Why this Winemaker Says Ice Wine is Worth the Effort

Not all wineries have Ice Wines on the tasting room menu, but David Smith, head winemaker at Gervasi Vineyard in Canton, Ohio, says making them is well worth the extra effort.

Gervasi’s Sognata Ice Wine recently took home a platinum medal in the Great American International Wine Competition. The Ice Wine is produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids do not freeze, but the water does, allowing a more concentrated grape juice to be pressed from the frozen grapes. Smith said this results in a smaller amount of a more concentrated and richer wine.

Vintner Magazine reached out to Smith, who shared his thoughts on topics from dessert winemaking techniques to marketing Ice Wines to new audiences.

VINTNER: Why are Ice Wines and other dessert wines important for a winery’s portfolio to include? What unique audiences do they attract that other varietals might not?

SMITH: Dessert wines in general are an important category for wineries to carry because they are perfect for celebrations. Wine is best when shared with friends and family, and dessert wines are great as an after dinner drink to socialize with. 

Ice Wine in particular is special in its own right amongst dessert wines. It takes a great deal of extra care on the growers part to maintain healthy fruit until the grapes are picked half-frozen in early January. The flavors, aromas, and natural sweetness that come from the traditional Ice Wine process create a wine that you can’t get any other way. 

Guests know they are holding something special because of the extra effort and care that go into making a great Ice Wine. Ice Wines make a fabulous gift as well because of their uncommon nature. Most winegrowing regions can’t make traditional Ice Wine because they don’t get reliably cold enough in the winter. This adds to the uniqueness of this wonderful dessert wine.

VINTNER: What are some nuances and challenges associated with making an Ice Wine? How did you fine tune your method over the years?

SMITH: Producing a great Ice Wine requires a great deal of care and attention in the cellar. The first challenge any winemaker will notice is how viscous the juice is. Most Ice Wine juice starts around 40% sugar. The thick juice takes longer to settle, and is harder to push through filters. This creates some logistical differences when compared to handling juice for table wine production. 

Another challenge is that yeast actually don’t like the sugar concentration to be that high. With 40% sugar the Ice Wine Juice is slightly toxic to yeast and so fermentations need to be monitored closely and given extra attention. Adding to the difficult fermentation conditions is the increased wild microbe population (which competes with the winemaker’s added yeast) coming from the grapes hanging outside for an extra three months compared to table wine grapes. Finally, if the fermentation is well taken care of, Ice Wines don’t stop fermenting on their own. The winemaker must decide the best time to stall the fermentation, usually by chilling it below 35°F, in order to maintain the right amount of sugar, acid, and alcohol. This timing can be very tricky, every year is different and every fermentation is a little different. 

I will review my records from previous years to help determine when to shut down the fermentation, but the final decision always comes down to aroma and taste. I don’t shut down any Ice Wine fermentations until I smell and taste the right balance of acid, sugar, and flavors.

When I know we are close to stopping an Ice Wine I will taste and smell it several times a day so that I don’t miss that critical balance point. Sometimes I have to come back to the winery at 10 or 11 p.m. to taste if the Ice Wine is ready yet. In order to do this well, anyone would need to keep detailed notes every year, taste and smell the fermentation often, and never assume “it can wait until tomorrow.” Attention to detail is key to a successful Ice Wine.

VINTNER: How does the wine differ/vary from year to year? If it’s almost identical from year to year, is that something that’s a priority, or is nuance to each vintage something that’s celebrated in ice wine like it is other varietals?

SMITH: The grapes for our Ice Wine are grown by some great folks in the Geneva/Harpersfield area of Northeast Ohio. They do a great job of caring for the vines and deciding when to harvest the grapes for Ice Wine. Since the grapes must be harvested below 17°F (so they stay frozen during pressing) the weather plays a critical role. Some years it gets cold enough for harvest before Christmas while other years it isn’t until late January. The difference of these few weeks can definitely give some variation from one vintage to the next. The unique qualities of each vintage keeps enthusiasts coming back for more. Because Ice Wine is a unique product most guests aren’t looking for something that tastes the same every time. This allows each vintage to shine on its own.

VINTNER: If a vineyard is deciding to break into Ice Wines and other dessert varietals after never having offered them before, what is a key piece of advice you’d share with them?

SMITH: When choosing grape varieties for Ice Wine it is important to select a grape that is aromatic and has a thick enough skin to survive the extra long hang time without breaking down before harvest. Make sure you do your homework before investing the time and effort into Ice Wine production, and don’t overcommit the first year you make it. From the tasting room’s side of things I would say that marketing should focus on the unique aspects of Ice Wine production that make it special. Those unique qualities will highlight why it makes such a great gift for special occasions.

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