Sweet Liquid Gold

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Frozen grapes become ice wine at the Chateau Chantal winery near Traverse City, Michigan.
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Parka-clad workers handpick clusters of frozen grapes at the Chateau Chantal winery near Traverse City, Michigan.
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Quiet and cold accompany the winter harvest of grapes at the Chateau Chantal winery near Traverse City, Michigan.

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.

Chateau Chantal’s “Chantal Ice” isn’t the only ice wine made on the snowy hillsides of Old Mission. The nearby Brys Estate Winery produces a slightly less sweet version known as “Dry Ice,” while Black Star Farms has an ice wine label called “A Capella.” (Like the ice wine made by Chateau Grand Traverse, it’s made entirely with Riesling grapes – the traditional German choice. Most Canadian ice wine is made from Vidal grapes, a cold-hardy hybrid, while Johnson likes to flavor “Chantal Ice’s” Riesling-rich mix with a little juice from one of two other varieties.) 

Ice wine commands a hefty price in the retail market; a slender 375 ml. bottle will retail for anywhere from $60 to $100. But winemakers insist that the high cost simply reflects the amount of fruit it takes to make it. In a good year, a ton of grapes will yield 40 gallons of juice when pressed frozen; the same amount of fruit, harvested normally, produces 170 to 175 gallons.

The price also reflects the fact that every ice wine harvest is a high-stakes gamble. When a grower decides to leave some of his vines unharvested in the fall, he has no way of knowing if any of them will still have fruit when the weather gets cold enough for ice wine. If it doesn’t happen soon enough, the grapes can be buried by snow, eaten by birds, or battered by sleet until the skins break and the juice runs out.

Ice wine growers have learned to reduce those hazards by protecting the freezing grapes with lengths of white netting, which gives the vines a misty, ghostly look – especially on moonlit autumn evenings – and by following the weather reports religiously once winter arrives. Even so, there’ve been two winters over the past 25 years when Johnson ended up with such a small crop that he didn’t even bother harvesting it.

Consumers aren’t put off by the steep price tag; Chateau Chantal sells as much ice wine as it can make, which is why Johnson set aside twice as much acreage this year as he did in 2007.

“I love making it,” he said. “Mainly because it’s something I can do here that they can’t do in California.”

For more information about Chateau Chantal and the other wineries of Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, visit the website. For information about other winter adventures, activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, visit the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website.

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