Winter finally came down hard on New York's Finger Lakes this month with single-digit temperatures at dawn and fresh snow blowing over the rolling vineyards.
The wait was over for an ice wine harvest.
Thick-gloved workers briskly picked frozen bunches of grapes that would be pressed into extra-sweet juice within hours out in the cold air. Hunt Country Vineyards makes a sweet wine that has become a specialty for a number of vineyards dotting upstate New York hillsides — albeit one dependent on the increasingly noticeable vagaries of winter.
"It was probably the most stressful year that we've ever had. It's the latest that we've ever picked," said vineyard owner Art Hunt, standing over a bin of vidal blanc grapes about to be pressed. Wisps of snow covered the fruit.
"It's like biting into the finest sorbet," Hunt said after talking off a glove to taste a grape, "just tons of flavor."
Ice wine harvests are a far cry from travelogue images of grapes ripening under a radiant sun. These grapes are left on the vine through at least the fall. When temperatures get low enough to freeze the water in the grapes, winemakers pounce. The grapes with ice crystals in them yield a thicker, more concentrated juice — around 38 percent sugar compared with 22 percent for juice used to make white table wines. The resulting wine is sweeter, heavier and — because of the extra work to produce it — often pricier.
Ice wine has a long history in Germany and is big in Canada, but it remains a small niche in the multibillion-dollar U.S. wine industry, confined mostly to upstate New York, Ohio and Michigan. The Finger Lakes, New York's highest-profile winemaking region, has had more than about a half-dozen wineries devoting some acreage to ice wines. Vineyards closer to lakes Erie and Ontario have also produced ice wines.
"In Germany, it's a little bit more of a novelty than it is an annual product," said John Fischer, professor of wine and spirits management at the Culinary Institute of America. In upstate New York, he said, "they have turned it into an annual product. It's pretty bankable up there."
Hunt has been making ice wine since 1987, annually reserving a few rows of grapes among his 65 acres under production. Some ice wine makers use Riesling grapes, but Hunt likes the vidal blanc, a tough-skinned grape that hangs in loose bunches.
Grapes plucked this month range from golden green to deeper purples and browns. The darker grapes are affected by botrytis, or "noble rot," a fungus that can be beneficial for dessert wines.
"We have a range of flavors when we press the ice wine. It's going to be very complex," Hunt said. "We have raisiny, honey, plummy flavors and a good crisp acidity."
Growing grapes is a gamble, but more so for ice wine. More time on the vine leaves the grapes vulnerable to poaching deer and birds. Some fall off the vine.
Expecting a mild winter, Hunt harvested half his ice wine grapes in mid-December for late-harvest wine. That left a bit more than a ton of grapes for ice wine by harvest, probably not enough to meet demand for the entire year.
Recent warm weather in the Northeast has heightened concerns about global warming. But Hunt thinks winters will stay cold enough at least during his lifetime. While the ice wine yield this year was small, they had been good the previous two years amid cold winters. It's hard to predict year to year.
"You never can tell," he said. "It keeps you humble."