TRAVERSE CITY — Mark Johnson can’t help but smile while frigid weather plunges the Grand Traverse region into an early winter.
It’s just the weather the Chateau Chantal winemaker needed. And this week it arrived, turning the landscape around the vineyard into a natural freezer.
Johnson, a 30-year veteran winemaker, stood inside the winery’s tasting room watching Wednesday morning as the teeth of a winter storm sank into the vine-covered hills that fall away from the chateau.
He was watching his annual ice wine gamble pay off while commuters across the region cursed the wintry blast.
“It’s the nectar of the gods,” he said, a grin peeking from under his thick beard. “You never know whether it will succeed or not. It’s always a risky proposition.”
There are few regions in the United States where the sweet desert wine can be produced according to traditional methods, and northwest Michigan is among the few. The wine traditionally is produced by wine makers who are willing to risk a small portion of their crop by leaving it hanging on vines until temperatures drop low enough to freeze the grapes solid.
It traditionally is produced from Riesling grapes, although there are a few ice wines available that are made from other grapes like Vidal.
Temperatures must fall to between 12 and 15 degrees depending on the sugar content of the grapes before they will freeze into tiny, fruity marbles, Johnson said.
And when the mercury hits the right mark, wine producers must have a workforce ready to pick the grapes quickly. There were seven people outside at 8 a.m. Wednesday at Chateau Chantal furiously picking grapes while the cold numbed their fingers and toes.
They weren’t alone, either. Wine makers across the Grand Traverse area struck out to grab tons of grapes and press them while they’re still frozen.