It’s 5am, six degrees outside and the sun is still sleeping. The snow is crunchy, the tip of your nose is numb and the slight breeze makes your eyes water. Your nose hairs freeze as you inhale and you’re wearing so many layers you find yourself moving like an arthritic Frankenstein, but on a vineyard in Western New York these are the perfect conditions to pick grapes. Some have been waiting to harvest the grapes that have been left on the vine all through the year and into winter. You see there is a special type of wine that can only be produced in a few regions on the Earth. WNY is one of those places and the type of wine I’m referring to is called Ice Wine.
Ice Wine is a wine that doesn’t necessarily come from one specific type of grape; rather Ice Wine comes from the process itself which yields a very sweet and tasty dessert wine. At Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in the very small town of Lyndonville (and I mean small) and close to the shores of Lake Ontario they produce a limited quantity of this Double Gold Award Winning Ice Wine.
To produce this wine truly is a labor of love and definitely not one for those opposed to the bitter cold. You see, a true Ice Wine must be harvested and pressed at temperatures of at most 18 degrees and then continue to hold this temperature for the processing and pressing. For this reason alone WNY is only one of a few other wine regions on earth that have just the right length of a growing season, as well as the consecutive days of bitter temps that will yield a true and quality Ice Wine.
I use the term a true ice wine because there are other “Iced Wines”, which simply means that the grapes were harvested and then frozen. The taste isn’t as pure and let’s face it, you’re being a poser and you need to stop it!
Recently I met up with the head Winemaker at Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, Jonathan Oakes (Middle), Adam Bachman (Wine Manager, Left), and the ever so burley Zack Klug (Assistant Winemaker, Right). When we met to discuss things for this article a couple things were very apparent to me; not one of them complained or mentioned how cold it was and they all do this for the love of making wine. The first grapes were planted in 2003 by Jonathan’s dad, Darryl Oakes, as a way to hopefully pass the time during “retirement”. Quotations are important here because if you’ve ever known a farmer you know they never truly “retire”.
Since then the winery officially opened for business in 2007, and they’ve established themselves on the Niagara Wine Tail and have been making award winning wines ever since.
Ice Wine Harvesting & Pressing Process
By the time we got back to the few rows of Vidal Blanc grapes and were ready to start harvesting, it had warmed up to a frigid 8 degrees and the sun was beginning to peek out from behind the lake effect snow-bands to the North and South. Jonathan, Zach and Adam made quick work of the frozen, half shriveled little marbles shaking the vine to knock loose most of the grapes while the others were easily plucked off from the brittle vines. From there the grapes are collected into crates and then brought to be pressed. For this process to be effective, the pressing must also be done in the frigid temps. Under these extreme temperatures the water freezes inside the grape, causing small amounts of grape juice concentrate to separate once pressed. The frozen water stays in the grape. The pressing produces the very sweet and syrupy juice which is collected for the Ice Wine fermentation process.
One drawback to this method is that the same amount of grapes normally used will only yield about 1/6th the normal amount of wine, but what you’re left with is a wine that has twice the normal concentrate of sugar. For these reasons and because of the labor intensive process you’ll find most quality Ice Wines are in the $50-$80 price range and it’s not uncommon at all for some to range in the hundreds of dollars.
Today, once the grapes for the day were harvested the guys brought them in to be pressed. As the refurbished, decades old German-made grape press was turning with an eerie whine, I did what any good journalist would do and did a little bit of Ice Wine sampling to ensure everything was up to par, of course.
Why The Niagara Wine Region Is A WNY Treasure
While enjoying the fruits of their hard labor, the thermal Carhartt coats came off; we warmed ourselves and proceeded to talk about what makes the Niagara Wine Region so special. Jonathan told me how the glaciers that used to cover this area, and helped to carve out our Great Lakes, had left behind mineral nutrient rich soil which is excellent soil for growing grapes. Germany, Canada and the Niagara Wine Region are the biggest global producers of Ice Wine.
The Niagara Wine Region isn’t just good for producing Ice Wine however. There are several other wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and they all produce excellent wines which range from Rieslings, Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, and Pinot Noir.
Western New York and the Niagara Wine Trail has really made a name for themselves by producing quality and unique wines. If you’re a wino there’s no need to dream about going to a Catalina Wine Mixer anymore, you have it right in your backyard. There are tour buses all the time in the summer that you can hop on and hit a couple wineries in one day. Most of these wineries offer food pairings and have special events from time to time that can include live music. It’s also not uncommon to see an Amish buggy or two go clip-clopping down the road.
I’ve lived in few different states since I moved from Buffalo in ’00, just to come back 2-years-ago and I can definitely say this is a great time to live in WNY. Yes, we have major blizzards with snow totals that seem like our national deficit, but we also have the revitalization of Metro Buffalo and the pristine countryside that allows for world class vineyards all within a one hour drive of each other. Save your money on a plane ticket to wine country on the west coast and stay in Western New York and have yourself a toast.