It’s ice wine season
YATES, SCHUYLER COUNTIES—With the snow and cold temperatures brings another annual opportunity for area vineyards to pick and press frozen grapes into ice wine. Ice wine is a sweet, dessert wine with a distinct process required to create it.
In Yates County, Winemaker Jonathan Hunt of Hunt Country Vineyards is in the process of harvesting and pressing his frozen grapes into ice wine.
“Basically, what we do is we let a certain quantity of grapes, we leave them on the vine until long after the normal harvest, until they freeze naturally on the vine,” Hunt said. “Because there is a fair amount of sugar in grapes, it’s not 32 degrees like water. It’s more like about 15 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. We let the grapes hang until the end of November to mid-December, and sometimes even into January until we get a good, long extended cold period.”
Hunt said due to the grapes being frozen, they are not able to get as much juice out of a standard batch of grapes as they would while making a regular wine.
“We pick them by hand while they are frozen, and then we press them while they are frozen,” Hunt said. “The freezing process keeps about two-thirds of the water that is in the grape frozen in the form of ice in the press. Only the very sweet juice comes out. It is concentrated by the freezing process. That’s what makes ice wine so sweet. Consequently, because you lose so much volume of juice to ice, you only get about a third of the juice out of a typical ton of grapes.”
Hunt said they use Vidal Blanc grapes in their ice wine, and that it is the only ice wine they make at Hunt Country Vineyards. He said they do make some several late-harvest wines, but said it is a different process, with a fungus that shrivels up the grapes to get the moisture out of them.
“We are actually the oldest producer of a true ice wine in the U.S.,” Hunt said. “There was another winery who made it before us, but they’ve never actually made it and sold it. And they went out of business.”
Hunt said not only is ice wine sweeter, but there are several other flavor differences between standard and ice wine.
“It’s not just sweeter, all the flavors are just much more intense,” Hunt said. “The acidity is concentrated. It’s just a very flavorful wine.”
As far as popularity, he said there is a group of ice wine enthusiasts who enjoy purchasing and drinking the product.
“It’s not a huge volume wine, but it has a very loyal following of ice wine fans,” Hunt said. “It’s not something you can drink bottle after bottle of every night. It’s a true dessert wine. It is more expensive but it really is one of the best deals going, being it takes three times as many grapes to make the same volume of wine. Those are actually the ones that last until December. You have a fair percentage of grapes that fall off the vine and they are no good.”
Hunt said they have to take extra measures to protect their designated ice wine grapes after their regular harvest.
“We put bird netting over our ice wine grapes in the fall to keep the crows and turkeys out of it, but you still lose quite a bit to natural predators,” Hunt said. “Even coyotes love grapes.”
In Schuyler County, Castel Grisch is also in the process of creating their ice wine varieties.
“To make an ice wine, essentially the grapes freeze on the vine and then they are picked before they start thawing,” Michelle Underdown of Castel Grisch said. “As they thaw, the flavor, the color and the sugar all fall first so we throw out the ice. Ours is roughly at a 19 percent residual sugar retained.”
Underdown said even so much as harvesting the frozen grapes requires a different process than for regular wine.
“The grapes for the ice wine all have to be picked by hand because they end up way too delicate,” Underdown said. “Especially considering it takes a lot of time to pick them. As it gets later in the morning, the sun comes up and they start softening. It depends on the weather and how cold it is. Ours were done the end of November. It was definitely cold enough.”
Underdown said Castel Grisch is doing a Vidal and a Riesling ice wine at their winery for this upcoming year. She said it is possible to use any kind of grapes depending on what kind of ice wine they want to make.
“It’s very popular,” Underdown said. “There are a lot of people who come specifically looking for that.”
“[The flavor] sometimes depends on the weather,” Underdown said. “It’s usually not as thick. Some of your ice wines are almost like a honey consistency. Ours is usually a little bit thinner than that, but it’s usually very, very sweet in flavor, kind of a peach, pear, mango. That’s the Vidal. The Riesling [...] will taste more along the lines of a Riesling wine, which is kind of a more fruity, citrusy, green apple.”