Not Yet Time for Ice Wine

Warm winter keeps winemakers waiting for frozen grapes

by Andrew Adams
ice wine
To make ice wine, grapes need to freeze at around 17 to 18 degrees and stay frozen during harvest and pressing. Credit: David L. Fox
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San Rafael, Calif.—With temperatures higher than normal this winter across many of the continent’s ice wine regions, winemakers have had to delay picking for their pricey specialty. Ice wine can be made only when grapes freeze and stay frozen long enough to accommodate harvest as well as pressing.

In general, winemakers say temperatures need to dip below 18°F for two to three days for a good freeze. Canadian regulations require grapes to be “naturally frozen on the vine while the air temperature is minus-8°C (17.6ºF) or lower, and pressed in a continuous process while the grapes are still frozen.”

From Michigan to Nova Scotia, temperatures several degrees above normal have left winemakers waiting to pick. Ice wine harvests vary from year to year, and sometimes never happen at all, but often take place in mid-December.

John Warner of Warner Vineyards in Nova Scotia issued a statement that this year’s harvest should take place around Jan. 4. “We are not getting the cold weather snaps in early December like we used to, therefore we run the risk of grapes being eaten by birds, snow storms hitting and having to shovel the grapes out.…The earlier the harvest, the easier it is.”

According to the Winery Association of Nova Scotia, the region’s ice wine grapes are typically harvested during the Christmas holidays. “Last year was the longest year ever: We held the grapes on the vine until Jan. 15. We know they can hang, it’s just a waiting game,” Warner said.

Warner Vineyards, located in the Annapolis Valley in Lakeville, reserves five of its 50 acres for ice wine. Warner makes ice wine from Vidal, Ortega and New York Muscat grapes.

Lee Lutes, winemaker and owner of the 25,000-case Winery at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Mich., said he made the difficult decision to freeze grapes in a commercial freezer rather than wait for nature to do it.

By law, ice wine in Canada and the United States must freeze on the vine naturally. United States regulations do not permit an “ice wine” label if the grapes are not naturally frozen.

Lutes said Black Star will “ fully admit we’re going to make a cyro-chilled ice wine” and adjust the label and price for the wine. Black Star’s 2008 “A Capella” ice wine sells for $92.50 on the winery’s website. Lutes said 2008 was the last year he made an ice wine, and he had high hopes for this year. “It was a perfect setup for it. The vines were healthy, things were in balance.”

Lutes said he had left one acre of Riesling hanging for ice wine. He employs what he described as a “diaper” wrap in which bird netting is wrapped over the vine row and then tied up between the vine trunks. Tied in such a manner, the netting not only protects against birds but also catches any falling grapes.

Since 2000, Lutes has been able to count on a good cold snap in early December to make ice wine. That hasn’t been the case recently, and instead of not making ice wine or making another late harvest wine, Lutes said he just decided to put the grapes in the freezer over the holidays. He said he’ll press in the New Year and expects to yield about 80 gallons.

In Romulus, N.Y., Chris King, vineyard manager of Knapp Winery, said he hopes to pick the Vidal grapes left for ice wine sometime after the New Year. In previous years, he said, the grapes would already have been picked. “This is a little bit later, but it’s not horribly unusual,” he said.

Knapp Winery is located in the Cayuga Lake appellation of the Finger Lakes region and makes 14,000 cases of primarily Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Franc, according to WinesVinesDATA. A 375ml bottle of Knapp’s 2010 Vidal ice wine was listed for $24.95 on the winery’s website.

Ontario, a renowned source for ice wine, also has experienced warmer than normal weather said Kevin Ker, a research associate and professional affiliate with Brock University Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. On Dec. 21, he told Wines & Vines that it was about 50°F in Ontario and there hadn’t been any snow.

Because ice wine harvest does not typically begin in Ontario until mid-January, Ker said the harvest hasn’t been delayed, and winemakers may actually be able to enjoy the holidays without worrying about if they’re going to need to call a pick.

Flavors altered by hang time
 He mentioned that research at Brock University has found interesting correlations between the time of an ice wine harvest and the flavors in the finished wine. Grapes that experience multiple freezes and thaws will yield wines with more of a caramel-like appearance with a layered flavor profile. Picking during an early freeze can produce a wine with more upfront fruit flavors. Ker said waiting until late into January or longer can mean a significant decrease in volume; grapes desiccate and fall from vines with the passage of time.

Chateau Chantal in Traverse City, Mich., sells a 375ml bottle of Riesling ice wine for $68. Winemaker Mark Johnson said Michigan has seen a warm and dry winter so far, but Johnson said in his career he’s endured the gamut of weather and conditions.

One year he picked for ice wine Nov. 22; another year he waited until Jan. 17, only to find that there were so few grapes it wasn’t even worth firing up the press. “Some years you get luck, and some years you don’t,” he said.

Last December, Johnson said, he decided to pick in mid- December. Crews dug out vines from under piles of snow, only to discover that the drifts had insulated the bunches and they had failed to freeze.

While other wineries may freeze grapes after harvest for winemaking, at Chateau Chantal, Johnson said “We’re kind of traditionalists, and we’ll stick it out.”  Johnson said he has about three-quarters of an acre of Riesling grapes waiting for icy weather. Because of the challenges in making ice wine, Johnson said the ice wine program is priced to compensate for the fact that not every winter cooperates with the process. “Pretty soon we’ll be growing Cab,” Johnson quipped, “and California will have to switch to bananas and pineapples.”

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