Out-There Enology

These lesser-known varieties are starting to make a name for themselves in Michigan
Michigan is home to 45-plus varieties of wine grapes. Photo by Alongkon/Adobe Stock

Most of us are familiar with Michigan’s most commonly grown wine grapes — Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc among them. While these varieties take up the bulk of Michigan’s vineyard acreage, the state is home to many other grapes — 45-plus varieties, all told — many of which aren’t as well known but still deserve their time in the limelight.

Let’s explore three of these more obscure grapes.

We begin with a red cold-hardy hybrid grape named Frontenac. (There are also Frontenac Blanc and Frontenac Gris variations, but we’ll focus on the red wine.) More specifically, it’s a French-American hybrid that was created in 1978 by viticulturalists at the University of Minnesota and later introduced to the public in 1996. Frontenac is super hardy — it can survive temperatures as low as negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wine made from Frontenac may have flavors of red cherry and black currant. The wine can be dark red and dry, medium bodied, and low in tannins. This hardy grape is frequently made into a port-style dessert wine.

Pair Frontenac with duck or pork with a cherry sauce. The port style is delectable with dark chocolate.

Try it: Tanglewood Winery in Holland makes a sweeter-style red Frontenac.

Petite Pearl
Petite Pearl is another hybrid grape from Minnesota. This robust red grape with the easy-to-remember name is used for both stand-alone bottlings and blending. It can withstand temperatures of negative 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and it buds and blooms later than most varieties. This black-skinned grape was developed by the distinguished Minnesota viticulturist and author Tom Plocher and was released in 2010.

Wines made from Petite Pearl can be rosé or, as you may have guessed, red. The rosés can be aromatic with scents of watermelon and pomegranate. This lighter style of rosé can also have flavors of tart cherry and citrus. As with most rosés, pair it with charcuterie and lighter dishes.

Among other notes, red Petite Pearl may exhibit aromas of blueberry, plum, or cherry with hints of mint. Plentiful yet mild tannins finish with a pleasing richness. Comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich pair perfectly with this red wine.

Try it: Youngblood Vineyard in Macomb County produces both a 100% Petite Pearl rosé and a red blend of 75% Petite Pearl and 25% Marquette.

Our tour of unusual grapes finishes with this ancient grape from Italy. Schioppettino is not only fun to say (skyoh-peh-TEE’-noh), but it’s fun to drink, too. The name comes from the Italian word scoppiettare, meaning “to crackle.” It’s also known as Ribolla Nera or, in Slovenia, as Pocalza.

This grape has a long history in northern Italy and neighboring Slovenia. It’s mentioned as far back as the 13th century in documents from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Slovenia. In the mid-1800s, phylloxera and powdery mildew inundated Italy, devastating the grapevines. Over the following decades, local viticulturists decided to replace Schioppettino vines with more famous and profitable varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the 1960s, there were fewer than 100 Schioppettino vines left in existence, scattered throughout eastern Friuli. In 1970, the legendary Italian winemaker Paolo Rapuzzi founded a winery dedicated to grapes native to Friuli. He found a few Schioppettino vines that were maintained for tradition, not for production of wine. Rapuzzi persevered and in 1977 released the first vintage of Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettino di Cialla, a red wine that is now the hallmark of that winery.

This dark-skinned grape makes deeply colored, aromatic wines with notes of clove, black currant, black cherry, and red berry. Its medium body and peppery palate make it a tasty stand-alone wine or a wonderful blending grape. Pair it with peppered steak or other slightly spicy dishes.

Try it: Mari Vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula crafts a dynamic red blend named Ultima Thule that in some years uses Schioppettino, which Mari grows in an estate vineyard. Pair this hearty red — when it’s in stock! — with Italian cuisine. Parmigiano-Reggiano, mushroom risotto, or Italian sausage are all excellent choices!

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2023 Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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