosystem Restoration student Emma Giesbrecht who volunteered to support her father – winemaking professor Ron Giesbrecht – and recruited interested classmates to join her. “We just love to be outdoors, so we wanted to be a part of it. It’s a great experience.”
Ron Giesbrecht, who has more than 25 Icewine harvests under his belt, noted that this year’s weather conditions presented challenges. He had been watching the forecast for weeks in the hopes temperatures would drop to minus eight degrees, the temperature needed for the Icewine harvest.
“Most wineries in the region picked for their Icewine in December, when our students were in exams, or in early January when they hadn’t returned from the holidays,” he said. “Since it’s only minus six now and it’s the coldest in the forecast for the next couple of weeks, this will be more of a student exercise than for our official Icewine.”
NC winemaker Gavin Robertson and wine professor Thomas Schultz also brought their expertise to this year’s harvest, supported by CFWI associate dean Gary Torraville who cheered on the students’ efforts.
This year, Niagara College’s Icewine harvest activity coincided with the 2017 the Niagara Icewine Festival (weekends from Jan. 13 to Jan. 29). Wineries across the Niagara region, including the NC Teaching Winery, are taking part in this event to celebrate this bounty of winter.