Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Warm Temperatures Affecting Grapes For Ice Wine

You don’t need grapes to make wine, but you do need ice to make ice wine. And, therein lies a problem.

This spectacularly mild winter is affecting more than ski centers and heating fuel distributors. With temperatures routinely running in the 50s and 60s in many areas on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border where much of the ice wine is produced, necessary conditions for harvesting grapes for ice wine manufacture simply are not there.

"We’re not getting the lows, and grapes are starting to dehydrate on the vines," Doug Miles told me. He operates Miles Wine Cellars on the west shore of Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes, usually a good spot for ice wine grapes.

"Normally, you need temperatures to get down to about 8 degrees Farenheit," he said. "Then, you start picking at about 2 in the morning and keep going until about a half-hour before sunrise to get the crop in. We’ve been experiencing temperatures in the 50s and even the 60s this winter and it’s definitely going to take its toll."

Jim Trezise, head of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation which works to educate consumers and promote products on behalf of the state’s 200-plus wineries, is a lifelong Finger Lakes resident who anticipates harvests and production statistics. Not when I contacted him the other day, however.

"I can’t imagine 2007 ice wine, given that it’s 60 degrees and I’m enjoying a glass of chardonnay on my deck next to the lake," he said.

North of the border, the situation is about the same.

Reports Trezise, " … The Ontario folks are sweating bullets this year because of the mild winter, but still holding out hope. … This would clearly hurt Ontario more than New York, but none of us in this industry want anyone, anywhere to be hurt by weather, as we all endure it."

The normal ice wine yield is 40 gallons from a ton of grapes. It takes about four times as many grapes to make ice wine as it does standard wine, thus the price points usually are higher for the sweeter, thicker products.

Growers are expecting that output to drop to the 25-30 gallon range because of the warm spell, which no doubt will drive up prices even further as well as cutting into availability. The latter is a common problem for many New York wine producers who don’t churn out wines in great abundance.

Legalities prevent winemakers from simply slapping an ice wine label on their products. In the U.S., a product cannot be called an ice wine unless the grapes are harvested and pressed while frozen, meaning you cannot pick them, then freeze them, then process them. Canadian regulations are similar.

All is not yet lost, Doug Miles points out.

"We still have until about late February before we start ruling out any sort of sufficient freeze, but it’s not an ideal situation. Also, at the current temperatures, the vines are not as winter hardy as we might hope because they haven’t had a chance to toughen up."

Given the historic cold winters in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states that regularly produce ice wine, a cold snap in the next few weeks could save the day. Or, last-minute harvesting without benefit of a freeze would at least let producers label their products "late harvest" wine, a style enjoyed by many consumers but not as pricey — and, therefore, not as lucrative — as ice wine.

© 2006 Hearst Newspapers