Risky Work, Sweet Rewards | Restaurants
By Laura Nichols
HENRIETTA -- Some of the riskiest work that New York winemakers do has the sweetest reward.
Nine western New York wineries entered 14 wines in the third annual New York Ice Wine Competition, which was judged in a blind tasting Friday at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was limited to wines produced in New York, with grapes grown in the state that froze naturally on the vines before harvest. The Best of Show winner and the medalists will be announced Monday.
“Letting it hang so long on the vine, it concentrates a lot of the flavor,” Jonathan Oakes, winemaker for Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Medina, Orleans County, said by phone about ice wines, which are higher in sugar than most other wines. “... The acidity (that the grapes develop) is a natural protection” from microbes.
Germany and Canada have some of the biggest names for ice wine, but “there’s really no reason we shouldn’t become ... well-known for ice wine,” judge W. Harvey Reissig, a wine columnist and professor of entomology at Cornell University, said during the competition.
When describing their ideal ice wines, "I always start with balance" of acidity and sweetness, said judge Brandon Seager, a winemaker at Red Newt Wine Cellars in Hector, Schuyler County. "When you have this much sweetness you have to have balance."
"If you want there to be some kind of lift, you have to have that ... otherwise you're drinking syrup," agreed judge Bill Mahoney, wine manager for The Premier Group advertising company, who is based in Williamsville, Erie County.
Making ice wine is risky because animals try to eat the grapes, fungus may form and the weather has to get cold enough — 13 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit — to freeze the grapes through for two or three days so they can be harvested and pressed, said Oakes, whose winery entered two vintages in this year’s competition. The winery staff then must keep a sharp eye during fermentation on the yeast, which struggles in the harsh environment.
In addition, Oakes said, a winery will get 125 liters of ice wine from a ton of grapes, vs. 600 liters for a standard wine. That’s one reason ice wine is more expensive, he said.
Chairwoman Lorraine Hems, an RIT instructor who proposed the contest, said the number of wines entered each year has stayed about the same, but some of this year’s entries were from wineries that had not entered before. Some wineries don’t make ice wine every year, so a few previous entrants didn’t participate this year.
Finger Lakes competitors were Knapp Winery, Sheldrake Point Vineyard and Casa Larga, Hazlitt 1852 and Hunt Country vineyards. Niagara competitors were Leonard Oakes Estate Winery and Schulze Vineyards & Winery. Mazza-Chautauqua Cellars and Johnson Estate Winery from the Lake Erie wine country rounded out the list.
Wines made from Vidal blanc grapes formed the largest bloc of entries, but some wines were made with Riesling, Catawba, Chambourcin, Gewurztraminer or Cabernet Franc.