The Great Ice Wine Tradition of the American Midwest

Taking a cue from the Niagara Peninsula, here’s how states from Ohio to South Dakota are producing the nectar of the gods.
The frozen vines of Chateau Chantal,Traverse City, Michigan

With high risk can come high reward, or it can bring complete loss. That’s the challenge ice wine producers face every day.

“Every time we do it, we say, ‘We’re never doing that again,’ yet we always go through another 10 months, and it gets close to harvest and we say, ‘We should do something challenging,’” says Eric Harris, owner/head winemaker at Two-EE’s Winery in Huntington, Indiana.

Ice wine production is a grueling process that can only succeed in very particular cold climates. Grapes often stay on the vine until December or January, and they’re harvested and pressed while still frozen. Fermentation is started immediately to mediate the high sugar content of the concentrated juice.

Often, the grapes are picked in the middle of the night, sometimes in snowy, windy, below-zero conditions. That is, if the birds, deer, raccoons and bugs didn’t get to the grapes first.

The frozen slopes at Wollersheim / Photo courtesy WollersheiThe frozen slopes of Wollersheim's vineyards, Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin / Photo courtesy Wollersheim Winery & Distillerym Winery & Distillery
The frozen slopes of Wollersheim’s vineyards, Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin / Photo courtesy Wollersheim Winery & Distillery

Ice wine in the Americas

According to Philippe Coquard, a 13th-generation winemaker from the Beaujolais region of France, few European countries still make ice wine due to climate change and a lack of consistent cold weather.

While Europe’s climate may not be optimally suited to produce ice wine, the Midwest U.S. is a different story. Coquard, now head winemaker at Wollersheim Winery in Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin, says that ice wine has been on the rise in the region over the past two decades.

“It’s like liquid honey,” says Coquard.

Cold-hardy wine grapes developed by the University of Minnesota about two decades ago are primarily why many Midwestern states are able to grow grapes at all.

Varieties like Frontenac, and its mutations, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc, are common across vineyards because their vigorous vines can withstand the weather and are very disease resistant.

Because ice wine is so difficult to make (“Like pressing juice out of gummy bears,” says Harris), it tends to be expensive. Half-bottles can cost $100 or more. There’s also many imposters out there made from grapes frozen post-harvest in a freezer.

Here’s a look inside the production methods for seven true ice wine makers across the Midwest.

Frozen vines at Next Chapter Winery in New Prague, Minnesota / Photo by Timothy Tulloch
Frozen vines at Next Chapter Winery, New Prague, Minnesota / Photo by Timothy Tulloch

Next Chapter Winery (New Prague, MN)

When winemaker Timothy Tulloch, of New Chapter Winery, tried his hand at ice wine in 2015, he was skeptical. “Who’s going to want to buy 375 milliliters of ice wine for $50?” he asked.

Much to his surprise, when the 2015 vintage debuted in the winery’s tasting room, it sold out almost immediately. “I couldn’t make enough,” says Tulloch.

If they’re lucky, Tulloch’s “lethal weapon,” an old-school boom box that blasts NPR at all hours, has kept the deer at bay.

Tulloch uses Frontenac Gris grapes, a grey mutation of one of the varieties developed by the University of Minnesota.

Each fall, Next Chapter hosts a grape stomp, where about 2,000 guests pay to take part in winemaking. When it tried to repeat the concept for ice wine, “we got a grand total of zero,” says Tulloch. He and the staff dress in snowmobile suits for the brutal harvest.

If they’re lucky, Tulloch’s “lethal weapon,” an old-school boom box that blasts NPR at all hours, has kept the deer at bay.

Snow-covered grapes at Springs Winery, Greenleaf, Wisconsin
Snow-covered grapes at Springs Winery, Greenleaf, Wisconsin

Trout Springs Winery (Greenleaf, WI)

With a fish hatchery, water gardening design services and a “glamping” tent on the premises, Trout Springs Winery, located about 20 miles south of Green Bay, isn’t your typical Wisconsin winery. Husband-and-wife owners Steve and Andrea DeBaker began to experiment with ice wine five years ago just to see if it could be done.

“I thought, if they can do a red ice wine, I can do one, too,” –Steve DeBaker, owner, Trout Springs Winery

They started off with white varieties like Louise Swenson, La Crosse and La Crescent, all developed by the University of Minnesota, with promising results. But after they sampled a red ice wine made at Inniskillin on the Niagara Peninsula, who are largely credited with popularizing ice wine in Canada, DeBaker turned to Frontenac and Marquette grapes.

“I thought, if they can do a red ice wine, I can do one, too,” he says.

Trout Springs’ first red ice wine was released December 2018, much to DeBaker’s excitement. “Oh man, it’s so complex,” he says. Its flavor, he says, offers hits of raspberry, currant and even layers of tropical flavors, with a smooth finish. His 2017 vintage is lovely as an aperitif, but according to DeBaker, even better paired with a light chocolate mousse.

Tasting room at Debonné Vineyards, Madison, Ohio
Tasting room at Debonné Vineyards, Madison, Ohio

Debonné Vineyards (Madison, OH)

With a climate moderated by eastern Lake Erie, Debonné Vineyards, the largest estate winery in Ohio, presents ideal conditions for ice wine, says winemaker Michael Harris.

