The ice wine cometh; and Leelanau Cellars’ Winter White ‘flies off the shelves’

Harvest 2007 is history but for a few acres being saved for ice wine. Both Chateau Chantal and Black Star Farms have saved grapes gambling that conditions will be right to make the super-sweet, super-expensive, timing-is-everything wine.

Ice wine is made from grapes picked and pressed after they're frozen. Temperatures need to hit about 15 degrees, said Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal, who's saved about an acre of grapes hoping to make his 25th vintage of the traditionally white wine.

The earliest Johnson's ever made ice wine has been Nov. 22. His latest-ever attempt was Jan. 17. But by that point, there wasn't enough grape volume to make it worth it.

"The birds have gotten them, or the stems will break and they'll drop to the ground," Johnson said. "That year was a write-off. So you factor that in. That's part of the price of a bottle of ice wine."

Chateau Chantal sells its 2006 ice wine for $60-per half bottle.

Black Star winemaker Lee Lutes has saved about an acre and a half and hopes weather permits harvesting in the first part of December. He made ice wine in 2000, 2002 and 2004. Lutes has never not been able to make ice wine, but does wish he could do some years over, like '04. He only got 80 gallons of wine, and he would have liked about 8,000.

"That year it was a failure because I didn't let more fruit hang," Lutes said. The half-bottle released last year sells for $90.

"It sells. It's amazing," Lutes said. " It's the ultimate hedonistic product for sweet wine geeks."

Meaningful sales data is difficult to come by in the wine industry. Most of it is proprietary, and often incomplete. Sales figures typically are based on off-premises sales, therefore excluding winery tasting rooms where smaller wineries with little distribution may make most of their sales. Tax-paid reports, probably the most reliable, are done state-by-state, so a Michigan tax-paid report will exclude a good deal of sales volume by a southwest winery like St. Julian, which distributes in eight states and draws more out-of-state visitors across the nearby border.

Still, with those caveats it's possible to draw some cautious conclusions. And as the holidays approach, 'tis the season for what appears to be Michigan's No. 1 wine, Leelanau Cellars Winter White. The semi-sweet white is ice wine's opposite on the price scale-$4.99 per bottle on the winery's web site.

"It's a top item," said Leelanau Cellars President Bob Jacobson. "It's clearly the top-selling wine from a Michigan winery."

Winter white is a blend of grapes, some grown in Michigan and some from out of state.

"You put a lot together to make the volume," Jacobson said.

Elena Amboyan, who analyzes wine sales for Information Resources Inc. in the Detroit area, credits Leelanau Cellars' distribution for the success.

"It looks like their product is flying off the shelves," she said.

According to IRI data, Winter White was the top-selling Michigan wine in the state, with sales totaling more than $83,000 this year through Nov. 4. That placed it No. 104 in total sales. (No. 1 was a Franzia boxed white zinfandel out of California, with sales topping $635,000.)

There's an asterisk next to that statistic, however. Given that Winter White contains non-Michigan grapes, some say it's not a Michigan wine. St. Julian claims the best selling title for its Blue Heron.

"I still contend it's the best Michigan-selling Michigan-grown Michigan wine," said St. Julian President David Braganini.

In the IRI year-to-date data, St. Julian showed up as the second and third most popular Michigan wines for, respectively, a white non-varietal ($28,852 in sales) and a red non-varietal ($21,823 in sales).

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at Send news to her at BN