A Hunt for Ice WineFeb 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
A question I often get at work and in my personal life is: “What is your favorite wine?” It’s a question that, for whatever reason, puts a lot of pressure on me. To choose just one always feels unfair, as I will inevitably have to exclude dozens of other favorites in the process. The dilemma is that I often choose my wines according to the time of year. Now that it’s February, the dark month, I generally look to the red wines in my collection. I may open an older bottle, something I’ve been patiently holding onto for years, and invite members of my inner circle over to try it and wax oenophilic. Having a dedicated group of wine friends is a good thing overall, but a necessity in the winter. On these spontaneous occasions, I like to have a fortified wine on hand or an ice wine to sip around the table, extending the evening. Again, sweet wine is a seasonal libation for me that never even crosses my mind in the summer. But in February, sipping an ice wine after dinner with my inner circle, in a world turned to ice, just seems to make sense.
What is ice wine? Maybe it conjures thoughts of Canada and pencil-thin bottles filled with a dubious, sweet elixir. Syrupy is an adjective that sometimes gets floated around, perhaps due to a Canadian-maple connotation. Yes, they are sweet, and frequently made in Canada. But syrupy? Not always. Canadian? Not entirely.
Ice wine starts with frozen grapes. Vineyard specialists will forge out into the fields and hand-pick the frozen berries at first light sometime in December. French hybrid grapes, such as the popular vidal blanc, are a top candidate for ice wine production. Vidal is a tough-skinned, disease-resistant variety suited to extended hang time. A green grape when ripe, vidal turns a chocolate-brown when frozen, not much different than a raisin. Like a raisin, the dehydrated fruit is lusciously sweet.
In the Finger Lakes, ice wine has been produced for over forty years, beginning with the Taylor Wine Company in Hammondsport. Taylor produced the first ice wine ever made in the United States in 1981. Six years later, Art Hunt, winemaker at Hunt Country Vineyards, Branchport, was visiting a Taylor Wine vineyard and happened to get his teeth around one of their frozen vidal blanc grapes. It was an inspiration. That was the seminal moment when Art decided to make ice wine a part of his portfolio.
“We’re in a really great location to make it,” Art explains. “Keuka Lake has the highest and coolest sites in the region. Those cool nights and sunny days really concentrate flavors in the fruit.”
Concentration is further increased as the water content in the grapes evaporates, leaving only a small amount of saccharine juice behind. While grapes slated for ice wine remain in the fields long after the fall harvest, awaiting the frozen kiss of winter, there are plenty of challenges that go along with it. Harsh winds and storms can knock down the frail clusters, and predation by birds and deer can steeply diminish the final haul.
“At a certain point, we throw nets over the grapes to protect them from the animals,” says Art. “If you don’t do that there’ll be nothing left.”
An alternative method is to pick the grapes during an earlier freeze, while the yield is still robust and the elements have yet to lay their claim, but you run the risk of pulling the bacon out of the oven before it’s ready. Earlier harvests result in a less remarkable wine, whereas as a delayed collection brings fruit of a higher standard—sweeter and far more complex. Picked in ten-to fifteen-degree weather, workers rapidly fill the shallow bins, aptly known as “lugs,” and hurry the fruit back to the press house. At Hunt Country, an old Bucher basket press is used expressly for processing the frozen vidal grapes. The process can take as long as twelve hours, employing multiple pressings to maximize the yield. Their annual ice wine production clocks in at 500 gallons and retails at fifty bucks per 375 ml bottle. If you shuddered with sticker shock, don’t forget about the intrepid folks who had to pick the grapes. Any time human suffering is involved, you can expect the price to rise.
With any wine, a balanced profile is the goal. An ice wine that is merely sweet will fall short of the tape. The most enjoyable examples showcase an opulence of fruit underpinned by a live-wire of mouthwatering acidity, something taut and irresistible that renders you powerless to the appeal of another sip.
By the time the ice wine makes its appearance, I know that there can be nothing after. It heralds the end of the evening, somehow italicizing the laughter of the last joke told around the table. But it doesn’t always have to. Food pairings with ice wine abound and are not limited to peach galette, Danish blue cheese, pecan pie, Linzer cookies, vanilla ice cream, and foie gras. I’ll even go so far as to include buttery beef sweetbreads, a new love affair of mine acquired after a recent trip to Argentina.
The small-bottle formatting makes ice wine the perfect single-use portion for large groups, but if it doesn’t get used up initially, fear not. Due to its high residual sugar content, a bottle once opened will last for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. Unopened bottles can cellar well for years, quietly evolving, preparing for just the right time. It can pair with dessert or it can be the dessert. Either way, a splash of ice wine on a cold night instills a memory, has a cool story, and is always a smart way to sweeten the deal.