PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wis. -- Ice wine, made from grapes that were allowed to freeze on the vine, has long been one of the most expensive dessert drinks because of the risk involved in its production.
Winemakers must harvest the grapes under precisely the right weather conditions and extract the high-sugar juice before they thaw. The slightest variation in temperature can doom an entire crop, but vintners skilled in the process can charge $4 per ounce or more.
Some winemakers now aim to make the beverage less expensive by limiting the uncertainty that can drive up the price. They harvest the grapes earlier in the fall and age them in freezers that simulate the chill takes place under ideal outdoor conditions. They say the technique leads to ice wine that's less expensive and more consistent in flavor.
A quality Riesling ice wine from New York can cost $75 to $100, while the artificial version would run about $50, said Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.
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"If you're going pick the grapes and put them in the freezer, you can do that on your own schedule," Trezise said. "If you're going to pick according to nature's schedule, you literally have to have crews ready to go out at 5 in the morning when the temperature is just right. So the risk is greater and the labor costs greater to make naturally formulated ice wine."
Purists insist nature can't be improved upon and say half the fun of a great ice wine is being able to taste the winemaker's artistry and skill.
Tom Pennachetti, a winemaker with Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan, Ontario, said freezing grapes indoors defeats the purpose of making ice wine. There's a difference, he says, between letting each grape be exposed to the natural variations of outdoor temperatures and boxing up bunches in freezers where grapes in the center of the pack don't get the same exposure as those near the edges.
"Some people say, 'What's the difference?' That's a big difference," Pennachetti said.
The question in the industry is whether consumers will notice the difference. Some believe the cheaper artificial ice wines will allow wineries to expand their market to include less-affluent customers. Others believe loyalists, such as 83-year-old Paul Opichka, will be turned off.
The Milwaukee man was one of about two dozen people who braved frigid Wisconsin temperatures recently at the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, helping pick frozen St. Pepin grapes for next year's ice wine.
Opichka said he volunteered for the harvest as a "labor of love" -- but for natural ice wines, not artificial. Nature has a magic effect on the marble-size grapes that just can't be duplicated in an industrial freezer, he said.
The secret to ice wines is maintaining the proper degree of cold. At the right temperature, the moisture inside the grapes will freeze, and the pressing process will extract concentrated juice but leave the ice behind. The result is a sugar-rich liquid that ferments into a wine with a delightful balance of pleasant sweetness and tart acidity.
"It's honey for the gods," Opichka sighed. "Liquid gold."
Sandee Macht, 44, of Watertown, Wis., is a loyal drinker of Wollersheim's $47 natural ice wine. While she said she might try an artificial alternative, she gets a special thrill from the unpredictable nuances of each new natural vintage.
"You never know what you're going to get," she said. "There are always subtle differences that make them fresh and exciting."
Ice wines originated in Germany but are now made in Canada, New York, Michigan and Wisconsin -- places where the weather gets cold enough to properly freeze the grapes.
Most ice wines are sold locally by the wineries that produce them, and because there's no group that tracks sales it's hard to know how popular they are. But the wines have caught on enough to be served at the White House, which last year paired a Riesling ice wine from Michigan with huckleberry cobbler and caramel ice cream during an official state dinner.
Many wineries say they sell out their limited stocks quickly, and experts believe the market can easily support both natural and artificial varieties.
Steve DiFrancesco, a winemaker at Glenora Wine Cellars Inc. in Dundee, N.Y., said artificial ice wines are clean, consistent and technically perfect, while natural wines have more depth, complexity and less predictability.
It's like music, he said. Some people prefer listening to CDs where the songs are identical every time, while others prefer live music, which always has some variation. His winery has an $18 artificial ice wine aimed at people who probably wouldn't plunk down big bucks for a dessert wine of any kind.
He said the marketplace benefits by offering both the natural variety and the cheaper alternative.
"People might try the one that's easier on price and then move up to something more expensive," DiFrancesco said.