Grapes Galore

From obscure to familiar, myriad wine grapes abound across the state
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Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley Vineyards

The famed wine region of Burgundy, France, is synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Germany, with Riesling; New Zealand, with Sauvignon Blanc.

But bring up Michigan, and a cascade of different grape varieties may come to mind — and that’s part of the beauty of visiting a New World wine region.

“Something that makes Michigan so special is the variety of wines we are able to produce, from vinifera to hybrids to fruit wines,” says Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, an organization supporting local wineries, growers, and other industry-related entities. “There is literally something for any palate.”

Indeed, across the state, wine lovers can find everything from well-known European vinifera grapes, such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, to more obscure vinifera, such as Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger) and Auxerrois. There are also French-American hybrids, such as Vignoles and Chambourcin, alongside more modern cold-hardy hybrids, such as Marquette, Frontenac, and La Crescent.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grape inventory, Michigan recorded 3,375 acres of wine grapes in 2020: 2,325 acres of vinifera and 1,050 acres of hybrid grapes.

Of these, Riesling, at 670 acres planted, overwhelmingly claimed the top spot for quantity in 2020 and is perhaps one of the grapes most widely associated with Michigan.

Riesling grapes. Photo courtesy of White Pine Winery

Jenelle Jagmin, director of the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, says Michigan’s ability to “produce spectacular Riesling” is often the first subject she broaches when traveling out of state or speaking to those unfamiliar with the local wine industry.

“Riesling is our darling,” she says. “This grape expresses with quality and complexity in every style on the spectrum — from bone dry to ice wine.”

Jay Briggs, winemaker at 45 North Vineyard & Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, agrees.

“With the vast number of Riesling styles, there is no reason to not like at least one,” he says. “It might be a task to find that perfect one for your palate, but I assure you, it is in the Mitten someplace.”

In the USDA acreage inventory, Riesling was followed by Chardonnay at 320 acres, Pinot Gris/Grigio at 270 acres, Pinot Noir at 250 acres, and Cabernet Franc at 180 acres. The three hybrids with the most acreage were Vidal Blanc at 105 acres, Chambourcin at 100 acres, and Marquette at 97 acres.

Briggs has a particular affinity for Chardonnay.

“It ripens really well for us every year, with ripe flavors,” he explains. “It’s a very versatile grape, great for sparkling, still, dry, sweet, barrel fermented, barrel aged, dessert. It’s arguably as versatile as Riesling.”

Similar reasons fuel Deb Burgdorf’s appreciation for Vidal Blanc.

“It is a variety that is great as a dry wine, semisweet, or as an ice wine,” says Burgdorf, co-owner and winemaker at Burgdorf’s Winery in Haslett.

Likewise, the available range of expression is the reason Holly Balansag, owner and winemaker at Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson, adores Marquette, one of several hybrids she grows on her estate.

“It makes a beautiful dry red,” she says, “but I have also made a port-style and am interested in trying a rosé.”

Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville, singles out Pinot Gris as one of his favorites.

“It requires careful and deliberate handling due to the delicate nature of the flavors and aromatics,” he says. “But if you can get it right, our relatively cool climate leads to a really crisp, fruit-centric wine.”

Cabernet Franc grapes. Photo courtesy of White Pine Winery

In Southwest Michigan in particular, Dave Miller, owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, loves wines made from Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc because “they are fruit driven, balanced, and delicious,” he says. “They age well and sell themselves.”

All three of those grapes fare well in his region due to their ability to survive the harsh winters, he says. They bud out late enough to avoid most spring frosts, ripen in early or mid-October, and are able to still ripen properly in high humidity, he adds.

Beyond the most abundant varieties are dozens of other grapes with starring or supporting roles in Michigan wines. For the 2017 to 2020 period, the USDA lists various other grapes among the top 20 for plantings, including Blaufränkisch, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Itasca, Petite Pearl, Sauvignon Blanc, La Crescent, Valvin Muscat, Traminette, Seyval, Frontenac, and Frontenac Blanc.

Josh Morgan, head winemaker at Petoskey Farms Vineyard & Winery in the Tip of the Mitt region, calls Frontenac Blanc “a rising star, producing quality wine year in and year out.” The last two harvests, the hybrid was Morgan’s baby in the cellar.

“This variety just packs a punch with tropical flavors, and watching the juice evolve into a finished wine is just a wonderful journey,” he says. “Frontenac Blanc turned heads and got judges talking at the [2021] Judgement of Michigan because it’s a wine that toes that perfect balance between acidity and sweetness that I think highlights what we are trying to accomplish at Petoskey Farms.”

As for other notable grapes, Jagmin urges wine lovers to get their hands on local Gamay. While it’s perhaps best known for its role in French Beaujolais, Gamay also performs beautifully in Michigan.

“You may not find this wine in every Michigan winery you visit — but if you do, try it,” Jagmin says.

Besides Michigan Pinot Noir — which, she argues, “is sure to impress most palates” — Dockery advises consumers to seek out Michigan Auxerrois and Albariño.

“All three of these grape varieties are complemented by a cooler climate, and Michigan excels in production of all three,” she says. “However, not as many producers are using Auxerrois and Albariño, so I think it is easy for them to get overlooked, as they are not familiar grapes to even some people more familiar with Michigan wine.”

In general, Briggs suggests seeking out aromatic whites, which “tend to do really well here.”

“With the shorter, cool climate, we can rely on the aromas to develop quite nicely, but not the same with every vintage,” he says. “I love vintage variation within varieties. It’s like collecting baseball cards: You can collect the different expressions of wines or vineyards every year.”

This article originally appeared in the 2022 Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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