A Toast to Ice Wine

Last fall I attended the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Fest in the oldest wine-making region of the country: New York’s Hudson Valley. Before you wonder what a Hudson Valley event is doing in a Finger Lakes publication, the festival, now in its sixth year, draws wineries from throughout the Northeast. I went to taste the wines of more than 20 Finger Lakes vintners collected together under one roof, and to learn about ice wine.

With all those wonderful wines available, I was only tasting the ice wines. One vintner told me: “Don’t start with this sweet wine, start with the dry wines and work up. This will only blow your palate.” Well, my palate was blown with the first sip! And what an expensive sip it was.

A slow process
True ice wine is made of grapes frozen on the vine and is labeled “ice wine” on the bottle. Some growers harvest the grapes before the weather and the wildlife take their toll, then slowly chill and freeze the grapes. For some it is a yearly routine, for others this practice is reserved for the years the weather just doesn’t cooperate. These wines may simply say “ice” on the label rather than “ice wine,” and are referred to as “made in the ice wine style.” For the true purists, when the weather doesn’t cooperate they just don’t make ice wine!

Ice wine is a highly prized and sought-after dessert wine. The late harvest begins several weeks after frost, which can be from late fall through early into the next year, depending on the local weather conditions. In the Finger Lakes, the harvest traditionally occurs in November through January. It is a labor-intensive process, as workers hand pick what grapes haven’t fallen off the vine or been eaten in the months after they’ve ripened. Harvesting is done at night or early in the morning, before the sun can thaw the fruit. The hand pressing is done in unheated rooms because the grapes must be pressed while frozen.

Making ice wine has more to do with technique than the variety of grape used. The water, as ice, is removed, leaving a highly concentrated juice, called “must,” which is very high in acids, sugars and aromatics. It is the balance of the high acid with the high sugar that keeps the wine from being cloyingly sweet.

The high sugar level of the “must” also causes a slower fermentation than most wines. That, plus the hand labor, leads to a higher cost per bottle. Traditionally ice wines will be in half bottles (375 ml) or smaller, and will sell for $25 to $150 each. In November 2006, a Royal DeMaria 2000 Chardonnay was the most expensive ice wine ever sold at $30,000 (Canadian).

The Vidal grape, with a skin that resists bursting when frozen, and the ability to hang on the vine after ripening, is the traditional grape used to make ice wine, but virtually any grape that can be grown in a region of freezing winters can be used. Here in the Finger Lakes vintners also use Riesling, Chardonnay, Vignoles and Cabernet Franc grapes, so the color of the ice wine could be pale yellow, tawny, or a shade of rose. Whatever the color, it is sure to be redolent of both stone and tropical fruit, and it will be sweet.

Where the taste comes from
Dave Breeden, the winemaker at Sheldrake Point Vineyards, kindly explained about molds, and how a wine can taste of fruit that isn’t in it. “The mold which grows on grapes is called Botrytis cinerea, which produces beneficial effects like peach and apricot flavors. Ice-wine grapes may have this mold, but the process that gives such lovely flavors to ice wines is concentration by freezing.”

John Merrill of Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars in Lodi told me, “The first frost on the east side of Seneca Lake is around the 14th to the 17th of October. Usually by late November we hand pick and hand press between two and three tons of fruit, producing about 75 cases of wine.” He poured me a Reserve 2006 Riesling Ice Wine with 11.1-percent alcohol content that sells for $47 a half-bottle. It was aromatic and sweet, with spiced apple and apricot, and a clean finish. In layman’s terms, delicious! Their Vidal Ice Wine, which sells for $24 a half-bottle, wasn’t available to taste that day. I declined their Chardonnay Reserve and Chardonnay, which won Double Gold Medals and Best of Class Awards at the recent San Francisco Wine Comp­etition, simply because my palate was ruined by the sweet wines. Too bad!

Use what you’ve got
I’ve always been partial to Atwater Estate Vineyards in Hector, not just because of the great wines they produce, but because proprietor Ted Marks once owned a bookstore. Since that’s what I’ve been doing for over 20 years, I feel we share a bond only purveyors of the written word can know. His affable nature encourages this feeling, so I was sorry he didn’t attend the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Fest. That is, until I met his daughter, Katie. She’s a high-energy bundle of laughter and good humor, and thoroughly knowledgeable when it comes to wines. It was delightful meeting her.

