Bitter cold temperatures perfect for harvesting northern Ohio's ice wine grapes

CLEVELAND - So, what were you doing during last night's deep freeze? Hopefully, keeping warm indoors.

Well, Folks at Ferrante Winery, in Geneva, were out in the vineyards harvesting wine grapes.

Nick Ferrante has waited all winter for just this kind of weather. Every year, he sets aside several acres of Vidal wine grapes and leaves the clusters hanging on the vine. Once the temperatures drop into the teens, the grapes freeze. Once the grapes freeze, it's time to make one of Ohio's premier beverages: ice wine.

"Tonight's the right night," said Nicholas Ferrante, winemaker at the Ashtabula County winery. "I made the decision to allow the grapes to hang until colder temperatures created a solid freeze."

To make the best ice wine, you've gotta have it cold. Temperatures in the middle and upper teens are best.

Most of the water left in each berry will freeze, but the sugars and other flavors will not. The winemakers rush to press the grapes while they are still frozen. This results in pure, undiluted flavors and high sugar content, with very little water in the mix. That's the perfect ingredients for ice wine.

But when to harvest is the question. Most Ohio wineries harvested their ice wine grapes back in December during the brief holiday cold spell.

"I didn't think it was quite cold enough back then," Ferrante said.

This decision to wait did not come without consequences. Each day on the vine cuts down on the yield. The grapes actually shrivel up like raisins as the they slowly dry out during the fall. Netting around the vines attempts to keep animals from enjoying the sweet fruit. But, deer and raccoons still manage to snack through the netting.

Despite the lower yield in fruit, allowing the grapes to hang on the vine even longer concentrates the flavors and increases the sugar content of each berry. The result is a sweet, incredibly delicious, dessert wine.

Last night, the harvesters battled wind chills below zero and heavy snow squalls. But, the efforts were worth it.

"Brix (percent of sugar in each grape) soared into the high 40s," said winery owner MaryJo Ferrante. "It was amazing to be with the winery guys and see firsthand how it's done. It gives me a renewed appreciation of the art of ice wine making."

Once the grapes were pressed, the resulting liquid was immediately poured into the fermenters. The shivering workers harvested between eight and 10 tons of grapes. Although, that may sound like a lot, its really not.

"That will only produce about 300 gallons of ice wine," Nick said.

The picked fruit averaged about 35 percent sugar overall. The resulting wine will be about 15 percent sugar after fermentation. 

"Vidal blanc ice wine is a much sought-after dessert wine," MaryJo said. "(It has) rich aromas of apricot and orange blossoms with flavors of honey and ripe melon."

Also nestled on a hill in Ashtabula county between vineyards is something that looks like a church. Well, it actually was, but not anymore. Manager, owner and winemaker Gene Gigel has transformed it into not only a beautiful winery, but one that produces excellent ice wines from his select grapes harvested when the temperature reached 13 degrees, then rose to 17. Sigel called his crews consisting of mostly volunteers braving the cold from midnight until 4 a.m. one morning. Sigel loves promoting his and his colleague's local ice wine.

"In March we have our annual Ice Wine Festival, it's been going on for ten years now, and it's been an overwhelmingly successful event. We get probably 5000 people come and visit several of the wineries in this area. They visit South River Vineyard, Grand River Cellars, Chalet Debonne' Vineyards and a couple others in this area. They get sample glasses of each ice wines, some paired appetizers, or some festival glasses. Pay $6.00 at each one for the ice wines," said Sigel.

The wine will be bottled in the spring. Several other northern Ohio wineries produce ice wine. The 10th Annual Grand River Valley Ice Wine Festival will be held during the weekends of March 2, 9 and 16 from noon to 5 p.m. at participating wineries in the Grand River Valley region.

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