Season 2, Episode 3: “Icewine, baby”

It’s pretty freaking cold everywhere you go east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada right now, so it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about Ice wine.  Our main wine focus of this episode is the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Vineyards in Bloomington, Indiana, though we drank this alongside the 2009 Golden Icewine Valley from Changyu in Liaoning, China, and the 2017 Late Harvest Vidal Blanc from Arizona Stronghold Vineyard, sourced from Bruzzi Vineyard in Young, Arizona. The latter, of course, isn’t an Ice wine but is still a varietal Vidal Blanc.

As it turns out, over half of the ice wine vintages made throughout the world are made from Vidal Blanc, because of just how hardy this grape is.  Vidal Blanc (also known simply as Vidal), is a complex hybrid cross between Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) and Rayon d’Or. Vidal is very winter-hardy and produces surprisingly high sugar levels in cold climates. This aspect, combined with the natural tendency of Vidal Blanc to have moderate to high acidity, makes this varietal a favorite in harsh climates across the Northern Hemisphere, even being grown as far north as Sweden and Norway. Since these climates are prone to freezes, it makes perfect sense that the Icewine tradition would tend to find a home wherever Vidal Blanc is grown.

The secret of Ice wine is that it is produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine.  The sugars and other dissolved solids in grapes will not freeze, but the water within the grapes does. This means an incredibly concentrated grape juice results; the must is pressed from these frozen grapes, which results in a smaller amount of more concentrated, very sweet wine. Only healthy grapes kept in good shape are used for this wine; none of them may be infected with noble rot. Furthermore, time is of the essence, since re-thawing the grapes will cause them to spoil quickly since ice crystals destroy cell walls. Thus the harvest must be completed within a few hours on the first morning that is cold enough. The result of all this hard work is a wine with refreshing sweetness, balanced by high acidity.

Ice wine production is risky for several reasons: the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot, or are otherwise lost, for one. The production also requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop of grapes within a few hours, at a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough, often before sunrise. This results in rather small amounts of ice wine being made worldwide, making ice wines generally expensive.  The bottles used for ice wines are generally small, holding only 375 mL of wine, as befitting this small production.  The increased production of ice wine has been dramatically assisted technological inventions in the form of electric lighting, driven by portable generators, remotely-controlled temperature alarms, and the invention of the pneumatic bladder press.

While there are some indications in the writings of the world’s first wine critic, Pliny the Elder, along with the poet Martial, that the Romans were making vintages in this style on occasion (probably in Northern Italy), the first ice wine that we definitely know about was made in Germany in 1794.  The story goes that the winter had been harsh, and some wine growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine to use as fodder for their animals; when the growers noticed that these grapes after being frozen yielded a very sweet must, they were pressed anyway, and a wine revolution slowly began. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, and there seems to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines. Over time, with the technological developments listed above, ice wine production became more common… but at the same time, growers in Germany, the region where this wine style was invented in the modern era, have noticed that in the last few decades, good ice wine vintages have been less common. Many vintners have cited climate change as the cause of this decline.

The first ice wine produced in the United States was made in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1981 by Great Western Winery. Today, Michigan leads the charge in creating ice wine in America;  as an example in 2002, six Michigan wineries alone produced over 13,000 half-bottles of ice wine. The US law for ice wines specifies that grapes must be naturally frozen; the TTB declares that “Wine made from grapes frozen after harvest may not be labeled with the term ‘ice wine’ or any variation thereof, and if the wine is labeled to suggest it was made from frozen grapes, the label must be qualified to show that the grapes were frozen post-harvest.”

Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice wine
Our main focus for this episode, the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Winery, is only the second vintage of ice wine produced by this vineyard. Ice wine is a difficult endeavor, after all…

Season 2, Episode 2: “WTF are tasting notes, anyway?”

I get asked somewhat often, “What are tasting notes, really?” Or rather, to be honest, I get asked: “What am I supposed to be tasting, anyway?”

Well, when you get down to it, you taste what you taste.  Sure, I can help, but really, wine is such a subjective thing that I generally hate to push what I think I’m tasting or smelling onto the drinker I’m with.  This can also make tasting notes (and notes on the aromatic profiles of wine) seem somewhat arbitrary to the beginner.  And that’s okay!

Basically, tasting notes refer to a wine taster’s (or, in some cases, a coffee taster’s!) testimony about the aroma, taste identification, acidity, structure, texture, and the balance of a wine, designed to allow the reader to get an idea of what the experience of imbibing that particular vintage is like. They can get as creative as you like, or as simple as you like.  Often-times, such notes may seem like gibberish, but this Sommelier-speak has a code that isn’t as difficult to translate as beginners think.  In short, what you taste, is what you taste.

These notes are NOT related to what is in the wine or how it was made, usually; these flavors are not added.  The winemakers for this wine didn’t pour in pickle juice during fermentation, for example.  In many cases, they aren’t even the same molecule, but they hit the receptors in the olfactory lobes of the brain in the same way as those flavors in food, drink, or spices do.  Wine Folly has a great article on how to approach writing your own tasting notes which can be found here.

For this podcast discussing Tasting notes, Elizabeth Krecker and I decided to drink the 2014 Sémillon from Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery, based out of Napa Valley, though they source grapes from multiple vineyards across the state of California. This wine is a complex blend of two different styles of fermentation; one on the skins (a.k.a., Amber Wine) and another aged in concrete. Elizabeth and I loved the tasting notes that they used to describe their wines and thought it would be fun to explore what we tasted in this wine versus what the winemakers tasted.  They’ve got a lot of fun wines, and I highly recommend them.

Dirty and Rowdy 2014 Sémillon
The 2014 Sémillon from Dirty and Rowdy Family Wines is not only our stepping stone into a discussion of what tasting notes are but also our first revisit of the California wine industry.