Debonne has produced ice wine for almost two decades, mostly with Vidal Blanc, but more recently with Riesling, as well as Concord sourced from a sister vineyard. Typically, it makes 600–1,500 gallons of ice wine each winter and, surprisingly, has never had to skip a year, thanks to Mother Nature, says Harris.

“I think there’s more awareness [of ice wine] now,” says Harris, who began to make wine after over 30 years in the restaurant business. He was introduced to ice wine as an aperitif in the Chicago area about 15 years ago, and he loves nothing more than to pair it with bread pudding or a slice of lemon torte.

Future ice wine at Cooper’s Hawk Winery, Woodridge, Illinois
Future ice wine at Cooper’s Hawk Winery, Woodridge, Illinois

Cooper’s Hawk Winery (Woodridge, IL)

Winemaker Rob Warren grew up in Canada and studied viticulture in St. Catharines, Ontario, in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula. He first came to Cooper’s Hawk 12 years ago and says the winery has made ice wine for at least that long.

Rather than growing their own grapes in Woodridge, located about 30 miles west of Chicago, they purchase and ferment juice from Vidal Blanc grapes harvested and pressed by Arrowhead Vineyards in nearby Baroda, Michigan.

“It’s so intense and delicious, it’s like no other wine out there. If we didn’t make it and offer it, we’d be doing a disservice.” –Rob Warren, winemaker, Cooper’s Hawk Winery

Fermentation must be started as quickly after pressing as possible, as there’s a greater risk of spoilage and yeast or bacteria growth on the grapes that can affect the taste.

With the juice requiring a two-hour transport via climate-controlled truck, why does Warren go to the trouble? “Because it’s really, really yummy,” he says. “It’s so intense and delicious, it’s like no other wine out there. If we didn’t make it and offer it, we’d be doing a disservice.”

The chateau of Chateau Chantal, Traverse City, Michigan
The chateau of Chateau Chantal, Traverse City, Michigan

Chateau Chantal (Traverse City, MI)

One of the focuses at Chateau Chantal is the estate ice wine, which comes off a block on the front of a big hill, says winemaker Brian Hosmer. It’s a blend of proprietary white grapes added to a portion of Riesling, which adds a layer of complexity. It also produces a bottling called Entice, a full-bodied ice wine fortified with oak-aged brandy.

Because the hill is so large, it experiences great temperature differences from top to bottom. Where some winemakers harvest at 15–18°F, Hosmer aims for 13°F to make sure all the vines are frozen. Volume changes year to year, depending on conditions. A good year might yield 80 cases of wine, while other years have resulted in as few as 15 cases, or even none at all.

“What we find that’s interesting in northwest Michigan is that we get a similar heat accumulation to other places, but it happens in a condensed window,” say Hosmer. “We’re trying to figure out how vines compensate, where you can be ripening a Cab Franc and still make ice wine.”

The tasting area of Two-EEs Winery, Huntington, Indiana
The tasting area of Two-EEs Winery, Huntington, Indiana / Photo by Miles Meyer

Two-EEs Winery (Huntington, IN)

After they experimented with small batches of ice wine over the years, Two-EEs Winery, named for husband-and-wife owners Eric and Emily Harris, now outsources its ice wine juice from another grower.

“The majority of the romanticism and fun of ice wine is scavenged from us,” quips Eric.

The couple employs oxygen-free fermentation in stainless barrels over a three-month period to mitigate ice wine’s highly volatile acidity, which comes from increased oxidation due to its late harvest. This method required a lot of close attention and monitoring, but fortunately for them, it was successful.

Making ice wine is always a big risk, Eric says, because it often requires sitting on inventory for a long time. The climate in northeast Indiana, where they’re located, is difficult for ice wine because there’s not much to moderate the harsh weather. However, Eric says he’s had some of “the most fantastic ice wines of my life” from the northern part of the state.

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Wilde Prairie Winery (Brandon, SD)

Owners Victoria and Jeff Wilde first learned about ice wine from Coquard (of Wollersheim Winery) at a Minnesota Grape Growers Association conference a few years ago. When one of their crops produced a yield too small for use in their regular wines, they made the decision to leave the grapes on vine and make a try at ice wine.

The Wildes have three acres of grapes on the same property as their winery but one of its biggest selling points is the exclusive use of 100% South Dakota-grown Frontenac grapes, honey and fruits in its wines, including cherries and plums they grow themselves.

Bugs like Asian lady beetles and hornets pose a big threat to crops each year, and the vineyard also struggles with late frosts in the spring. Victoria says that other area growers spray their vines with water to create an icy coat over the buds and insulate them from exposure.

This year, they’re making a small batch of ice wine with Marechal Fosh, a mild French-American hybrid grape. It’s been a difficult process, and they had to run hot wires through the vineyards to keep the raccoons away before harvest.

The ice wine is still aging. The Wildes are unsure what they’ll do with it once it’s ready, or even if they’ll attempt it again. “I’ve tasted it and it’s very sweet, but very intense,” says Victoria.

Sort of like making ice wine itself.

Published on January 24, 2019
Topics: Midwest Wine

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