Bitter Cold This Winter Brings Ideal Ice Wine Season

By Jenna Abate, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 10, 2014; 5:35 AM
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In this Nov. 25, 2005 file photo, Vidal grapes hang on the vine covered in snow waiting to be harvested and pressed for ice wine in Branchport, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

Wineries around the globe pinpoint the height of the traditional grape harvest season to create palate-pleasing wine.

However, in the ice wine countries (Canada, Austria, Denmark, Romania, Germany and parts of the United States), it's a game against Mother Nature, hoping that conditions are just right to make the increasingly more popular dessert wine.

Ice wines are a persnickety type of wine, often sweet and made from frozen grapes, that are more expensive due to the meticulous production process. Sometimes growing the perfect ice wine grapes is impossible due to weather, but in upstate New York, this season has been ideal.

Dave Breeden, winemaker at Sheldrake Point Winery, said, "In my 15 years of making wine, I have never harvested this early and been able to collect quality grapes so late."

The ice wine grape harvest began for Breeden in Ovid, N.Y., as early as Nov. 30 and extended into late January.

"Just today (Jan. 30), I picked my last crop. We've been getting that perfect stretch of weather, between 12 F and 18 F to go out in the middle of the night and harvest."

AccuWeather Agricultural Meteorologist Dale Mohler said, "In November, the Finger Lakes have spent most days around 30 F and most nights around 20 F or single digits going into December."

Breeden explained that it needs to be cold enough that the grapes are frozen when harvested.

"I need them cold but can't have them like marbles because it would make pressing them that much harder. It takes about three days to yield the maximum amount of juice from ice wine grapes."

This year, Sheldrake Point Winery has yielded a great harvest and impart, which is due to its location and this year's dropping temperatures. Breeden believes he is in one of the best locations to experience prime ice wine weather. Being near the of the deepest of the Finger Lakes, he benefits when the lake is absorbing heat in the summer and exerting it in the winter.

Breeden admitted there have been a few nights when he was scared for the precious crop.

Delfino Velasquez picks bunches of frozen Vidal grapes off the vine during a harvest for ice wine grapes Friday, Nov. 25, 2005, in Branchport, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"Sitting above 18 F is critical because if you get 6 below zero, be afraid. That is when you can see vine damage and the cold make the following year's crop loss very real. It can affect the buds and drop their normal mortality."

Breeden said that he realizes the great risk to producing ice wine, but he does it for the benefit of his customers. He went on to describe that his pickers go out in the middle of the night with their headlamps in order to bring back bushels of ice wine grapes.

Leading up to Valentine's Day last year, Sheldrake Point Winery sold a total of 72 bottles of ice wines, which is slightly above average.

Temperatures this winter haven't made it possible for other crops of grapes to thrive everywhere. Oskar Bynke, co-owner of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in Dundee, N.Y., said the cold has potentially damaged his crop's buds for next year.

"Different types of vines do better in colder weather. For example, a Riesling will do much better in cold than a Pino Nior because it has more sensitive vines."

He also mentioned that the fruit does not feel the brunt of the cold, but rather it is the vines. Bynke says winemakers potentially can compensate for any cold damage during the following year's pruning process.

Seven Mountains Wine Cellars in Spring Mills, Pa., has also seen waves of bone-chilling air this year. Scott Bubb, owner and winemaker, said in contrast to the Finger Lake wineries, the cold has affected his tasting events and not so much his crops.

Bubb continued, "I can only say that the weather does have an effect on our tasting room sales. When it's bitter cold, like the temperatures we saw during the two polar plunges recently, most people stay home. However, it seems that the first warmer day we get, with the sun shining, they come to the tasting room in droves. They still come for their wine. They just choose a different day."

The drop in temperature comes as a much welcomed guest to ice wineries as they prepare for Valentine's Day. The cold this year has made preparations easier for the holiday.

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