By Holly Howell
The long cold winters of Upstate New York aren’t all that bad. Despite our complaining, we wouldn’t have it any other way: That bone-chilling weather makes for some of the most luscious dessert wines in the world.
To make a natural sweet wine, the grapes stay on the vine longer while the sugar levels rise. The grapes that thrive here are hardy stock and when presented with a climatic challenge, they create a sweet serendipity as freezing temperatures concentrate the juice in grapes for some alluring flavors. Our local dessert wines fall into two categories: late-harvest wines and ice wines.
Late-harvest wines are made from fruit that is picked well after the normal harvest. With luck, while the grapes hang on the vine, noble rot—the fungus Botrytis cinerea—penetrates the skin and causes the water inside to evaporate, concentrating the sugars. Typically, Botrytis infection takes place from late September to late October. During that time, harvest crews pass through the vineyards several times to hand pick the fruit. Each grape counts: Fruit from a single vine yields enough juice for just one glass.
Late-harvest wines boast a more full-bodied character. Think orange-apricot marmalade, balanced by a zing of tart acidity. King Ferry Winery, on Cayuga Lake, produces three late-harvest–style wines that pair easily with food. Try the Treleaven Late Harvest Vignoles with everything from fresh fruit to spicy curry dishes to Tex-Mex.
Known in Germany as Eiswein, ice wines are much riskier to produce than late-harvest wines. The process involves leaving the grapes on the vine to freeze when (and if) the weather gets cold enough. The grapes shrivel and freeze solid, like little marbles. They must be harvested while frozen and pressed immediately, so that just the pure nectar of the grape is extracted.
The flavors of ice wine are intense and honeyed. Think mango, guava and passion fruit. These wines are spectacular with, but not limited to, desserts. For an unusual twist, serve as an aperitif with savory foods like foie gras, salty nuts, spicy sausages and even sharp cheeses. A New York State ice wine can transform the experience of nibbling on a wedge of blue cheese.
Casa Larga Vineyards’ Fiori Vidal Ice Wine is one of the most awarded dessert wines in the U.S., tasting of pineapple, butterscotch and honey. “We are passionate about ice wine,” says Andrea Colaruotolo O’Neill, Casa Larga’s director of operations. “That involves putting our faith in Mother Nature and saying our prayers! But it is well worth the risk.” Casa Larga makes three ice wines and hosts the annual Finger Lakes Ice Wine Festival.
Wine drinkers everywhere are learning to appreciate the value of dessert wines, which have found their place on even the most sophisticated of restaurant lists and the Finger Lakes versions have emerged as top contenders.
You can find more of Holly Howell’s work here.
A version of this article originally appeared in our 2011 Wine Issue.