Chateau Chantal’s Ice Wine Festival to serve 'nectar of the gods'

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

When the time is right, weeks after the fall harvest of red and white wine grapes has wrapped up, clusters of frozen grapes, still clinging to barren, gnarly vines, are hand picked and transported to an unheated warehouse or outdoor pad for immediate pressing.

Plucking grapes for ice wine depends on the mercury -- temperatures have to be, generally, in the mid teens and hold steady so the fruit is frozen. Often, the weather is far from pleasant. Vintners across Michigan offer plenty of stories of picking grapes in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning, battling howling winds, falling temperatures, blizzards, and vineyards submerged knee-deep or higher in snow.

Workers unload buckets of frozen riesling at Chateau Grand Traverse.

It’s all part of the mystique -- and the allure -- of ice wine, a sweet dessert-style  wine that traces its modern roots to Germany, where it’s known as eiswein. The style has become firmly planted among wineries in Michigan, one of the few regions in the world able to produce ice wine. The climate has to be warm enough for grapes to accumulate sugar and to ripen and cold enough for them to freeze. Michigan, like Ontario and British Columbia, New York’s Finger Lakes and other Great Lakes states, boasts a climate suitable to making one of the world’s riskiest styles of wine. Canada is the world’s biggest producer of ice wine.

“They say ice wine is the nectar of the gods,” says Bernd Croissant, long-time winemaker at Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City. “Ice wines comes in all sweetness levels. We make ice wine in the typical German style. It has good alcohol content, nice acidity and fresh crispness.

“Once you try ice wine, you’ll know why people like it,” he adds.

Chateau Grand Traverse's 2016 Riesling Ice Wine won Best of Class in the ice wine category at the 2018 Michigan Wine Competition.

 One of Michigan’s oldest ice wine producers  is Chateau Chantal near Traverse City. The winery has been making ice wine since the early  1990s, and three years ago began an annual celebration of the specialty wine. Chateau Chantal’s Ice Wine Festival takes place Saturday at its estate vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula. It’s billed as a celebration of the winery’s “unique ability to grow, harvest and produce one of the rarest products in the wine industry.”

The day-long festival, as might be expected, offers tastings of multiple vintages of ice wine, vineyard and wine processing tours, and s’mores, ice sculptures and other activities on its patio, where fire pits will ease the cold. Guests are also welcome to snowshoe along a trail in the vineyard. The event culminates with a Fire and Ice Wine Dinner, featuring seven courses, each paired with ice wine and other wines, held in the winery’s hospitality room.

“The festival is a great opportunity to see a winery in the winter,” says Kyle Brownley, Chateau Chantal’s director of marketing. “You can see the vineyard where we harvested the grapes for ice wine and tour the cellar where we focus on the process of making ice wine. It’s also a way to encourage people to hang outside in the winter.”

Leaving the grapes on the vine into late fall or winter allows for more sugar concentration. When temperatures fall below a certain level, the water in the grapes freeze, but not the sugar. Pressing them immediately, before they thaw, retains the water but releases small amounts of concentrated, sweet juice. It’s a more labor-intensive and costly process, which means higher prices and smaller bottles (typically 375-ml bottles).

The crew gathers around riesling harvested frozen on the vine at Chateau Grand Traverse.

While not every winery in Michigan makes ice wine, many do. You’ll find ice wines on tasting room menus across the state, from the peninsulas of Traverse City to the tip of the mitten, to all corners of  Michigan. Most winemakers adhere to traditional methods (some do harvest grapes and then freeze them) and use varietals ranging from European grapes such as riesling and cabernet franc to hardy hybrid grapes such as vidal blanc and vignoles.

This year Chateau Chantal plans to produce two ice wines. The winery has already harvested cabernet franc for one, its first red ice wine. Its waiting to harvest a second crop to produce an ice wine, mostly made out of riesling. A 2018 vintage Ice Wine, made with estate-grown riesling, is available in its tasting room.

Down the road on Old Mission Peninsula, Chateau Grand Traverse pours its 2016 Riesling Ice Wine, its latest vintage.  Harvested in December 2016 -- on a 12-degree weather day -- the wine won Best of Class in the ice wine category in the annual Michigan Wine Competition in 2018.

Chateau Grand Traverse, the oldest winery in northern Michigan, began making ice wine a short time after its first vines were planted in the early 1970s. Making ice wine was a natural extension of the winery’s focus on growing European grapes, including riesling, one of the traditional grapes used to make ice wine in Germany. The winery has always had German or German-trained winemakers like Croissant.

