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To Make Ice Wine, Head North To Frosty Great Lakes Vineyards

David Sommerstein
North Country Public Radio
Ice wine harvest begins at Coyote Moon Vineyards in New York.

There are few regions in the world where you can make true "ice wine," a sweet vintage fit for after dinner sipping or dessert courses.

You need warm summers to grow quality grapes, but they also have to be picked and pressed when it's well below freezing. The Great Lakes region, especially around Lake Ontario, is definitely one of those places. 

It was 3 degrees Fahrenheit in New York's North Country when Coyote Moon’s crew trudged out to 30 rows of vines dedicated to ice wine, so cold the snow was squeaking underfoot. The temperature dropped to zero just as the sun peaked over the horizon, casting the vines in orange, the snow glowing blue.

“We were able to watch the sun come up through the vines,” said Coyote Moon’s marketer, Christine Shanley, ice caking her eyelashes. “All of our grapes are covered with netting, so you can look through the nets and you see all your friends, bundled up, shivering, picking the clusters.”

Robert Heyman, with a burly beard and a red wool hat, worked fast along one row during the recent harvest. The grapes looked almost black, brittle and abandoned. He cracked bunches off the vine and dropped them into a bucket, all with his bare hands.

“Ah, it’s nothing compared to ice fishing,” he said, chortling. “No brain, no pain.”

Credit David Sommerstein / North Country Public Radio
North Country Public Radio
Piles of frozen grapes will yield ice wine.

Coyote Moon grows two kinds of grapes for ice wine, both cold climate varietals: Frontenac (red) and Frontenac Gris (white). This is the second winter they’ve made the product for mass distribution, the first for Frontenac Gris, so there’s still some experimenting involved.

“We’re letting these grapes essentially turn into raisins,” said co-owner Tony Randazzo.

The chemistry behind ice wine involves letting the water in the grape crystallize in the cold, leaving the sugars to concentrate and mature.

“We’re taking the best of the best of that kind of sweet goodness that’s left, and turning that into wine," he added. "And that’s really where the magic happens.”

Ice wine is believed to have started in Germany in the 1700s when winemakers had to make the best of a frozen harvest. Canada is the world leader today, with many producers located near the shores of Lake Ontario. In the United States, ice wine is made throughout Upstate New York, as well as parts of Michigan.

Credit David Sommerstein / North Country Public Radio
North Country Public Radio
“We’re letting these grapes essentially turn into raisins,” says Coyote Moon co-owner Tony Randazzo.

Coyote Moon follows Canada’s strict standards. Winemakers have to harvest and press the grapes below 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are precise guidelines for alcohol and sugar content.

Phil Randazzo, Coyote Moon’s founder and patriarch, rumbled up in a tractor to haul a vat of grapes to the outdoor press. He said there are plenty of imitators who use coolers instead of nature.

“A lot of guys will take and freeze their grapes, and that’s just not the real deal,” Randazzo said. “They taste different.”

He said to beware of alternative language on bottles, like "iced wine" or "frozen wine."

“It’s got to be called ‘ice wine,’” he insists.

Credit David Sommerstein / North Country Public Radio
North Country Public Radio
Grapes are protected by netting.

There are big risks to leaving tons of grapes just hanging on the vine long after the traditional late summer harvest. A wind storm can blow away the whole crop. Adequate cold may not come for months. Last year’s warm winter delayed the harvest until February.

But the reward is 375 ml bottles that fetch $50 and up, and a sweet, fruity, almost creamy taste.

“It’s soothing down your throat when you drink it,” said Lori Randazzo. “The texture in your mouth is pleasant, not syrupy, but coating, wonderful. It sticks with you a little.”

But on this day, there will be no tasting. Ice wine requires patience. After pressing, the juice will ferment and age for a year, just about when it’s time to brave the cold and harvest next year’s frozen crop.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.