Imagine being outside on a dark December or January morning, traipsing through a vineyard to harvest grapes as quickly as possible to beat the sunrise. The sweet, unique result of this difficult work is what many pay good money and travel good distances to find: ice wine.
Available in smaller bottles with bigger price tags, ice wine can only be made in very specific climates. It is produced in just a few regions across the globe, making it somewhat of a novelty. Canada, Germany, Austria and parts of the United States are the main producers because they have varying seasons — warm enough summers to grow grapes and cold enough winters to let them freeze, which is where the name, “ice wine” originates. Michigan falls into this category and is one of the top ice wine-producing states in the U.S.
“When we press our grapes for ice wine, it just runs out of the press in strands like syrup would,” explained Jeff Lemon, winemaker at Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs.
The popularity and allure of ice wine, according to Lemon, stems from the challenges that go into producing it. Ice wine is made with grapes that have been allowed to stay on their vines throughout peak ripening season and into winter, allowing them to freeze. Remaining on the vine results in them being sweeter. And when the water in them freezes, concentrated sugars are left behind in the grapes. This gets pressed out of the grapes to make ice wine, which is known for its sweet, intense flavors.
“When we press our grapes for ice wine, it just runs out of the press in strands like syrup would.”
— Jeff Lemon
“We harvest at 17 degrees or colder, sometimes around 15 for us,” Lemon explained. “Those grapes are harvested in the bitter cold, and the juice, basically syrup, that we get from these grapes is about a quarter of the amount of juice that we would typically get from this amount of grapes if it wasn’t frozen, so the yield is very low.”
Brian Hosmer, winemaker at Chateau Chantal, located on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula, said the challenges and risks he takes to produce ice wine makes it appealing. He said the first challenge winemakers face happens even before the temperatures drop. By letting the grapes stay on the vines throughout the ripening season, birds often come through and eat the grapes before they freeze.
“We have to put nets over the vines to keep (the birds) from getting to the grapes,” he said. “Once the temperatures begin to drop, the hard work begins.
“We go out there early in the morning to pick the grapes, and every year, we have a lot of false starts because we get out there and then realize it’s too warm.”
Hosmer’s vineyards, like most throughout the world, are situated on a hill or slope. The temperature at the top of the hill is different than at the bottom, making production difficult since the grapes must stay in a 15- to 20-degree range from harvest to press.
“Once we press it, the difficulty comes in again when we go to ferment the juice,” Hosmer said. “Because it’s higher in sugar, it can be difficult to ferment; it’s trickier with the yeast, and it only takes a few months to age.”
Many Michigan ice wines are made with vidal blanc or riesling grapes, which thrive in the Michigan climate. Lemon Creek Winery makes one ice wine called Snow Moon, made exclusively with vidal blanc grapes.
However, many winemakers are branching out and experimenting with other grapes. Lemon Creek makes another ice wine called Moon Shadow with cabernet sauvignon grapes, which traditionally are used to create a drier red wine.
Despite the challenges of creating ice wine, both wineries have reaped the benefits of their hard work. Hosmer’s 2013 ice wine was served at the 2016 White House Canadian State Dinner, and Lemon Creek’s cabernet sauvignon ice wine was the first ice wine made and produced with cabernet sauvignon grapes in the U.S.
Megan Westers is freelance writer based in mid-Michigan who enjoys writing about politics, lifestyle and travel.