July 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Michigan Ice Wine Rises When Mercury Falls

by Todd Spencer
Michigan Ice Wine Rises When Mercury Falls
Birds and other pests can leave just a few remaining grapes available for ice wine when conditions are ready.

  • Michigan wineries are thought to rank third in North America in the quantity of ice wine they produce, behind only New York and Ontario.
  • Making ice wine is always risky and not always profitable, even at retail prices starting at $50 for 375ml. Weather conditions must be perfect, and scavenging pests deterred.
  • Brys Estate, a dry wine specialist, produces an ice wine with less residual sugar than is traditional.
With all the extra hassle and risk involved in the production of ice wine--leaving grapes on the vine for months after the others are picked, in hope they will survive wind, birds and mold to eventually freeze solid--you might wonder why anyone bothers.

When asked why he makes ice wine, Mark Johnson, winemaker at Michigan's Chateau Chantal, brings to mind British explorer George Mallory's famous quote about wanting to climb Mt. Everest. "Because I can," he says. "And because they can't do it in California."

He might add that people are willing to pay prices starting at $50 for a 375ml bottle.

No one has been making ice wine longer in Michigan than Johnson, who graduated from Germany's Geisenheim Institute in the early 1980s. He made his first Michigan ice wine in 1983, and says that those he and his neighbors now make are just as good as those from Germany. "The flavors are every bit as good," he contends. Perhaps this is not a boast. Since the late '90s, Michigan has been well regarded for German varietals like Gewürztraminer and Riesling--the original eiswein grape.
Last December, five of Northwest Michigan's 19 wineries harvested ice wine grapes, including Johnson's Chateau Chantal, as well as Chateau Grand Traverse and Brys Estate, all neighbors on Old Mission Peninsula--a finger of land pointing into Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. Johnson guesses that the state has become the largest ice wine producer in North America after Ontario and New York.

While some North American wineries bend over backwards to emulate the late-18th century German model for authenticity, two of the three producers we spoke with change things drastically, while remaining reverent of German law that allows marketing as "ice wine."

A Tale Of Three Michigan Ice Wines

Johnson and winemaker Bernd Croissant of Chateau Grand Traverse decided independently to harvest on the morning of Dec. 6, 2005. The temperature was 12°F on the hill that grew Johnson's old-vine Riesling. Four miles south, Croissant measured the temperature at 8°F.

How did they know that would be the day?

"I didn't," Johnson says. "I read the weather report, but I was out there at 7:30 a.m. squeezing grapes. There's no other way of knowing. They have to be like marbles."

Johnson made his 2005 ice wine as a 60-40 blend of his oldest Riesling and two experimental grapes from his test vineyard. One was a New York variety, NY621221. "It doesn't have a name," Johnson says, "but it was bred in Geneva in New York, and one of the parents I believe was Muscat Ottenel. It has a very distinct Muscat aroma."

The other was a Geisenheim, GM 31857. Johnson says one of its parents is Riesling clone 137 and the other is Ehrenselser. "It's very herbaceous. If I could name it, I'd call it 'New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.' Imagine you've been pulling weeds and you smell your fingers. It's that smell. We made wine out of it last year just for fun to have with our gourmet cooking events at the winery's bed and breakfast, and the response has been overwhelming."

He's very happy with the blending, which he sees as adding flavor to a well-made base. "I would be surprised if I didn't continue this. It does add something to the whole mix."

Also of note, Johnson had the highest Brix this year since his first ice wine in 1983: 64° Brix.

In late winter '06, the ice wine was still fermenting in a corner of his cellar, under some tarps in a 55-gallon stainless steel drum and a 60-gallon stainless steel mixing tank, with an electric heater running. "It's super sweet, probably just 3 or 4% alcohol by now. Like all ice wines, this one will be very rich, lush, sweet and full bodied." A friend who tasted it described it as "explosive."

