Ice Wine: Taking full advantage of cold weather

February 4, 2010

 

altFeeling damp, cold and miserable lately? It’s all a matter of perspective. I took a trip to Northern Illinois a couple of weeks ago, and the morning temperatures never got as high as zero.

The worst morning the thermostat read -11.  I’m not talking wind chill index here, just degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature causes your face to hurt when you walk out the door, it’s too cold.

I did notice, however, that Illinois has a burgeoning wine industry. I didn’t get a chance to sample them, and, as I’ve said, I’m not a wine reviewer anyway.  But it caused me to wonder how those grapevines survive in sub-zero weather. Maybe it’s good for them, killing the various insects, bacteria and other parasites that plague vines in warmer climes.

I’m told there are commercial wineries in all 50 states.  California produces more than 90 percent of the nation’s wine, so that fact doesn’t pose much of a threat to the industry here.

There is a wine that is only made in cold places, however, and naturally enough, it’s called “ice wine.”  It is made by leaving the grapes on the vine until the first hard freeze, and then harvesting and pressing them while still frozen.

The water content of the grapes forms ice crystals, concentrating the flavors of the juice in the remaining liquid. The wine made from this process is a sweet dessert wine, and it is very pricey. They normally are sold in small bottles, 375 milliliters or smaller.

The cost apparently is a function of the difficulty of making ice wine. The weather doesn’t always cooperate, and leaving the grapes on the vine that long leaves them vulnerable to rot, birds and other wildlife. Growers have invented various methods to screen the vines from marauding birds and such.

Harvesting typically happens at night when the temperatures are the lowest, which means lighting equipment is needed, and the grapes are hand-harvested, which adds to the labor cost. The removal of the water from the grapes during the process also means the yields are much smaller than with conventional wine.

Ice wine supposedly was invented by the Germans a couple hundred years ago, probably by mistake. An early frost before the harvest usually meant the grapes were fed to the livestock, but some enterprising grower decided to see what would happen if he went ahead and fermented them.

Canada is a major producer of ice wine, and reportedly does well because the winters are more consistently cold than in the European growing regions. Upstate New York also produces ice wine, and I gather wineries in Washington and Oregon also have dabbled in it.

As with most wine products, there are strict rules involved, and controversy. The rules have to do with how cold it must be to produce ice wine, and what sugar content the wine should have to be classified as ice wine.

The controversy comes from some enterprising folks who wondered why it was necessary to leave the ice wine process up to the whims of the weather. Why not just harvest the grapes, toss them in the freezer, and then press them?

Not fair, said the folks who live in those miserably cold places, trying to hang on to at least one advantage to their geography. Ice wine must be made from grapes frozen on the vine before harvest.

I’m not sure if there is a taste difference, but it’s irrelevant to me, since (a) I don’t care much for dessert wines, and (b) I can’t afford ice wine prices.

The California wine industry got some good-news bad-news recently when California Association of Winegrape Growers president Karen Ross was appointed chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The good news is that all California agriculture should benefit from having Ross at the federal agency – she’s smart, competent and articulate.

The bad news is that the California wine industry just lost an effective spokeswoman.

As a journalist, while I’m glad to see Ross get promoted to the national stage, I’m sorry to lose such a good source. Ross always was accessible, had something intelligent to say, and combined that with a sense of humor. I wish her well.

One of the wine industry’s major conferences takes place in late January, just beyond my deadline. The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium runs the last week in January in Sacramento. The event includes a trade show where the curious can check out all manner of wine-making equipment, most of it geared toward large operations; and a lot of seminars on topics of interest to growers and vintners.

If you are interested, check it out online at www.unifiedsymposium.org.

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