Forbes: January 21, 2019
Original article can be found here.
One of the world’s most unique wines is eiswein from Germany; produced from frozen grapes, it is a rare and exotic treat. While eisewein can be made from a few different varieties, it is most famously produced from Riesling, and versions from the most renowned vineyards by the most celebrated producers cost upwards of $150 per half bottle on retail shelves in America.
Given the American spirit, it is no surprise that a few producers in the Finger Lakes District of upper New York State also make a version known as Ice Wine. And as you might expect, given the climate of its far northern location, Canada is also home to some very special examples of Ice Wine.
We spoke with two winemakers about Ice Wine in North America: Matt Cassavaugh, winemaker at Casa Larga, located in the Finger Lakes District, on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment of Lake Ontario, and Bruce Nicholson, of Inniskillin, located on the Niagara Peninsula in the province of Ontario. We wanted to know how Ice Wine is made, what varieties are used, the difficulties involved and other pertinent issues.
The first thing to know about making an Ice Wine is that it cannot be produced every year. “Since we produce Ice Wine in the traditional German eiswein method, there is significant risk involved and Mother Nature sometimes prevents Ice Wine harvest,” says Cassavaugh; at Casa Larga, Ice Wine has been produced by proprietors Andrew Colarutolo and his son John, since the 1990s. “We have been fortunate for most of the past decade to be able to produce an Ice Wine every winter season.”
As for harvest dates – again, remember that the grapes must be frozen to produce an ice wine – “Harvest can only occur when there is a sustained freeze,” notes Cassavaugh. “Temperatures must dip below 17 degrees Fahrenheit and remain under that threshold for around 6 hours because the grapes must be picked and pressed at those freezing temperatures in order to produce authentic Ice Wine. This typically happens in late December or early January.” For 2019, the harvest for Casa Larga took place on a recent January morning, starting at 3 AM.
Cassavaugh explains that Ice Wine is a much thicker, sweeter wine than table wine, and that the concentrated flavors come from “the special process of harvesting and pressing the grapes while they are frozen, taking most of the water out of the equation.” He notes that his team has to cover the vines with nets, to keep birds away from eating the grapes; additionally, he has to choose a very small window in which to harvest.” Choosing that harvest window is also very tricky and often that harvest window happens with only 24-48 hours’ notice for those helping with harvest. Last year, I made the call to harvest on a very narrow window and it is a good thing I did as a warm weather hit just after that and would have lost the entire crop. Once you dedicate vines for Ice Wine production, and time passes…you can’t go back and change your mind … it’s a high risk decision.”
At Inniskillin, Nicholson notes that “the magical process of crafting Ice Wine is guided entirely by nature.” Harvest in Canada cannot start until the temperature has dropped to -8 degrees Celsius (17 degrees F) for a sustained period of time, this according to local wine law. “I prefer to pick my grapes at -10 degrees C when I feel that the grapes have achieved the perfect balance of flavor, complexity, sweetness and natural acidity.” Noting that there is no set date for the beginning of harvest, Nicholson recalls that he has picked as early as November 21 and as late as March 5!
Nicholson has been producing Ice Wine since 1995; that was in the Okanagan district in western Canada, while his first Ontario Ice Wine (eastern Canada) was from 2006. Along with white varieties Riesling – “its tropical and citrus aromas and flavor offer an elegance” – and Vidal Blanc with its good natural acidity, he also crafts Ice Wine from Cabernet Franc, a red variety. “Cabernet Franc Ice Wine is completely different than the white Ice Wines,” Nicholson remarks. “The red berry characteristics of the Cabernet Franc grape translate into luscious strawberry-esque aromas and flavors in the bottle.” He has also made Ice Wine from Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon.
As you might imagine, producing a wine from frozen grapes is not easy. “Making Ice Wine is winemaking in the extreme!,” says Nicholson. He points out that following harvest, the grapes are “pressed in the extreme cold to extract the precious fruit nectar.” During this process, the water content of the grapes, which is about 80%, remains frozen as ice crystals, which remain inside the grapes, where they puncture the skin for added flavors. “The resulting juice is highly concentrated and rich,” the winemaker says, with Ice Wine yields being about 10-15% of an average table wine harvest. Fermentation is slow and takes approximately 2-6 weeks; at Casa Larga, Cassavaugh notes that it generally takes between 3 and 4 months it ferment Ice Wine.
The entire process, when it works, assures a highly distinctive wine. But do these wines age? “All of our Icewines have the ability to age provided they are stored under the proper conditions: cool, consistent temperatures, similar to other age worthy wines, says Nicholson. “The exception would be our Sparkling Ice Wines which I believe are best within 5 years. I recently tasted our ’96 and ’97 Vidal Icewines and they were excellent.”
Notes on current releases of Ice Wine from Canada and the Finger Lakes District of New York State (I have included the percentage of alcohol, along with the residual sugar – the amount of sugar in the finished wine – as well as the percentage of sugar (known as Brix) at harvest. Most grapes used for table wine at harvest are at 22-25% Brix levels.)
Casa Larga Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2017 (Finger Lakes) – Light amber; aromas of pineapple, honey and apricot jam. Medium-full with very good depth of fruit, good acidity and a lengthy finish. A touch cloying, but very rich and well made. Enjoyable now- should peak in 5-7 years. Excellent (Alcohol – 12.2%/ Brix at Harvest 41%/ Residual Sugar 17.4%)
Inniskillin Ice Wine Riesling 2017 (Niagara Peninsula) – Deep yellow; aromas of apricot, heather and a touch of honey. Medium-full with very good concentration. Elegant and rich with very good balancing aciidty and a lengthy, moderately sweet finish. Enjoyable now- peak in 5-7 years, perhaps longer. Outstanding (9.2% alcohol/ 38.5 g/l sugar at harvest/ Residual sugar 23.5%)
Fulkerson Ice Wine Vidal Blanc 2017 (Finger Lakes) – Deep yellow; enticing aromas of mango, heather and golden poppies. Medium-fill with very good concentration. Lengthy finish, very good acidity, with a touch of sweetness. Excellent complexity and a great deal of finesse. Wonderful! Peak in 5-7 years, perhaps longer. Outstanding (11% alcohol/ Sugar at harvest 34.5%/ Residual sugar 14.5%)
Inniskillin Ice Wine Cabernet Franc 2017 (Niagara Peninsula)– Light cherry red; aromas of raspberry, strawberry and rhubarb. Medium-full, this has tasty raspberry and cherry fruit and a rich finish with moderate sweetness. This could use a bit more acidity, as this is a bit cloying. Otherwise, this is an appealing Ice Wine that will be at its best over the next 3-5 years. Excellent (9.5% alcohol/ Sugar at harvest 405 grams/ Residual Sugar 242 g/l)