Katie told me that Atwater Vineyards produces an ice wine-style of wine called Celsius. “We normally use a Vidal grape, but Vidal was in short supply in 2005 and the Chardonnay grape was not, so Chardonnay it was!” Their Celsius 2005 is $29 a half-bottle with 12.5-percent alcohol content. This honey-sweet elixir is reminiscent of orange blossoms and tangerines, a perfect dessert wine. It won a Double Gold Best of New York State at the State Fair this year.

Wagner Vineyards in Lodi, on Seneca Lake, makes three ice wine-style wines called Riesling Ice, Vidal Ice and Vignoles Ice. I remember the Riesling well. It was awarded the Best of Class Dessert Wine and Double Gold Medals at the Golden Nose Awards Wine Judging weekend I participated in last May (see the Autumn 2007 issue of Life in the Finger Lakes). It wasn’t one of the wines our panel judged, but I was able to taste a few drops at the awards banquet afterwards. It was a pineapple and stone-fruit explosion in my mouth, incredibly sweet and well-balanced – wonderful! Wine Spectator gave it an 89, which is a very high rating, indeed.

Laura Wagner-Lee of Wagner Vineyards told me, “Our grapes are harvested mechanically and slowly chilled to freezing each year. This way we can produce consistent wines and sell them reasonably. This Riesling Ice is $23 a half bottle – much less than the ice wines of some of the other vineyards.” Riesling Ice has an alcohol content of 13.7 percent. I didn’t taste the other two. Wagner Vineyards produces between 500 to 1,000 cases of ice wines each year.

A red ice wine?
Sheldrake Point Vineyard is on the west shore of Cayuga Lake. They produced both Cabernet Franc and Riesling ice wines in 2004, but their 2007 ice wines weren’t available to taste at the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Fest because they were still being bottled. I tasted what was the only Cabernet Franc ice wine made in the U.S. in 2004; technically it was a 2003 grape harvested in January 2004. The fact that it was a Cab Franc grape so long on the vine made it really different from the traditional Vidals and Rieslings I’d been tasting. It was smooth and sweet, and made me think of baked apples with a hint of strawberry in a long finish. I probably should have confessed earlier that I rarely drink sweet wine, but this one could convert me. And it wasn’t just me. When I had five bottles of ice wine in one place for a photograph, Sheldrake Point’s 2004 Cabernet Franc was the one everyone walking past wanted to try.

Their 2007 ice wine is a Riesling. When the temperature reached 14 degrees Fahrenheit one night last January, two tons of frozen grapes were hand-harvested and pressed, producing 157 cases of ice wine with an alcohol content of 11.8 percent. At $69.99 a bottle, I can’t wait for a taste!

A frosty winter ahead
Fulkerson Winery, located in Dundee on the west side of Seneca Lake, is a sixth-generation family farm. Their wine sales director, John Iszard, told me, “We’ve produced true ice wine since 1998, picking the frozen grapes mechanically and by hand each year the weather permitted.” Their 2004 ice wine, made with the Vidal grape, is their most recent. “In 2005 the weather was too wet, and in ’06 the birds got most of the grapes. The forecast looks good for this year, though, with a cold snap predicted for late November to early December.” He was positively gleeful when he told me that!

Fulkerson Winery produced about 600 cases of the 2004 Vidal Blanc ice wine with a 13.8-percent alcohol content. “Of the 28 types of wine we bottle, our ice wine is consistently in the top 10 in sales.” Their Vidal Blanc ice wine has an orange and vanilla bouquet, with a peachy, orange marmalade taste that lingers on the palate like a pure bit of heaven. It is a bargain at $24 a half-bottle.

Just as I was leaving the festival, I bumped into Art Hunt of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, on the western shore of Keuka Lake. What good fortune that was! With over 20 years of ice wine production, he is known as the “King of Ice Wine.” He told me, “When the nighttime temperature hits 10 degrees, my crew begins picking before dawn, rushing the frozen grapes to the press.” Art’s 2006 Vidal Blanc ice wine has a 10-percent alcohol content and “bursts with honey, apricot and exotic fruit flavors.” It is never aged in barrels, as he believes in “letting the fresh-fruit flavors come through.” Whatever they’re doing at Hunt Country Vineyards certainly works. The Vidal Blanc is luscious and sweet, distinctively packaged in a blue bottle, and sells for $39.99.

So, now you know all about ice wine and where to buy some good examples of the vintner’s art. This winter, when you are sipping ice wine beside the fire, remember your friends and neighbors, the winemakers. They will be out in the cold, picking and pressing the frozen grapes so that we can all enjoy next season’s ice wines. Take a moment to raise your glass to toast their success!


by Richard Frisbie
Richard Frisbie is a Hudson Valley bookseller and publisher, who writes culinary travel articles.