Ice wine sounds like something out of Game Of Thrones, and when my mom told me about how amazing it is, I thought she was joking. Ice wine? Why would I want to drink anything icy in the winter? This Northern Michigan seasonal rarity is a wine that’s made only when the Ice wine gods allow the stars to align and the perfect harvesting conditions all line-up.
Chateau Chantal winemaker Brian Hosmer has been making wine for 15 years and talked to me about the finicky nature of making Ice wine.
Ice wine originates from 1700s Germany. A stubborn winemaker insisted on pressing grapes even though they had frozen over. The result was a sweet, high flavored dessert wine.
So, like a moscato or a riesling, right? Not necessarily.
“Ice wine is kind of its own category. It’s dependent on the structure of the stem. Where the cluster connects to the stem, how hard and stiff that stem is depends on the varieties you can do. When those stems break down and get brittle they begin to fall off. The cluster has the stay on the vine, the law is that you have to pick it frozen. When it falls off it doesn’t count, so typically it’s riesling and cabernet franc.”
What gives Ice wine its sweetness is the freezing. Frozen grapes will go into a press just how any other wine would.
“When you put them in the press they’re frozen and roll around like marbles. You’re pressing the berries and the water stays behind as ice. So what you’re doing is concentrating the juice by leaving behind the water.”
Because there is so much concentrated juice, there’s quite a bit more sugar than regular pressed grapes. The yeast in the wine can only convert so much sugar into alcohol. What’s not converted remains, giving the Ice wine the sweetness it’s known for.
It has to be 15 degrees or below to harvest the frozen grapes. Typically, temperatures aren’t favorable for Ice wine harvesting until January but last week started the season started early when Brian woke up to nine degrees. He and a team of coworkers picked grapes in the freezing cold with 30 mph winds, which isn’t where the labor-intensive process ends.
“It takes a lot longer than every other thing that we do. A normal press might take an hour and a half. But these are frozen, they take up more space. Pressing took overnight last time.”
Once enough grapes for the press are harvested another batch will not be able to be harvested again that day because the frozen grapes will take time to press.
Ice wine doesn’t come from leftover grapes from the season, either. Chateau Chantal has a block of grapes dedicated strictly for grapes that will be turned into Ice wine. If the winter is on the warmer side, all of those grapes will go to waste, that is if the deer and other critters don’t get to them first.
Ice wine is not a large percentage of the business. At clocking in at less than 1% of what they make, Ice wine and the long process that comes with making it isn’t necessary for the popular winery to thrive.
“It’s hard to do at scale. You lose so much and there’s such a risk. It’s very expensive and takes so much time.”
Why is this a thing again? Brian offered me Ice wine that had not yet converted over to alcohol. The frothy, magenta-colored brew had teeth sucking sweetness that made my jaw tighten. I’ve never been a big sugar person, and have always preferred very dry wines to sweet ones. Despite the near juice like sweetness, people love their Ice wine in Northern Michigan, and they’ll pay for it too. Because of the tedious process to make Ice wine, a bottle comes with a bigger price tag than other wines. To snag half a bottle from Chateau Chantal will run you around $80.
If you’re still on the fence about Ice wine, or curious about it Chateau Chantal is hosting a Fire and Ice Wine Dinner this January on the 25th. The event will be held at Chateau Chantal and will pair dishes with three of its signature Ice wines, Vidal, Entice their Estate bottled ice wine.
Love ice wine? Hate it? Haven’t tried it? I fall into the latter category and to be culturally educated, I plan on trying it. There’s certainly enough time and care that goes into making this Northern Michigan winter favorite and that alone makes me excited to indulge. Cheers.