January 17, 2012 / 7:38 PM / 7 years ago

Warm winter threatens northern U.S. ice wine industry

BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - An unusually warm winter is dampening prospects for the eastern American ice wine industry, with fewer frozen grapes being harvested and less of the dessert wine being made, raising prospects for higher prices for consumers.

Jonathan Oakes removes nets from vines used to protect ice wine grapes at Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Lyndonville, New York January 10, 2012. REUTERS/Doug Benz

During a long-overdue cold snap in an otherwise balmy winter, growers raced to pick tons of frozen grapes in a single night on January 3, about a month later than the usual harvest.

“It was one of the latest ice wine pickings we’ve had,” said Donniella Winchell of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

For a product to be sold as ice wine, international regulations require pressing and fermenting the syrupy contents of grapes picked once they’ve frozen naturally on the vine, which often requires sustained temperatures significantly below the freezing mark.

This year, grapes withered on the vines waiting for the temperature to drop. When it finally did, some growers harvested in earnest and others decided it was too late and opted to skip ice wine production altogether this year.

Growers reported a 20 percent drop in yield as a result of fruit withering on the vine in the extra month they waited to harvest as well as bird damage, said the wine trade associations representing New York and Ohio.

Typically, growers allow grapes to remain on the vine for several freeze and thaw cycles before harvesting them. But this year’s first freeze was so late that many seized it as a long-awaited chance to harvest the frozen fruit and salvage what threatened to be a lost season.

Since freezing and thawing separates out water by forming crystals, fewer cycles could affect the wine by producing a less concentrated juice, said Wendy Oakes, owner of Leonard Oakes Estates near the Niagara Escarpment in upstate New York. It could also result in lower alcohol levels.

Ice wine, which was invented in Germany in the late 1700s, is a specialty wine for the northern United States, which also produces table wines but faces stiff competition from California. About 40 vineyards from Minnesota to Massachusetts produce ice wines, although it is just a small portion of their total output of wine.

One grape usually produces one drop of finished ice wine, growers say. The precious drink typically sells for $35-$50 a bottle.

Whether this year’s warm winter temperatures will heat up prices remains to be seen as the 2011 vintage is still a year away from store shelves.

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