I woke up at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning to complete darkness and single digit temperatures. Most mornings, that is a great reason to climb back into bed, but on this particular morning that wasn’t the goal. By 7 a.m. I was bundled up and walking through the vineyards to see the final moments of Casa Larga’s ice wine harvest.
If you want to make wine sweet, you don’t just add sugar to it. Instead, there are a few methods you can use: you can add something sweet to it, you can dry the grapes out like raisins, or you can concentrate the sugars.
It is this final method that makes ice wine so sweet, it is basically concentrated grape juice that is made into wine. Healthy grapes are left to hang on the vine after the regular harvest season is done. When the temperature drops low enough (it needs to be under 17 degrees, brr), the team will hand pick the frozen grapes. Because the water in the grapes is frozen, when the grapes are crushed only a concentrated super sugary grape syrup is left behind.
Now, you can technically pick healthy grapes at harvest and then freeze them, but there is a unique process that occurs when you let nature do the work. The grapes are freezing and slightly unfreezing throughout the late Fall and Winter, which causes the skins to break down and release more flavor. This creates a finished product that is more complex than if you were just to freeze the grapes yourself.
To balance out the super sweetness of these wines, you need a grape that has a lot of natural acidity to it, and you also need one that can hold up to the freezing temperatures- a delicate grape will just break down. Traditionally, that means Riesling- it can stand the weather and it has great acidity.
At Casa Larga, the grape they were harvesting for ice wine was Vidal Blanc, a white hybrid grape that can hold up in winter and produces moderate to high acidity, along with more tropical and stonefruit notes that are great in a super sweet dessert wine. Other varietals that work well include Cabernet Franc and Gewurztraminer.
Wondering about the price tag? Yup, ice wine is fairly expensive for little tiny bottles, but that’s for some very good reasons! Because the grapes are frozen and concentrated, you only get 15% of the liquid you would from a normal harvest (that means you could make either 30 bottles of ice wine or 170 bottles of regular wine!). It also requires a lot of hands on man power to create this wine- the Casa Larga team was all hands on deck at 4 a.m. in January to do this, that’s dedication!
Thinking you want to try ice wine? A great place to sample a whole range from the Finger Lakes is the Ice Wine Festival! Read all about our experience last year attending this sweet experience.