A Sweet Day at the NY Ice Wine Festival

Regardless about how you feel about the wine itself, ice wine is a fascinating and difficult tradition in the Finger Lakes: the grapes need to be harvested at sub-zero temperatures, so it’s often done in the dark when the vineyard is at its coldest, and because they are frozen they produce much less juice but require more hands on attention. It’s an intense process, but when it’s done well, the results are incredible (even for those of us who don’t normally like sweeter wines).

The New York Ice Wine and Culinary Festival celebrates this finicky frozen delight with a day of wine tasting, seminars, and food pairings at Casa Larga Vineyards and Winery. This was a great opportunity to taste a range of ice wines and learn more about the process.

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A Little History

Ice wine was first produced in Franken, Germany in 1794 when the area was struck by a cold winter. Winemakers had no choice but to try to produce wine from their frozen grapes, and the result was a vintage with a high sugar content but amazing flavor. After this, the technique became popularized and known as eiswein in German

Given that the Finger Lakes have similar characteristics to German’s wine growing regions, it isn’t surprising that this technique works here.

First, the grapes are left on the vine until they reach below 20 ºF (-7º C). Next, the frozen grapes are pressed in a grape crusher. Only between 10-20% of the juice from the grapes is able to be squeezed out, making it a difficult process for so little juice. After this, the juice goes through fermentation and becomes wine. In the end, the wine has an alcohol of around 10% and a high residual sugar.

Hunt Country produced a fantastic video showing their ice wine harvest, available on Facebook.

Now, there are wineries that produce something else: iced wine. This is where wine is picked at peak ripeness, and then the grapes are frozen in a freezer and pressed. Technically, it isn’t ice wine, so it’s good to ask when you’re drinking ice wine what method they used. Not that one is necessarily better, but one is a lot harder.

Tasting at the Ice Wine Festival

The festival featured five wineries with ice wine: Casa Larga Vineyards and Winery, Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, Hunt Country Vineyards, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, and Schulze Vineyards and Winery. Interestingly, almost all of the wines we tried were produced from Vidal Blanc, a white hybrid grape.

We started with Leonard Oakes 2015 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. The color is a rich golden orange. It has a nose of apricot, fresh peach, cooked pear, and honey. On the palate, the sweetness of the wine is well-balance by a bright acidity, and notes of apricot and peaches linger.

Next, we stopped over at Hunt Country for their Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2016. The wine is a similar rich golden orange, and has a nose of apricot, tangerine, cooked nectarine. and hints of tropical fruits. When sipped, it has a high lingering peach sweetness.

From here, we ventured over to Hazlitt 1852 for their Vidal Blanc Ice Wine (I missed the vintage), which is a slightly deeper color and has notes of apricot jam, custard, and pear. it has a higher acidity than the others, which reduces how sweet it tastes at the end.

Finally, we decided to end with Casa Larga‘s two ice wines. The first was their 2016 Fiori -8º, an ice wine fortified with apple spirits and made from Muscat Ottonel, Riesling, and Vidal Blanc. The nose has hints of stonefruit, cooked apple, and honey that continues when sipped. The apple spirit adds a hit of alcohol heat to the palate.

We also sampled their 2016 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, which has a nose of tropical fruits, apricot and honey. The sweetness is well balanced by the acidity so that it isn’t overpowering, and you are left with a floral honey note lingering on your palate.

In addition to these tastings, the festival had a delicious assortment of food made with ice wine (including pork buns, french onion soup, gnocchi and more), seminars on wine, cheese, and history, and samplings of non-ice wine treats like mulled wine and wine cocktails.

Final Thoughts

Overall, we had a fun day at the wine festival. A few thoughts for those who are thinking about attending next year: 1) get to the seminars early, they are fascinating and informative but fill up fast; 2) the lines for the wineries are long (up to a half hour) so plan ahead by prioritizing which winery you want to get to first, and bring the food samplings with you in line so that you have a snack while you wait; 3) if you have a winery you must try, get there first- we missed out on tasting Schulze because they ran out of wine.

It was fun to try the different ice wines and see how different they are despite being made with similar techniques and the same grape. For those who love ice wine, it is a fun adventure.

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