Finger Lakes + Ice Wine = Perfection

Story courtesy of the Stargazette.com
finger-lakes-ice-wine
Though a number of Finger Lakes wineries aren’t harvesting grapes for ice wine this winter, they say there will still be plenty of the specialty beverage to go around.

For some wineries, last year produced a bumper crop of ice wine grapes — which are left to hang on the vine much longer than table wine grapes to develop their sugars — so they didn’t plan to make the wine this year.

Other wineries did not leave grapes on the vine for ice wine.

For Gene Pierce, a Finger Lakes grape grower for almost 50 years, unfortunate weather over the weekend put an end to plans for harvesting ice wine grapes this week.

“Our friend, Mother Nature, stepped in again,” said Pierce, owner of Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, Knapp Winery in Romulus and Chateau LaFayette Reneau in Hector.

The stage was set when vineyards normally used for ice wine that are located at Knapp Winery sustained damage from the dramatically cold temperatures in the early part of 2014, he said.

Late last week, Pierce thought those vineyards might have in neighborhood of 3 to 4 tons of grapes to be harvested, but fierce wind and driving rain over the weekend — plus the stress the vines had undergone earlier — meant this year’s harvest was not to be.

“There was a very limited amount of grapes here to begin with, and then what we’ve encountered this past weekend with the high winds and the rain, they all went right to the ground,” he said.

Ice wine lovers should not despair. There is inventory because the wineries had a great crop in 2013 in terms of quantity and quality, and what they did harvest in 2014 was great as well, so it’s all going to come out OK in the end, Pierce said.

“Ice wines are a true labor of love, and full of risk,” said Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation in Canandaigua.

During their longer “hang time” on the vine, ice wine grapes are subject to possible disease, bird damage and other risks, he said. They also shrink in size significantly, meaning much less tonnage per acre.

“Because ice wines are much more rare than table wines, they are typically sold in small half-bottles and seem relatively expensive,” Trezise said.

Finger Lakes ice wines start around $25 for a 375-milliliter bottle. However, customers need to take into account the cost of production and the fact that a couple of ounces of ice wine, rather than large glasses, are consumed, he said.

Ice wine is great by itself or with certain desserts, along with some cheeses such as Gorgonzola or blue, he said, calling the very sweet wine “the nectar of the gods.”

Other wineries, such as Hunt Country Vineyards on Keuka Lake and Sheldrake Point Winery on Cayuga Lake, had such an abundant harvest of ice wine grapes last year that they are not harvesting them this year.

“We are not planning a harvest this year. We had just enough last year. The quality was great. We’re in good shape now until next season, and we’re kind of glad,” said Jim Alsina, general manager of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, noting the currently frigid temperatures. “It’s not so great to be out harvesting.”

Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport did not leave any grapes on the vine this year for ice wine, said Erin Rafalowski, marketing and public relations manager.

“We did a late harvest, but we just did not do an ice wine,” she said. “What we usually do is net the vines to protect them not only from birds but also from just falling. I believe we had netted some things, but the vineyard manager and winemakers decided the best was to use that for a late harvest. I think it was picked in November.”

Heron Hill will be releasing ice wines from previous vintages, probably in the next couple of months, Rafalowski said.

There are no statistics available on ice wine production, sales or revenues, as wineries are basically small, family-owned businesses that don’t share such information, and there are no publicly available sources, Trezise said.

“However, anecdotally we know that there is certainly enough consumer interest to sustain the industry and justify the risk and hard work that ice wines involve,” he said.

Trezise pointed out there are two types of wines that are often confused: ice wine and iced wine. To be legally labeled ice wine, the grapes must be picked when they are frozen on the vine and then immediately processed, he said.

An alternative process that is perfectly legal as long as it is labeled correctly as iced wine, is to pick the grapes when they are not frozen, put them in a freezer and then process them while frozen, he said. Some wineries make both variations.

“Both types can be excellent, and there is debate as to whether people can tell the difference in blind tastings,” Trezise said.

Among those making iced wine is Lakewood Vineyards on Seneca Lake, which prefers the method because of the fickle ways of Mother Nature, according to partner Liz Stamp.

“We do it just so that we can be sure that we’ll have a crop. We kind of hedge our bets, in that sense,” she said. Even if you didn’t lose grapes to wind or wildlife, you could also lose them to quality degradation, as cold air tends to be drier and could cause grapes to slowly “raisin” and dry out, she said.

“The varieties we use don’t tend to hang as well and raisin as Vidal or Riesling, which are the most common ones used for ice wines in the Finger Lakes,” Stamp said. “We use Delaware and Concord, and they are just a different textured grape with a thicker skin, so they don’t tend to get raisined.”

Follow Ray Finger on Twitter @SGRayFinger.