When temperatures drop at Michigan wineries, some vintners take a high-risk gamble to produce ice wine — a special type that can only be made in certain regions of the country.
Sweet, viscous ice wine, made from grapes that have frozen in the vineyard, entails a uniquely laborious harvest. For starters, vintners can’t pick the grapes until temperatures have dipped to 10-18 degrees Fahrenheit. Since sugar — like salt — lowers the freezing point of water, the vineyards need to be that cold for the sweet fruit to harden thoroughly. The grapes are then picked by hand and pressed immediately afterward to extract the saccharine concentrate that remains.
Michigan’s cold winters make the state uniquely suited for ice wine production.
“It gives the region something unique to talk about on a national scale,” says Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula, which hosts an annual Ice Wine Festival. “Everyone makes Chardonnay, but only a few, few places can make ice wine.”
Waiting so long to harvest poses several risks. Ripe grapes attract hungry critters, and wind, precipitation and even rot can strip the vines of viable grapes.
“Ice wine, for the winemaker, isn’t that hard to make, but it’s a struggle in the vineyard,” says David Butkovich, owner of Cody Kresta Vineyard and Winery in Mattawan.
During pressing, frozen grapes yield significantly less juice than grapes picked earlier in the season. For Chateau Chantal’s inaugural Cabernet Franc ice wine harvest last month, winemaker Brian Hosmer estimates the crew picked about 1.4 tons of grapes to produce 70 gallons of juice. By comparison, he says, a ton of regular-harvest grapes yields about 170 gallons.
“There are just so many obstacles to making ice wine that it’s a challenge getting any production,” says Dave Anthony, co-owner of Northern Sun Winery in the Upper Peninsula’s Bark River.
That’s why ice wines are pricier, with some 375 mL bottles retailing at $80 in Michigan tasting rooms. That’s how much Chateau Chantal’s Estate ice wine costs. The winery’s new Cabernet Franc ice wine, which is currently fermenting, will carry the same price.
“It gives us that unique item, which is a red ice wine,” Dalese says.
For maximum enjoyment, Hosmer recommends drinking ice wine slowly.
“When you’re tasting it, you might want to slow down to truly appreciate what’s going on in there because what happens is that if you just drink it like normal wine, you’re missing out on all of the concentration of flavors,” he says. “There is more going on here than just really syrupy, sweet drinking wine.”