Michigan Ice Wine Rises When Mercury Falls
No one in Michigan is getting rich making ice wine; love of the process and the product keep it in the mix.
Four miles down-peninsula at Chateau Grand Traverse, Croissant is using 100% Riesling from his oldest vines for a larger-scale production. If his approach seems more traditional, there's a reason: he's German. Because it took him several days to press the 2 tons of frozen grapes in an uninsulated shelter, he ended up with three press fractions with an average of 38.5° Brix and enough juice to make an estimated 1,400 bottles. As of March, Croissant was thrilled. "The flavor profile is great," he says. "A lot of citrus, mango and tropical fruit flavors right now."

A mile north of Chateau Chantal, Brys Estate is making its ice wine debut with a "dry" approach. South African winemaker Cornel Olivier has a passion for dry whites--75% of his production has no residual sugar. While his ice wine will not technically be defined as "dry"--there's no way to convert all that sugar to alcohol--he's giving it a push in that direction.

Two other interesting variables: Brys Estate is a new winery, with vineyards comprised exclusively of young vines planted in 2004. Unlike his neighbors, Olivier had a touch of botrytis--less than 5% by weight. "A small amount I see as a good thing," he says. "It adds complexity."

Olivier pressed the Clone 198 Riesling for six or seven hours and racked the juice in an area "heated" to 25°. The juice came off the press at 44° Brix (vs. Johnson's 64° Brix). Olivier says his will be higher in alcohol and less sweet than traditional ice wine.

"It's going to age really well," he says. "It's not flabby. Nice acidity. I'm very happy with it right now. It has good mouthfeel and, opening the tank, it has good fruit. Tropical fruit, citrus, peach and apricot." Olivier says he has enough must to make 500 bottles, which will debut for sale this September or October.

High Risk, High Reward

Making ice wine every year is a goal of Johnson's, but in some years it's not feasible. In 2003, for example, a warm week in February snapped with a day that was -14°F. In the aftermath, only 11% of the crop was left, and the winemakers decided to pick everything they could in the fall and make it into table wine.

And then sometimes, the ice wine crop just fails on the vine. In 2001, the weather didn't get cold enough to harvest until mid-January. So many grapes had fallen in the winds or been scavenged that the yield from the full acre of vines was about the weight of a linebacker--an unpressable 240 pounds. That's $45,000 down the drain.

Michigan Ice Wine Rises When Mercury Falls
Chateau Chantal harvested its ice wine crop on Dec. 6, 2005, a yield of just one ton.
For all the extra effort involved, Chateau Chantal is not getting rich from making ice wine the way they presumably are in Ontario, where some wineries set half their acreage aside for ice wine.

The single ton of grapes Johnson picked will make 700 375ml bottles of ice wine. Sold at $60 per bottle, this year's ice wine has a potential sales value of $42,000. But if the grapes had been processed in the fall, the same acreage would have produced 3,000 $15 bottles of Riesling for a total potential value of $45,000. By this math, Chateau Chantal is losing $3,000 in gross revenue to make ice wine, and risking a loss of the entire acre's harvest, as happened in 2001.

Olivier at Brys Estate said that the bottom line for his ice wine project looked better--thanks to his excellent yield.

On Dec. 7, Olivier harvested roughly half the acreage Johnson did the day before, and got nearly the same tonnage. For the half-acre more that Johnson harvested--valued at $22,500--he only got 18 more gallons of ice wine must than Olivier. At 16 cents per milliliter, every drop counts.

Chateau Chantal averaged 700 bottles per acre, Chateau Grand Traverse got 933 bottles per acre and Brys Estate managed a high of 1,000 bottles per acre. It's no wonder that Olivier is looking forward to harvesting a full acre of ice wine next year.

They Do It Anyway

Beyond the mystical draw and the extreme-sports-style challenge, Johnson will also admit that he makes ice wine for the prestige and cachet.

A good ice wine is almost certain to bring home a medal or two, and Johnson reports that during the first 15 years he made it, he never once harvested without a local camera crew filming for the evening news. "And I've been talking to you for an hour now, haven't I?" he says of the publicity value.

Ulterior motives aside, Johnson says, "I do think that natural ice wine is something incredibly special, and it's quite rare. And as long as we can do it that way, we will."

(Todd Spencer is a Michigan native who writes from San Francisco. He has written for salon.com, rollingstone.com and reported for a variety of NPR programs. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com)
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