By Richy Petrina of Ithaca Wine Ventures
Hi, honey! Normally a casual greeting to one’s significant other, in this case it’s also a perfectly fitting introduction for a spectacular dessert wine.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle when discussing Finger Lakes wines is reassuring people that no, most of our wines are actually not sweet. Some, of course, are. But most—especially Rieslings—are crisp, vibrant, and dry. Producers may release a sweeter “semi-dry” or an even sweeter “late harvest,” but it is the rare gambling artisan who will go for the gold and make a true “ice wine.”
Leave the grapes on the vine for too long and you risk them becoming destroyed, rotten, or devoured by hungry animals. Find the right conditions and you have a shot at crafting minuscule quantities of a dreamlike elixir.
When grapes are hit by a frost that is cold enough, the water inside each grape will freeze. If that happens to grapes that have been purposely left on the vine for an extended amount of time, you’re in luck. Next, you have to carefully harvest the clusters while they’re still frozen, usually in the middle of the night or the early morning, wearing headlamps and wishing for a thermos of hot coffee.
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, with temperatures still below freezing, they get slowly pressed at high pressure. If all goes perfectly, ice will remain in the press alongside the grape pomace, and what trickles out is a hyper concentrated nectar. One might get only one shot at it in a season, and it’s not even guaranteed to happen!
Originating in Germany as Eiswein over two centuries ago, it is believed to have been accidentally forced-upon by mother nature one particularly harsh year. Today you can still find proper Eiswein—made in Germany or Austria—or Ice Wine, made here, which can also be called Icewine in Canada. It is often but not always made with Riesling grapes. And it is usually sold in smaller formats due to cost and limited production.
It is also worth noting that while you can artificially freeze grapes after harvesting to create similarish effects, it’s just not the same. Like Vanilla Ice’s sample use budget, expect to pay significantly more for the good stuff.
This Sheldrake Point Ice Wine is very much the real deal. The very high-sugar and high-acid combination yields a Riesling that’s dialed up to eleven. Everything is grander than what you’re prepared for. The color itself is an unexpectedly warm and soothing rich gold. Even the weight of the wine can be felt as it slowly swirls and chases itself around the glass.
The intoxicating nose brings to mind a thousand little bouquets of wildflowers dipped in raw honey and sprinkled with candied orange peels. And that honeyed taste, sandwiched between countless and alternating layers of crisp apples, goes on forever.
When enjoying this big style of wine, I find it best to keep things simple on the food side. A rich blue cheese with drizzled spring flow raw honey and sliced apples or pears can be effortlessly perfect.
On a cold winter day, if time allows, I recommend baking Bordeaux-inspired canelé to serve at the end of the meal. When cooled, their brittle caramelized shells add a clever textural component to the pairing. Check out WINEcsa on Instagram for our recipe.
Sheldrake Point Winery produces Ice Wine only when the right conditions occur, seemingly every other year or so. This 2018 vintage, harvested on November 23rd of that year, was fermented for over one month and yielded just 142 cases. It is sold in half bottles directly from the winery for $60.
Do not let the price deter you, however, as dessert wine can and should be served in small portions. A half bottle will easily bring smiles to a group of 6 to 8 people. Or it will keep nicely in the fridge for a few nights’ worth of enjoyment for you and your honey.
However you choose to enjoy it, I hope it helps make this year a tad bit sweeter.
Richy Petrina founded Ithaca Wine Ventures in June of 2019 to elevate and amplify the region and its exceptional producers. The startup’s latest project, WINEcsa.org, is a wine club from the Finger Lakes featuring a different winery each month, with local drop-offs and nationwide shipping.