Ohio’s ice wines are gaining national renown

Born of Ohio’s cold winters, a boon from being below freezing, Buckeye State ice wine is hot with critics.

“They don’t call it ‘nectar of the gods’ for nothing,” said Todd Steiner, who leads Ohio State University’s enology program, the science of wine-making, part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

For two straight years now, ice wines from northeast Ohio’s Grand River Valley wine region — from Debonné Vineyards in Madison this year and from Ferrante Winery in Geneva last year — have won the top award for dessert wine in early January’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

In an uncommon back-to-back win, the same Debonné ice wine also won the top award for dessert wine in last week’s Florida State Fair International Wine Competition.

With the increasing popularity of ice wine, its production is yet another option Ohio grape growers have to increase their vineyards’ revenue, experts say.

A bit rare and expensive, made by only a handful of Ohio’s 200-plus wineries, ice wine excels for its sweetness and flavor.

“Ohio is becoming well-known for the quality ice wine we’re producing,” Steiner said, and the benefits touch more than taste buds.

Pricey, top-notch ice wine brings cash flow to the state’s wineries and boosts Ohio’s overall wine image, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

“We had long lines at our booth last night,” she said, calling from the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California, the industry’s largest trade show in North America. “And the fact that they came to taste this award-winning ice wine offered us the opportunity to also pour Riesling, Greuner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc — other wines we’re producing in Ohio.

“It’s helping us reach people who normally wouldn’t think Ohio is producing great wine.”

Winemakers make ice wine from grapes left to freeze on the vine. Harvest takes place after several cycles of freezing and thawing, then several days of temperatures below 18 F. In Ohio, that’s usually in November or December.

“Not a lot of regions have those temperatures. Or if they do, it’s not consistent,” said Imed Dami, who heads the college’s program in viticulture, the science of growing grapes. “In Ohio and Ontario, conditions for ice wine are usually consistent every year.”

Last year, however, was an exception, but in that case the cold was too much. The subzero polar vortex of January 2014 destroyed last year’s crop of ice wine grapes, and most of its other grapes, too, before their buds even sprouted. Ohio’s two recent San Francisco award winners came from grapes grown in 2012 (Ferrante) and 2013 (Debonné).

In a normal year, growers pick ice wine grapes early in the morning, sometimes at night, so the grapes don’t thaw in the sun. The grapes are kept frozen during pressing as well.

Pressing removes water from the grapes, which have dried some already on the vine; the water, still frozen, gets left behind as ice. The juice that results, essentially now concentrated, has sky-high sugar and flavor. In the end, so does the wine it makes.

While a dry red wine may have 0.2% residual sugar, which is a measure of the natural sugars left after fermentation, ice wine has 15 to 22%.

“Ice wines are sweet, which puts them in the dessert wine category, but they have a nice racy acidity that keeps the flavors extended on the palate for a long pleasing finish,” Steiner said. Ice wine has flavors of tropical fruit, peach, melon, honey and botrytis, he said.

“Valentine’s Day is one of those special occasions when ice wine is in high demand,” said Dami, whose report on winter survival in Vidal Blanc ice wine grapes, as it turned out, was a 2014 top-viewed article in Wines and Vines, the industry’s premier trade journal. In the East and Midwest, including Ohio, ice wine often is made from Vidal Blanc grapes.

Ice wine can also be a financial boost for growers.

Due to the extra work needed to make it, the lower yield of juice, and the relative rarity of the grapes and harvest conditions, ice wine can sell for up to five times the price of a regular table wine — $25 to $50 for a split, compared with $10 to $20 for a bottle of, say, Riesling. A split is half the size of a standard bottle.

“We’re finding a large number of ice wine consumers moving to the more sophisticated or drier wines we produce in Ohio,” Winchell said. “Ice wine consumers are recognizing its intrinsic qualities. It’s attracting a more connoisseur palate.

“At the Ice Wine Festival, for example, the wineries are also selling more of the higher-priced reds, like Syrah, and wines that appeal to a more traditional, California-esque palate than they normally do.”

Details on the college’s grape-wine programs are at http://ohiograpeweb.cfaes.ohio-state.edu/.

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