The cold is piercing through my Smartwool. My boots crunch on snow so dry and fine it sends a little shiver up my back. It feels like it could be negative 20. And yet, this morning’s 17-degree temperature is not cold enough to harvest Old Mission Peninsula vineyard, Chateau Chantal’s, 1/2 acre of mostly frozen grapes destined to be ice wine. Mark Johnson, head Vintner at Chateau Chantal squeezes a grape, testing the viscosity between his fingers and shakes his head: better to risk the weather for one more week than harvest too soon and lose the whole crop.
Mark would know the difference—he’s been at Chateau Chantal since its inception 23 years ago and boasts over 40 years in the wine business. Ice wine (some call it nectar of the gods) is a tricky thing though, full of risk and requiring more than a little luck. Of his 23 years at Chateau Chantal, Mark has harvested only 17 vintages of ice wine. (Learn how ice wine is made.) “We do it because we can,” he says. “But it is a labor of love.” A successful ice wine harvest requires numerous variables to come together: a healthy summer crop of grapes that fully ripens on the vine while avoiding birds, mice and rot before the first frost. The weather needs to be in the teens (but hopefully not colder) for days in a row, freezing the grape and crystallizing most of the water out while concentrating the sweetness within. Once that sweet spot of temperature and frozenness is reached, the grapes need to be picked and pressed, still frozen, within hours.
Chateau Chantal is one of only a handful of wineries that make ice wine in Northern Michigan (here are some others). Their 2013 vintage was selected for a White House state dinner attended by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau that firmly put Northern Michigan ice wines on the map. (It also quickly caused Chateau Chantal’s ice wine stock to sell out.)
Mark attributes Chateau Chantal’s ice wine notoriety to the interesting blend of grapes used: 70% are riesling, but 30% are unnamed varieties. Last year, Chateau Chantal’s harvest gleaned only 120 bottles of ice wine. This year, best case scenario, they will produce 1000 of the slender 375 ml bottles that boasts nearly 20 Brix residual sugar (typical late harvest riesling has 4.5 Brix).
My fingers are completely numb and my phone has powered itself off from the cold. It’s time to go into the tasting room where Mark pulls out a bottle of Chateau Chantal’s 2002 vintage from his personal cellar. The entire staff can’t believe it. It is perhaps the last bottle of that vintage and one of very few ice wines Chateau Chantal even has left. “You should probably save some from every year,” Mark says a bit sheepishly, “but I drink it.”
Bill Autenreith is the self-proclaimed Wine Shoppe Sheriff, and breathes in the freshly poured liquid gold’s aroma with unabashed enthusiasm and not a little awe. “It smells like Christmas,” he says. And it does. Rich and lush. Honeyed with a hint of mulling spices. A little nutty with some Granny Smith acidity. Incredibly, it’s not too sweet. It’s perfect. We all sip and savor. I, for one, will be first in line for this year’s nectar.