Warm Weather Endangers Ice Wine Grapes

The Associated Press
Friday, December 29, 2006; 4:15 AM

PITTSBURGH -- Ice wine makers across the Northeast and Canada are in dire straits because of this winter's mild weather, and some fear there will be no product at all if January doesn't bring icy temperatures.

The sweet, dessert-style drink cannot be called "ice wine" unless the grapes used to make it are harvested and pressed while frozen, according to federal regulations. Stricter Canadian standards that many growers follow call for temperatures below 17 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We can't pick 'em and then freeze 'em," said Bob Mazza, owner and president of Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pa. "If we don't produce anything this year, we won't have anything to sell (next year)."

Tony Debevc, owner of Debonne Vineyards, in Madison, Ohio, predicts a smaller harvest even if the weather turns cold.

"No one that I know of in the whole eastern United States and Canada has harvested any ice wine," he said.

The origins of ice wine can be traced back to the late 1700s in Franconia, Germany, where "eiswein" was discovered after an early freeze. One frozen grape yields but a few drops, but they are rich, sugary and, according to ice wine loyalists, unmatched for winemaking.

Freezing temperatures concentrate the natural sweetness and acidity of the grapes, as does the added time the grapes spend on the vine. Grapes for most other wines in the northeastern U.S. and Canada are harvested in September and October.

On the Brix scale, used to measure wine's sweetness, ice wines regularly register about double to triple the average for a typical bottle of wine, Mazza said. Ice wine lovers sometimes pay more than $80 for a half-bottle of what is sometimes called "honey in a bottle" or "nectar of the gods."

It takes four times as many grapes to produce a bottle of ice wine, growers said. Two tons of grapes may produce just more than 100 gallons of wine.

Ice wine grapes are usually harvested in December, often in the middle of the night _ before the warmth of the sun damages the delicate fruit.

"They're sort of like vampires," said Harry Weaver, 60, part of a group of friends that helps to harvest grapes every year at Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery in Andreas.

Often working in the snow and wind, members of the "fellowship of the ice wine" wear miners' flashlights as they snap bunches of grapes from vines whose delicate, frozen tendrils make shears unnecessary, he said.

Growers can sometimes wait until mid-January or early February for a cold snap, but current forecasts don't look promising, said Sarah Troxell, winemaker at Galen Glen.

"Only the bravest, the most pure of heart, will come out to pick with us," she said, half-jokingly. "It's a magical experience, and I dread the thought of not having to do it this year."

Growing ice wine grapes is a risky business, even when the weather is right, said Brad Knapp, owner of Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Kutztown. Because the grapes stay on the vine longer than other grapes, they are more apt to fall off or be eaten by foraging birds, deer and even bears, he said.

Despite hungry wildlife and warm weather, all isn't lost _ at least not yet, said Mazza, whose winery has been producing ice wine since 1984.

If the weather does suddenly turn cold, this year's crop could be even sweeter and more complex than those of past years, he said. But as the grapes age and sweeten, they also risk becoming too dry, effectively turning into raisins.

"There comes a point of no return ... and we're rapidly approaching it," Mazza said.


On the Net:

Mazza Vineyards: http://www.mazzawines.com/

Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery: http://www.galenglen.com/

Pinnacle Ridge Winery: http://www.pinridge.com/

Debonne Vineyards: http://www.debonne.com/

© 2006 The Associated Press