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.
“The grapes must be solidly frozen,” Johnson said. “You can’t give them the chance to thaw before they’re in the press.”
The process of pressing the frozen grapes yields less juice, but it has a much higher sugar content because water in the grapes remains frozen at higher temperatures than the sugars.
The juice produced is only about 25 percent of what would yield from grapes during normal wine making. Johnson expects the two tons of grapes he pressed Wednesday would produce only about 80 gallons of juice which will make about 800 half-bottles of ice wine.
“It’s a natural concentrate,” he said. “It’s something special and it’s something that you can’t do in California.”
There have only been a few years when the gamble hasn’t paid off for Chateau Chantal. It’s something that pushes some wine makers to only produce the small-batch wine on occasion.
“It’s an extreme gamble when you do it,” said Ed O’Keefe III, president of Chateau Grand Traverse. “It takes a long time to ferment it and get it ready. It’s a difficult wine to make all around.”
O’Keefe’s winery makes its ice wine on a rotating basis because of a handful of factors including the risk and the stress it puts on vines to allow fruit to hang long after normal harvest time has passed.
“The last one we did was our 2008 Reisling Ice Wine,” he said. “It’s tough, tough cold work.”
In 2014, O’Keefe said the winery is planning to make ice wine for its 40th anniversary.
Workers at both Blackstar Farms and Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery were out before sunrise picking grapes for ice wine.
“This year seems kind of ideal since winter came so shortly after harvest,” said Coryn Briggs, marketing director for Blackstar Farms.
The longer it takes to get a deep freeze, the greater the chance the grapes will be lost to animals and rot while they hang exposed on the vine.
Briggs’ husband, a wine maker for Forty-Five North, left home at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday to get out and make ice wine, Briggs said.
The wine produced this year won’t be available until sometime next summer. In addition to waiting for the weather to cooperate, wine makers must wait an extended period of time before yeast in the wine has converted enough of the sugar in the juice to alcohol to call it ready.
The half-sized bottles of ice wine produced by Grand Traverse wineries typically costs $70 or more, but it’s not the kind of wine to drink in large quantities.
Johnson suggests sharing one of the small bottles in two-ounce servings with guests after a meal.
“Ice wine can be the desert,” he said. “It’s so special, it needs to be on its own. If you’re lucky enough to have a mustache, you may have another two hours worth of licking it off your whiskers.”
Wine lovers who are curious about ice wine, but don’t want to spring for the price of a whole bottle often can get a sample in any number of local tasting rooms.