With just a few hours notice on a freezing cold day, Steve Johnson, winemaker at Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery in Kewaunee, will muster a cadre of friends, neighbors and wine enthusiasts to show up before dawn at the vineyard and pick grapes. Clad in parkas, snowpants, hats and boots, the workers pick frozen grapes to make ice wine, a rare vintage that produces a sweet, smooth, complex wine that has grown in popularity in recent years.
Producing ice wine depends on Mother Nature — in the U.S. grapes are required to be “frozen to the vine” for the wine to be designated as such. The grapes must also be handled carefully as the skins are split and can’t hold the fruit for long, and pressed quickly while still frozen.
“When we harvest, the grapes are like little rock-hard marbles. Ice separates from the sugar and acid, making a concentrate that yields a sweet juice,” said Johnson. Ice wine also takes longer to produce, due to a slower fermentation. After a November pressing, Parallel 44’s ice wine wasn’t released until July.
Parallel 44 has only been making ice wine for three of their 10 years, but the popularity of the wine and the excitement of the challenge have Johnson planning to grow the winery’s production.
“Last year we picked during the cold snap of late November at seven degrees Fahrenheit. That harvest made just 900 bottles, which were 80 percent sold by October. We’ll try to do double or triple that this year,” he said. The earlier grapes can be harvested, the better, resulting in less loss from birds and from the rot that inevitably causes grapes to fall off the vine.
The first documented ice wines were made in Germany in the late 1700s, by accident — farmers had left fruit on the vine for animal fodder, and then discovered that the must from the grapes was pleasingly sweet. Still, pressing frozen grapes wasn’t practical on a large scale until pneumatic presses were in widespread use in the 1960s, which is when Canadian production of ice wine picked up.
“Ontario is the biggest producer of ice wines, and produces the best known ones, including Inniskillin,” said Dede McCartney, owner of Madison Avenue Wine Shop in Sturgeon Bay, which carries several varieties of ice wine.
In Canada, ice wine must be made with 72 hours of sustained temperatures 17 degrees or colder, making the U.S. requirement of “frozen grapes” less stringent.
“Here in Northeast Wisconsin, we definitely have the climate for making ice wine,” said Johnson. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
But it’s not a risk that all local winemakers are prepared to take. Paul Santoriello, head winemaker at Door Peninsula Winery, has made ice wine in the past but said, “we probably won’t continue it. It’s just too risky, and there’s too much loss.”
Due to the difficulty of production and the scarcity of the product, ice wine is also pricey — $55 for a half-bottle of Parallel 44’s 2015 vintage, and $80 for a half-bottle of Inniskillin 2014 Riesling.
If you’re going to pay that much for wine, you’d better enjoy it. Perhaps it was the company I was in, but I’d never enjoyed a sweet wine as much as Parallel 44’s Ice Wine. Aromatic up front, balanced, with a multi-layered flavor expression because of the grapes’ lengthy time on the vine, the wine looked like gold in the glass and finished with a honey texture. To my surprise, ice wine’s alcohol level (unlike ice beer) is no higher than other whites, and our bottle disappeared faster than I would have liked.
Steve Johnson suggests serving ice wine chilled. “Some people like it with dessert,” he said, “and it would pair well with something nut-based.” The winery hosted a tasting and paired it with hard cheeses, which was very well received. But above all, Johnson recommends ice wine served on its own.
“Pour it at a peaceful moment when you can really enjoy it,” he said.