Time is ripe for honey in a bottle
It's expensive: A bottle slightly larger than a can of soda can cost $40.
NORTH EAST, Pa. (AP) -- Bitter nighttime air, shifting snow drifts and the sight of skiers can mean only one thing in the icebound Great Lakes vineyards -- it's harvest time.
An intense cold snap has sent vineyard workers along Lake Erie in northern Ohio and other Great Lakes regions scurrying early to pick by hand the frozen pearls that will be pressed into ice wine, known alternately as "honey in a bottle" or "nectar of the gods."
Ice wine lovers regularly plunk down $40 for a half bottle of the deliciously sweet beverage that is as much a dessert as it is dessert wine.
The ice winemaking process is so labor intensive and risky, only a limited number wineries even try to produce it.
The last grapes at Debonne Vineyards in Madison, Ohio, were being pressed Monday and Tuesday for ice wine.
"It's 10 to 15 degrees, it's 2 in the morning and you are on your hands and soaking knees before you bring the grapes to the winery to press," said Tony Debevc, owner of Debonne Vineyards in Madison, Ohio.
Growers are expecting an above-average to exceptional vintage this year. But the cold winds that brought an early harvest also did some damage at Mazza Vineyards, which lost 85 percent of its crop to winds that rushed over the sandy slopes of Lake Erie and through Pennsylvania.
"Ice wines are always risky to produce and there's no guarantee you'll be able to make them if the weather conditions aren't right," said owner Bob Mazza. "We've got a pretty good indication that the quality this year is comparable to last year, which was very, very good."
Skiers have begun stopping at the vineyard, just east of Erie, to pick the blue half-bottles of Mazza's ice wine on their way to the Peek'n Peak resort, a short drive over the New York border.
The bottles are thin and tall, like those that usually hold grappa or fine brandies, and sealed with wax. Mazza charges $40 for 375 milliliters, which is slightly larger than a can of soda.
Origins for ice wine can be traced back to the late 1700s in Franconia, Germany, where "eiswein" was discovered after an early freeze. Germans typically use Riesling grapes, but Great Lakes growers favor Vidal Blancs because of thick skin that keep the grapes from bursting in the cold.
Only several drops come from a single frozen grape, but they are rich, sugary and, according to ice wine loyalists, unmatched for winemaking.
The remnant moisture from the dehydrated and frozen grape is the basis for a wine that is powerful and complex in its flavor. On the Brix scale, used to measure wine's sweetness, ice wines regularly top 40 -- double the average for a typical bottle of wine.
The effort exerted to collect those rare drops, which are under constant threat from animals and winter weather, makes the wine especially desirable.
At Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield, N.Y., a small number of workers left under dark just after 3 a.m. Tuesday to collect what is anticipated to be a good crop.
"The flavor development is really good and we've had some really nice taste samples," said Jeff Murphy, winemaker at Johnson Estate. "They've got a really nice pineapplely flavor and at 10 to 13 degrees, the timing was right."
At Mazza Winery, the ice wine now being stabilized and clarified will be brought to market in late spring and early summer. Despite damage from animals and winds, it's considered a successful crop at the small winery.
"It's always kind of crap shoot, in all honesty," Mazza said. "We've been doing this since 1984. I consider it tremendous success."
American wineries typically make only small batches. Mazza makes as few as 400 bottles and on a good year, as many as 3,500.
"This will be one of the great years," said Gerry Ginsberg, general manager at Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. "This will be one of the special vintages that people will put away for special occasions."