If you’ve ever had the rare pleasure of sampling Ice Wine, then you know that without the help of Mother Nature’s freezing temperatures this bottle of pure heaven would not be possible. The usual grape harvest in New York begins in September, and by the end of October most vineyards and wineries have harvested all of their grapes. However, for some wineries this is not the case. These vineyards leave a select portion of grapes to hang on the vine to continue to mature into the fall and winter months, raising the sugar content in each individual berry. Vines are netted in late October to protect the grapes from hungry prey such as deer and birds. Grapes picked during the traditional harvest contain around 19-23 brix (brix measure the amount of sugar in the grapes) while Ice Wine grapes, when picked will yield juice in the 36-40 brix range.
Although the practice of crafting Ice Wine is closely associated with the European countries where it originated, such as Germany and Austria, the special wine is deeply rooted in the Finger Lake region because it provides the perfect climate. The summers reach warm temperatures that ripen the grapes, while during the winter months the temperature drops well below freezing. This weather, along with the rich soil, helps the grapes reach equilibrium between the concentration of sugar and high level of acidity. This small amount of highly condensed sugar juice, which yields only one drop per grape, eventually becomes Ice Wine.
For Ice Wine to truly be Ice Wine, it must be frozen directly on the vine, and not after being harvested. Because of this, if temperatures do not get cold enough or if they get too cold, the entire harvest is ruined, making Ice Wine the riskiest type of winemaking. This uncertainty is what makes a successful harvest of Ice Wine so special and worthwhile.
In order to maximize the harvest, the grapes are picked as early as 3 am to keep the sun from affecting the picking for the day. The grapes are then carted into an open press house, which is kept at similar temperatures to the picking environment to prevent changes to the delicate and crucial natural freezing process.
Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, NY was among the first wineries to craft the sweet specialty wine in America, having produced their first, experimental batch in 1980. It wasn’t until the fall of 1987, however, when Hunt Country had their first wide scale Ice Wine harvest. In 1988, Hunt Country released the 1987 vintage of Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, the first genuine Ice Wine produced in the United States and available to the general public. Gold ratings were awarded to their 1988 Vintage from the 1990 International Eastern Wine Competition and the 1990 Intervin International Wine Competition. Over the years, Hunt Country has gained a great deal of fame for their award winning Ice Wine, and year after year, continues to produce consistent quality wines. Today, 2007 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, which won a Gold from the 2011 Big E Northeast Gold Wine Competition and a Great from the Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition, is “rare and lusciously sweet, with rich honey, apricot and exotic fruit flavors”
Located in Fairport, New York, Casa Larga Vineyards is the most awarded Ice Wine producer in the Finger Lakes and the United States. For decades, Casa Larga has led the small number of New York wineries specializing in traditional Ice Wines. Casa Larga is also the host of the annual New York Ice Wine Festival, a popular (and delicious!) gathering featuring extensive samplings of the best of New York’s Ice Wines from a wide range of wineries located in several regions across the state. The frosty magic that Mother Nature bestows on the grapes when the days are the shortest at Casa Larga produces the celebrated Fiori Vidal Ice Wine, an exquisite Ice Wine that has received more awards than any other in the United States, including the Governor’s Cup for “Best Wine in New York State” and “Best Dessert Wine” at the 2008 International Wine & Spirits Competition in London. Starting with its “honey and peach aromas” through its divine flavors of “pineapple, apricot and butterscotch”, this wine is made with the Vidal grape, a popular choice for makers of fine Ice Wines. The Riesling grape is also an excellent choice for making Ice Wine, with Casa Larga’s Fiori Riesling Ice Wine delivering a medium bodied taste treat of “sweet apricot and grapefruit” and the aromas of “honey and sweet grape”. A third Ice Wine grape, the Cabernet Franc, produces a wine with a “brilliant ruby red hue”, the intense aroma of “freshly picked strawberries” and the well balanced sweetness characteristic of fine Ice Wine. Casa Larga is also offering a brand new Ice Wine Cuvee, a sparkling wine dosage with their Vidal Ice Wine.
The newest and most unique producer of award winning Ice Wine in the Finger Lakes is Inspire Moore Winery, located in Naples, New York. Headed up by winemaker Tim Moore, they harvested their first batch in 2008, and are the only winery to produce Ice Wine from Traminette grapes. Traminette grapes are similar to Vidal, as both have the thick skins that allow them to survive until they are harvested. This Ice Wine undergoes a long fermentation, followed by barrel aging for one year before it is finally bottled. Their current vintage of Ice Wine won a Double Gold at the 2012 Florida International Wine Competition.
Joining Casa Larga in Finger Lakes at the New York State Ice Wine Festival, and representing the best in the region include Fulkerson Winery, Knapp Winery and Sheldrake Point Vineyards. Each represents the best of the best of the region’s premier Ice Wine producers.
Wine enthusiasts from across the globe gather each year in February to sample the bounty of the winter Ice Wine harvest in a festive atmosphere of music, seminars, tasty treats, winery tours, and of course the delicious fruits of their labor—New York State Ice Wine! At the NY State Ice Wine Festival every one of the participating wineries must feature Ice Wines made from grapes that have naturally grown and frozen on the vine in New York State. The turnout is always impressive, with wineries from across the region bringing the best of the best in Ice Wine varietals for both wine connoisseurs and new fans alike to sample award winning vintages.
The 4th Annual NY Ice Wine Festival will be held Saturday, February 18th, 2012 at Casa Larga Vineyards in Fairport, NY from 12–6 pm. In addition, the Finger Lakes region continues its celebration of all things deliciously winter (and Ice Wine!) with the nICE festival— A Celebration of Ice & Dessert Wines and Food on February 25th at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, NY. The town of Elmira, NY also joins the Ice Wine festivities with Wine on Ice in late January.
It may be a wintry wonderland outside, but Finger Lakes New York celebrates the snow and ice—and Ice Wine!
Written by: Andrea Colaruotolo O’Neill, Founder, NY Ice Wine Festival and Director of Operations, Casa Larga Vineyards