The Great Lakes wine-growing region is one of only 5 places in the world capable of making true ice wines. These sweet, high-end dessert wines are risky and difficult to produce, as the grapes for them must stay on the vine for months after the normal fall harvest ends.
Cold winters and lake effect snows coming off the shores of Lake Erie allow winemakers in northeast Ohio to make this product. Many wineries along Ohio’s Erie coastline boast ice wine offerings and there are several vineyards clustered in Ashtabula County’s Grand River Valley that offer sweet ice wine produced on their premises.
The Ferrante family has been in the business of making and selling wine since 1937, and their state-of-the-art facility produces wine from estate-grown grapes. The family-owned and operated winery sits in the heart of northeast Ohio’s wine country, maintains 65 acres of manicured vineyards and markets a multitude of signature wines, including a sweet ice wine made from frozen Vidal Blanc grapes.
“The freezing makes the sugars double. It freezes out all of the water and makes what comes out pure sugar,” said Nick Ferrante, the winemaker for Ferrante Winery and Ristorante. “The freezing also concentrates the acidity of the fruit, making it stronger, which complements the sugar that comes out.”
In order to produce a quality ice wine, the Vidal Blanc grapes must be picked when they are frozen solid, after the temperature outside reaches 17 degrees or colder for 2 to 3 days prior to harvest.
“The most important decision to make is to know the exact time to get the grapes off the vine,” Ferrante said. “It is the function of the cold air that creates good ice wine grapes, not the vine.”
Picked at predawn, in the coldest hours of the day, the grapes must be immediately pressed before they thaw. The ice wine production day is a busy one. From nighttime mechanical harvest, to press, to fermentation, to rack, to filter is a 24-hour process.
Winemakers measure the level of sugar content in grapes in brix. The freezing of the grapes is so important because it concentrates the level of sugar in the grape to create the super sweet, distinctive ice wine flavor.
“In Vidal Blanc grapes prior to freezing the sugar content is 19 to 20 brix. Frozen Vidal Blanc grapes used for ice wines average 36 to 40 brix,” Ferrante said.
The shriveling effect on frozen grapes leads to moisture loss, which further increases sugar content but also contributes to a loss in yield.
“A normal yield harvest is 175 gallons of wine per ton of grapes. With ice wines, the yield is 60 gallons per ton,” Ferrante said.
Because of the unpredictability of the weather, the date at which the ice wine grapes are harvested is also tricky and unpredictable. For instance, this past season, with the chilly fall weather and the cold, early winter conditions, Ferrante harvested on Nov. 24, the earliest date they have ever picked ice wine grapes. In contrast, last growing season the harvest was much later, taking place on Jan. 22. The longer they have to wait to harvest, the lower the yield from the grapes, due to shriveling of the fruit and environmental factors including crop damage from raccoons, deer, and birds.
On average, Ferrante Winery produces 500 to 1,000 gallons of ice wine a year, which constitutes less than 1% of the 100,000 to 140,000 total gallons that they produce annually. But, with a third of the yield, coupled with the night-picking process, and the fact that ice wines are a specialty product, ice wines command a much higher price than other wines.
The ice wines are also important for promotional reasons due to awards and news coverage they generate. Ferrante’s 2011 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine Vintage won “Best Dessert Wine” at the 2013 Mid-American Wine Competition and their 2012 Grand River Valley Vidal Blanc Ice Wine won a very prestigious award, Sweepstake Winner for the Dessert/Specialty wine category at the 2014 “San Francisco Chronicle” Wine Competition, the largest competition of American fine wines in the world.
Additionally, the annual Wine Growers of the Grand River Valley Ice Wine Festival, which drew 2,000 visitors to the region last year, is another fun and popular forum for the Ferrante Winery to advance and publicize its product. Those interested in enjoying ice wines in a beautiful corner of the Buckeye state well known for its top notch wineries, can consider a trip to the 11th annual Grand River Valley Ice Wine Festival in Ashtabula County this March. Held on the first three Saturdays of the month — March 1, March 8, and March 15 — the festival showcases the region’s ice wines.
There are five participating wineries: Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, Grand River Cellars, Laurello Vineyards, Debonne Vineyards, and St. Joseph Vineyards, all of which grow and produce their own fruit. The festival is a jump start to the winery-hopping season in northeast Ohio’s wine country and each participating winery offers a glass of their ice wine and an appetizer for $6 per person, or $5 per person when bringing in a canned good that will be donated to a local food bank. Ferrante’s full-service Italian restaurant will be open its regular Saturday hours, from 12 to 10 p.m., as well.
Visitors to this region can easily make a weekend get-away out of their trip to the Ice Wine Festival. Numerous quaint, unique wineries dot the countryside and there are several hotels and Bed and Breakfasts available for lodging. Alyssa Sekerak, Ferrante Winery’s marketing director, personally recommends the Polly Harper Inn, the Lakehouse Inn Bed and Breakfast at Geneva-on-the –Lake, and the Bella Teresina Inn, which is just three minutes from the Ferrante Winery facility.
For more information on the area, go to the website www.AshtabulaCounty.com. For additional information on the Grand River Valley Ice Wine Festival and all that Ferrante Winery has to offer, visit www.FerranteWinery.com, or call the winery directly at 440-466-VINO.