Chateau Chantal: A Unique Experience in Northern Hospitality

 By: Nan McCreary

  Chateau Chantal, one of Northern Michigan’s earliest wineries, is raising the bar for wine lovers looking for more than just a wine tasting, but rather an immersive wine experience. Not only is the winery rated as one of Michigan’s best, but it combines a vineyard and a winery with spectacular views over Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. There are also five-to-seven-course wine dinners, cooking classes, a luxury B&B, a Founder’s Trail and a tasting room with events that range from individual and group tastings to the weekly summer Jazz at Sunset experience.

  “There’s something for everybody here,” winemaker Brian Hosmer told The Grapevine Magazine. ‘Public expectations have changed; people are not visiting and buying cases like they used to. Rather, they’re coming for an experience. We’re responding to what’s happening in the industry today.”

  This commitment to inviting guests to enjoy a shared experience inspired French Canadian-American founder Robert Begin and his wife, Nadine, to purchase 60 acres of cherry orchards on the Old Mission Peninsula and build a European-style winery chateau. Robert, a businessman in the construction industry, and Nadine, a teacher, were a former priest and nun, respectively. Their years spent serving others provided a natural foundation for entering the hospitality industry. Between 1984 and 1991, they transitioned the property from cherries to grapes, planting their first grapes — chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir — in 1986. During this time, they completed plans for a French-style chateau, and in 1993, they opened their doors as a B&B and vineyard estate. In the following years, they added more rooms to the B&B and expanded the cellar and tasting room, paving the way for today’s agri-tourism industry. Chateau Chantal is the second-oldest winery on the Old Mission Peninsula (one of Michigan’s five AVAs). With its scenic vistas and friendly hospitality, it is one of the most popular wineries in the area.

  With the goal of providing an ultimate wine experience, it’s only natural that a primary focus of Chateau Chantal would be to offer quality wines to its visitors. And, despite the northern climates, excellent wines by anyone’s standards are available in Michigan. “The lakes make it possible,” Hosmer said. “We’re located between the East and West Grand Traverse Bays — two large bays on Lake Michigan — and the water acts as a buffer to the cold temperatures. In the summer, the water warms up, which extends the growing season. Even in the winter, the water stays warm and radiates the heat inland. Also, we get a lot of snow, which acts as insulation.” With this terroir, Chateau Chantal can grow Vitis Vinifera grapes, including riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot grigio, pinot noir, pinot blanc, cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer and Blaufränkisch. Other wineries in the area are growing similar grapes.

  One of the favorite wines at Chateau Chantel is pinot gris. “These grapes do really well here,” Hosmer told The Grapevine Magazine. “The sandy soils and the cool climate push really bright aromatics out of the glass, with more floral flavors than you’re used to seeing.” Also popular are two red blends: Naughty, a blend so versatile that it will pair with simple fare like burgers and pizza, as well as seafood; and Nice, a semi-sweet that, when chilled, makes a great warm weather sipper. 

  Besides still wines, Chateau Chantal makes four sparkling wines, including a semi-dry they’ve made since the 90s. Recently, they began producing the sparklers in-house rather than at another winery. To offer still more variety to its visitors, the winery collaborates with a 55-acre vineyard in Mendoza to produce a rich, red malbec.

  For some, the star of Chateau Chantal’s line-up is its ice wine. Ice wine is made from grapes picked — by hand — while frozen on the vine and then pressed when they’re still frozen. The result is an incredibly sweet and fruity wine that’s highly valued among some wine connoisseurs. Michigan is one of the few regions in the world able to produce ice wine. Making ice wine is, in fact, a risky proposition. The grapes need a long growing season to ripen and a cold spell to freeze. If temperatures are too warm, the grapes won’t freeze. If the freeze is too severe, then no juice can be extracted. Chateau Chantal is among Michigan’s oldest ice wine producers and has been making the “liquid gold” since the early 1990s. Typically, the Chateau makes ice wine from riesling grapes, and in some years, it can make juice from cabernet Franc. The wines are always in demand. “Making ice wine is tricky,” Hosmer said. “Sometimes we have to wait until January so that it’s cold enough to pick the grapes, and then we may be walking in one to two feet of snow.” “We’ve had years where the temperature didn’t cooperate, but in my 15 years, we’ve only had to skip two.”  This year, Chateau Chantal celebrated its fourth annual Ice Wine Festival, a day-long event where families enjoy snowman building, snowshoeing through the winery’s walking trails, roasting treats by an open fire pit and, for adults, samples and flights of the different varieties of ice wine. The event is billed as a celebration of the winery’s “unique ability to grow, harvest and produce one of the rarest products in the wine industry.” 

