ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are few regions in the world where you can make true ice wine. If you haven't had it, it's a sweet, dessert-style vintage. It requires warm summers to grow quality grapes, but they also have to be picked and pressed when it's well below freezing. An arctic front settled on upstate New York recently for the perfect harvest conditions. And North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein bundled up to send us this story.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Coyote Moon in Clayton, N.Y., is just a few miles from the Canadian border. The family-owned vineyard grows two kinds of grapes for ice wine - Frontenac, a red, and Frontenac gris, a white. The crew recently trudged out to harvest before sunrise. It was 3 degrees, so cold the snow was squeaking. Christina Shanley has ice caking her eyelashes.
CHRISTINA SHANLEY: We were able to watch the sun come up through the vines. So you look through. All of our grapes are covered with netting. So you can look through the nets, and you see the grapes. And you see all your friends bundled up, shivering, (laughter) picking the clusters.
SOMMERSTEIN: Now the sun shines horizontal, bathing 30 rows of vines orange, the snow a glowing blue. Robert Heyman - burly beard, red wool hat - works fast along one row. He cracks bunches off the vine and drops them into a bucket with his bare hands. It's nothing compared to ice fishing, he says.
ROBERT HEYMAN: Don't need gloves.
SOMMERSTEIN: (Laughter) Come on. It's below zero.
HEYMAN: Yeah, but if you keep moving, you don't need them.
SOMMERSTEIN: No frostbite - people are checking you regularly to make sure.
HEYMAN: No brain, no pain.
SOMMERSTEIN: The grapes look almost black, brittle and abandoned.
TONY RANDAZZO: We're letting these grapes essentially turn into raisins.
SOMMERSTEIN: Co-owner Tony Randazzo says that's the idea behind ice wine. You let the water in the grape crystallize, leaving the sugars to concentrate and mature.
T. RANDAZZO: And we're taking the best of the best of that kind of the sweet goodness that's left and turning that into wine. And that's really kind of where the magic happens - and you know, some minor frostbite, yeah (laughter).
SOMMERSTEIN: Ice wine is believed to have started in Germany in the 1700s when winemakers had to make the best of a frozen harvest. But Canada has become the world's leader, and Coyote Moon follows Canada's strict standards. You have to harvest and press the grapes below 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are precise guidelines for alcohol and sugar content.
PHIL RANDAZZO: Hey.
SOMMERSTEIN: How's it going?
P. RANDAZZO: Good.
SOMMERSTEIN: Phil Randazzo, the vineyard's founder and patriarch, rumbles up in a tractor to haul a vat of grapes to the outdoor press. He says there are plenty of imitators who use coolers instead of nature.
P. RANDAZZO: A lot of guys will take and freeze their grapes. And you know, that's just not the real deal. It's just - they taste different. It's just not iced wine or variations thereof. It's got to be called I-C-E, ice wine.
SOMMERSTEIN: There are big risks to leaving tons of grapes just hanging on the vine. A wind storm can blow away the whole crop. Last year's warm winter delayed the harvest until February. But Lori Randazzo says the reward is bottles that fetch $50 and up and a sweet, fruity, almost creamy taste.
LORI RANDAZZO: It's soothing down your throat when you drink it. The texture in your mouth is pleasant, not syrupy, but coating, wonderful. Yeah, it sticks with you a little.
SOMMERSTEIN: But no tasting today - ice wine requires patience. After pressing, the juice will ferment for a year, just about when it's time to brave the cold and harvest next year's frozen crop. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Clayton, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS AND MOTION'S "FIREFLIES")
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