Sweet Liquid Gold
In knee-deep snow, workers at the Chateau Chantal winery near Traverse City, Michigan, harvest a late crop to make ice wine, one of this region’s most prized dessert wines.
Parka-clad workers handpick clusters of frozen grapes at the Chateau Chantal winery near Traverse City, Michigan.
courtesy Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau
Traverse City, Michigan – Early each December, winemaker Mark Johnson passes the word to his vineyard crew: Be ready for an early morning wakeup call.
As soon as the temperature drops well below freezing (usually long before dawn) Johnson and his parka-clad workers will gather in darkness in a snow-covered hillside at the Chateau Chantal winery. For the next several hours, they’ll work in the windswept vineyard, hand-picking clusters of frozen snow-dusted grapes and whisking them off to be pressed before they have a chance to thaw.
“It can get bitter up there,” says Johnson. “One good thing is, if you cut yourself you don’t bleed very much.”
This subarctic foray into the vineyards is a far cry from golden October, when the main grape harvest took place here on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula in a haze of autumn colors, buttery sunshine and long, warm afternoons. But there’s a reason for all the discomfort and trouble Johnson and his crew endure – it’s the first step in the creation of ice wine, a sweet, aromatic dessert wine prized for the intensity and complexity of its flavors.
The frozen grapes are pressed as soon as they’re taken off the vine, yielding a juice that’s extremely concentrated in sugars, natural acids and minerals. Months later, it emerges from a long, slow cold-weather fermentation: a golden elixir that captures the fruity essence of summer in this glacier-sculpted slope overlooking Grand Traverse Bay.
“It’s sweet, but it’s not syrupy,” says Johnson. “It’s rich and lush, rather than just cloying.”
First discovered in Germany in the late 18th century, traditional ice wine can only be made in a handful of regions that combine warm summers and lingering autumns with cold winters and early frosts. (Due to a series of warm winters, in fact, Europe produces little ice wine today.) Johnson – who learned the technique during his student days at Germany’s Geisenheim Institute – created the first Michigan ice wine in 1983 on Traverse City’s picturesque Old Mission Peninsula. Today, the only regions in North America that produce more ice wine are Ontario and New York.
Watching the winter ice wine harvest is an unexpected treat for visitors and guests of Chateau Chantal’s bed and breakfast, which remains a popular getaway during the winter months – thanks to its multitude of cozy rooms, roaring fireplaces and stunning views. Elizabeth Berger, the winery’s operations manager, says it’s her favorite time of year.
“When you get a snowstorm up here on this hilltop, it’s like the rest of the world just disappears for a while,” she says.