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The Second Harvest - Ice Wine Grapes

Our discussion of the harvest at Johnson Estate would not be complete without explaining the ice wine harvest.

Vidal Grapes Netted for Ice Wine, 2005-6   Chambourcin Ice Wine Grapes, 2008 Harvest
In the fall, once the leaves have fallen from the vines, the vineyards allocated for ice wine are covered with netting to protect the fruit from being eaten by birds.  This portion of the harvest is delayed until the middle of winter,
Vidal Blanc Grapes - Netted for Ice Wine usually until December or January, and can only proceed if and when the grapes are completely frozen. When temperatures have fallen to roughly twelve degrees Fahrenheit for a day or more, the grapes may be harvested.  The harvest of our ice wine grapes is done manually at Johnson Estate, with the fruit being collected in grape bins, stacked on trailers, and taken immediately to the winery for pressing.   Ice wine harvests yield approximately 60 gallons per ton of juice, compared to the September harvest rate of 170 gallons per ton. The difference is due to the weight of the pure water crystals left behind in the cold pressed grapes.

What is Ice Wine?
It is said that ice wine was first made in Europe during Roman times and rediscovered in Germany after an unexpected frost in the late 1700’s. The production of this very sweet wine became popular in Germany and Austria and is known as “eiswine”.  Today, over one million liters of ice wine is made in Canada, where winters are cold enough to reliably produce it every year.  A similar climate is also found in Niagara County, NY and certainly, here, in the “snow belt” of western New York.

Grapes which have spent the fall hanging on the vines experience a freeze and thaw cycle that desiccates them and enhances their flavors.  When the grapes are solidly frozen, the water in the fruit may be separated from the concentrated sugars – as the sugary liquid freezes at a lower temperature.    When the berries are pressed, the frozen water remains in the press with the seeds and skins and an intensely flavored grape juice is extruded.  To achieve the highest standards and to produce a non-diluted product, extreme care must be taken to harvest AND to press the grapes while they are still frozen.  In western New York, this mean watching the forecasts carefully so as to harvest when the pressing may also be completed at optimally low temperatures.    Johnson Estate has been producing ice wine since 1995. “Ice Wine” is the legal name for wines made from grapes frozen by “Mother Nature”.  It can be made only fromVidal Blanc Ice Wine Grapes at Harvest grapes that have ripened and frozen naturally on the vine – something that our region’s cold winters and blizzards can readily produce.  Some wineries do make a “faux” ice wine, which is produced by harvesting grapes and THEN freezing them in freezers prior to being crushed.  Regulatory authorities have deemed that they must declare this difference by naming these “faux” ice wines.

What Grapes May Be Used to Make Ice Wine?
Any wine grape may be used for ice wine, although grapes which are later-ripening and which tend to stay on the vine are more successful choices.  The French-hybrid grape, Vidal Blanc, is a traditional white wine grape used for making ice wine.  Riesling, too, is often used.  It ripens at the end of the harvest season and also “hangs” well during the winter months.  White grapes tend to have flavors that include honey, apricot, and peach.  Red wine grapes, of several varieties, typically Cabernet Franc, but also Chambourcin, are also utilized to make ice wine and these tend to make ice wines with more berry and cherry elements. 

What Makes a Good Ice Wine?
To avoid an overly sweet ice wine, the sweetness should be balanced by an appropriate level of acidity. 


Johnson Estate’s Three Ice Wines
Vidal Ice Wine
Beverage Testing Institute:
91 (Exceptional) - Johnson Estate 2012 Estate Grown, Ice Wine of Vidal Blanc, Lake Erie $34.99/375 ml.

Brilliant golden yellow. Earthy aromas of dusty golden raisins, honeycomb, and apricot custard with a soft, sweet light-to-medium body and a honeyed dried peach, honeyed kumquat, and toasty spiced nut finish with leafy tannins. A nice rustic, botrytized ice wine that will be a good foil for funky cheeses. (tasted on Dec-09-2013).

Chambourcin Ice Wine
Beverage Testing Institute:
Gold Medal
90 Points (Exceptional) - Johnson Estate 2012 Estate Grown, Ice Wine of Chambourcin, Lake Erie $34.99/375 ml.
Interesting burnt sienna copper color. Meaty aromas of caramelized apricots, smoky grilled peaches, raisin buttercream, and candied ham skin with a with a silky, sweet medium-to-full body and a long, peach pie and pineapple yogurt accented finish. Very different and very good. Pair with cheeses, pies, and ice creams and "baconated" desserts. (tasted on Dec-09-2013)

Sparkling Rosé Ice Wine, THE “champagne of ice wine”
Sparkling Rose Ice Wine & BoxIn 2011, Johnson Estate released its Sparkling Rosé Ice Wine, America’s first sparkling ice wine, and the only sparkling ice wine in North American made using the traditional, in-the-bottle, “méthode champenoise”.   Ice wines concentrate flavor and sweetness into a delicious dessert wine, and bubbles from in-bottle fermentation add a balancing level of bright crispness to the honey-peach-red currant sweetness of traditional ice wine.  Only by using the traditional Champagne method, with higher bottle pressures, can yield the fineness of bubbles and the level of fizz that make a first-quality sparkling wine. Dosing, capping, riddling, disgorging and corking all those small, long-necked, 375ml bottles is labor intensive.  Additionally, others have not discovered how to get yeast to ferment actively enough in this high sugar environment to obtain the fizz and pressures needed for this fine wine.  A few wine cellar secrets let our special yeasts ferment in-bottle with a lot more zest. We have chosen a blend of red Chambourcin, with its red-currant notes, and white Vidal ice wine grapes to make this beautiful, complex rosé wine.  A small serving goes a long way - this wine is intended to be served in "ice wine portions" in small glasses as it is very sweet, despite its fine bubbles.  John Bourdage, a Buffalo food and wine consultant, notes that "this wine has some hints or notes of strawberry jam with a soft caramel creaminess on the palette".  It would pair well with chocolate, chocolate mousse, berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, as well as cinnamon and pecans.