  For Chateau Chantal — and their neighbors on the Peninsula — the challenge to quality winemaking is to produce consistency in the wines when there is so much variation in vintage. In general, warmer climates tend to yield more consistent harvests. Napa, for example, may experience a five percent variation in heat accumulation, whereas the vineyards at Chateau Chantal can have plus or minus 30 percent swing from average in any given year. “Our viniculture depends on the vintage and what comes through the door,” Hosmer explained. “We have beautiful years for every grape because we grow so many varieties; we may have a ripe cabernet Franc and pinot noir in one year, aromatic whites in cool years, and everything in between. We just need to figure out the best way to get the best version of what the grapes give us.” Intervention in the cellar may include adding tartaric acid to adjust the pH, playing with different yeasts or treating the must with malolactic fermentation. “It’s really important to understand both warm- and cool-climate winemaking,” Hosmer stated. “Every year is different.”

  As Chateau Chantal looks to the future, the winery — like many others around the world — is exploring options for new varieties that may be more adaptable to climate and resistant to disease. Currently, Chantal is working with a group of investors that brought four new grapes from Germany’s Geisenheim and Freiburg breeding programs to custom grafting specialists, Amberg Grapevines.

  In Clifton Springs, New York, the varieties are monarch, a frost-hardy grape that is resistant to powdery mildew and downy mildew; muscaris, a disease-resistant grape that’s a good choice for sparkling wine; helios, resistant to both powdery mildew and botrytis and similar in flavor to Müller-Thurgau; and johanniter, a white grape that’s resistant to frost and mildew. All four grapes are children of the riesling grape and have been crossed and recrossed with vitis vinifera rootstock to create varieties that are 99 percent vitis vinifera and one percent hybrid. 

  Two years ago, Chateau Chantal planted the first commercial plantings of all four grapes after quarantine and will be ready to make trial wines with the grapes next year. “We’re looking for wines that may be of interest to wine lovers, and easier to grow in a more sustainable fashion,” Hosmer told The Grapevine Magazine. “Breeding grapes for genetics is becoming more sophisticated all the time, and I think we’re going to see more and more varieties coming out.”

  In addition to experimenting with new grape varieties, Chateau Chantal is applying advanced principles of soil management into its vineyard practices, a farming system they introduced 20 years ago. As Hosmer explains, this practice involves adding compost to the soil, which provides a direct input of organic matter that improves soil health. “With the compost, we build a biological population where fungi and bacteria continually cycle nutrients so they are available throughout the year rather than just when we add them,” Hosmer said. “We continually monitor this population and change the compost mixture as needed.” Not only does this limit the need for fertilizer, but soil management also plays a key role in fruit development and can impact the quality properties of grapes and wine.

  The vineyard team also plants cover crops that add nitrogen to vines, as well as organic compounds that provide nutrients or aeration to the soil. According to Hosmer, soil management can also play a role in water retention. For example, in areas where there is a low water table, the cover crops will create a canopy in the soil to maintain moisture. “Our sites are very diverse, so we adapt depending on the availability of water at the time,” he said. “This buffers the extremes, so plants do well in dry periods, as well as in wet periods.”

  Driven by technology as well as hospitality, Chateau Chantal is well-poised to accommodate the growth of tourism in Michigan. In the winery, the Chateau is expanding its capacity to meet the growing demand for its wines. Currently, they produce 20,000 to 25,000 cases per year, with distribution in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. In the hospitality sector, the founder’s daughter, Marie-Chantal Dalese, has taken the reins of the company to continue her parents’ legacy of offering a premiere wine experience to guests. In 2021 and 2022, the Chateau Chantal B&B was named one of the “10 Best Wine Country Hotels” by USA Today. Joe David, author of “Gourmet Getaways – 50 Top Spots to Cook and Learn,” wrote, “An American version of a modern Loire Valley chateau, Chateau Chantal is more than just another stunning bed-and-breakfast – it is a retreat for gourmets who seek a food and wine holiday.” 

  Indeed, at Chateau Chantal, there is something for everybody. Whether you prefer dry wine, sweet wine or sparkling wine, a spectacular setting overlooking vineyards and the vast expanse of Grand Traverse Bay, a six-course wine dinner with wine pairings, a hands-on themed cooking class or a night or two of luxury in a French-style chateau, any or all of the options are available to the adventurous wine lover interested in totally unique wine experience.

For more information, visit Chateau Chantal at www.chateauchantal.com

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