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Wollersheim Winery makes ice wine the traditional way

If you can believe it, a world exists where Wisconsin's snowy winters are actually conducive to a growing season.

Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac capitalizes on our state's notoriously harsh season by producing ice wine -- a sweet dessert companion made from frozen grapes harvested in early winter. Wollersheim winemaker Philippe Coquard calls it the "nectar of the vines."

"When you see the birds or the bees or the hummingbird sucking the nectar out of the flower, it's just a pure essence of flavor and sweetness," Coquard says. "It's unique, special and different from anything else you will experience."

And no wonder. Ice wine tastes more like a sweet liquor or honey than a white wine. It should be enjoyed in small amounts, sipped slowly and served cold. The robustly sweet wine pairs best with cheesecake, pecans or other rich desserts. "It's like having a dried fruit basket in your mouth," Coquard says.

Originally a German invention, ice wine is made from grapes that are frozen while they are still on the vine. Various copycat brands use grapes frozen in a freezer, but those are inauthentic. Wollersheim Winery uses St. Pepin grapes, which were developed in Wisconsin in the 1970s.

"Not just any grape can make an ice wine," says Julie Wollersheim, who runs the winery with Coquard, her husband. "It has to be able to have a thick enough skin to stay on the vine throughout that extra period of time in the fall."

Once the frozen grapes are picked -- usually in late November or early December -- they are squeezed to get the tiny bit of sugar that isn't frozen in ice crystals. Each grape yields around two to three drops of juice, and these drops are purely concentrated with sugar.

The ice wine ferments for about eight weeks before it is filtered and bottled. The final product is ready for the shelves by the following fall. Last year's batch will be released on Oct. 3.

Making ice wine is a risky business. If temperatures don't reach 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit, or if rain ruins the grapes before they freeze, there won't be ice wine that season.

For that reason, and because of the sheer volume of grapes needed to make it, ice wine has a hefty price tag of $49 a half bottle.

Wollersheim has established itself as one of the few Wisconsin producers of ice wine. But the winemakers who owned the vineyard before the Wollersheim family weren't as successful. Agoston Haraszthy planted the first grapes on the property in the 1840s, but after just a few years he moved west and helped establish the wine industry in more temperate California.

The next owners of the land were the Kehl family, who operated a winery until the 1899 winter brought a harsh freeze that ruined their vines. They gave up on winemaking and grew more traditional Wisconsin crops until selling the property to Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim in 1972.

The Wollersheims restored the winery, and it has remained in the family ever since.

Philippe Coquard is a 13th-generation winemaker from France's Beaujolais region. He says it was only a coincidence that he fell in love with the winemaker's daughter when he came to the U.S. for a wine marketing internship in 1984.

It wasn't until 1999 that the Wollersheims began trying to turn the unfavorable Wisconsin winters into a winemaking advantage. They began experimenting with ice wine, but it took years to perfect.

By 2004 Coquard was finally satisfied with their product, and the first bottles of Wollersheim ice wine hit the shelves. This year they have around 3,000 half bottles, up from the 2,300 they produced last season. Last year's batch sold out before this year's was ready. But Coquard says they are planting more vines and hope to eventually make enough for wine lovers everywhere to enjoy.

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