“The owners here are on the same boat when it comes to making ice wine,” said Croissant, who apprenticed in Germany, where members of his family have been making wine for centuries. “If we make ice wine, we make it the right way or we don’t make it at all … They would stone me to death in Germany if I made it any other way.”

On neighboring Leelanau Peninsula, Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery offers customers samples of its Riesling Ice Wine from 2017. The wine won Best of Class in the dessert wine category in the most recent Michigan Wine Competition.

Plucking grapes for ice wine depends on the temperature.

 “We don’t make ice wine every year,” said Charlie Edson, winemaker at Bel Lago and a fan of German rieslings. “We made our first ice wine in 1998. We only make ice wine when we think the fruit is appropriate and the weather conditions cooperate.”

Bel Lago harvests grapes for ice wine in the traditional manner, with vineyard temperatures around 14 to 15 degrees. The juice goes through a slow, months-long fermentation process. Bel Lago typically has traditionally used pinot gris for ice and plans to use more riesling in the future.

 “It’s definitely a labor of love or insanity,” Edson said, noting his crew weathered 14-degree temperatures during the 2017 harvest. “More ice wine harvests than not have been nice cloudy days. The last one was mixed conditions and snowy. We were bundled to the hilt.”

In southwestern Michigan, Domaine Berrien Cellars has been producing ice wine made from cabernet franc for nearly two decades. The most current vintage, 2017 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, is available for tastings. The sample is paired with Ghirardelli chocolate.

“Most of all the ice wine made around here is made from vidal blanc. I make mine from a more noble, pristine grape,” said Wally Maurer, owner and winemaker at Domaine Berrien, located near Berrien Springs. “It’s a great dessert wine and pairs well with chocolate. It’s got some nice strawberry, apricot, and candied flavors. It’s nicely balanced and not overly sweet.”

Maurer began making ice wine after visiting wineries in Canada and France. Adding ice wine to his selection, largely red varietals, seemed like a natural way to create a quality organization. “It was a classy way to do something with cabernet franc,” he says

He adheres to the stricter regulations imposed on Canadian producers, which, among other things, requires the grapes to be harvested frozen naturally on the vine while the air temperature is 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit or lower; and the wine must be made from approved varieties. The rules in the United States are far looser. He doesn’t harvest grapes for ice wine every year and can recall many a time when his crew was ready in the middle of the night to pick but pulled the plug because Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.

“It’s something worth waiting for. It’s about sharing that special experience with everyone here, months after we finish the harvest,” he says. “It’s a nice chance to get back together and drink coffee and donuts, even if we don’t get to pick.”

Fenn Valley Vineyards, one of Michigan’s oldest wineries, sells 42 Ice Wine, made from vidal blanc, because “it’s a later ripener, has a thick skin and the fruit can survive the winter without deteriorating or breaking down from other pressures,” said Matt Jannette, Fenn Valley’s winemaker. He described the wine as fruit forward, with some golden apple, peach jam and raisin notes.

Making ice wine occurred by happenstance at Fenn Valley, located near Saugatuck in southwestern Michigan, about a decade ago. One of its growers had let some grapes freeze on the vine and didn’t know what to do with them.

  “We offered to help them out and take the frozen grapes and make ice wine,” Jannette said. “It became a hit, a sensation for us. It was something new here on the market and it sold pretty well.”

                Asked why ice wine is so popular with consumers, Jannette offers, “For one, it’s sweet. Sugar sells in the wine industry, especially in the Midwest. And it has a very interesting story. When you explain the story about using frozen grapes and pressing them while they’re frozen, people are interested. It’s a dessert-style wine but it’s better than just a  bunch of sugar in wine. It’s a well-balanced dessert wine.”

Chateau Chantal Ice Wine Festival

11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Saturday

Free; fee for tastings

Ice Wine offerings include:

2016 Vidal Ice Wine

2017 Vidal Ice Wine

2018 Estate Ice Wine

Entice fortified Ice Wine

Ice Wine vineyard tour, 2 p.m. (dress warmly)

Ice Wine production show and tour, 3 p.m. (indoors)

Fire & Ice Wine Dinner, 6 p.m.

Hospitality Room at Chateau Chantal

Tickets: $125

Chateau Chantal

15900 Rue Devin

Traverse City

(231) 223-4110