Red, White, and … Blau?

Michigan’s third most planted grape in recent years is ‘just scratching the surface’
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The team at Michigan Wine Co. plants Blaufränkisch. Photo courtesy of Michigan Wine Co.

Michigan’s third most planted grape variety from 2017 to 2020 might sound like a sneeze or a stinky cheese, depending on whom you ask, but the red wine grape is poised to make a splash in local tasting rooms.

Blaufränkisch, also known as Lemberger, is widely planted in Austria and is also grown in other Central and Eastern European countries. In Michigan, it doesn’t have nearly the presence of the more well-known state-grown Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, Merlots, and the like — yet.

“We have 42 acres of Blaufränkisch in Michigan, mostly located in the northwest of the state,” says Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Horticulture, via email while on a sabbatical in Italy. In comparison, that’s about one-third of the acreage devoted to Merlot, one-sixth of the acreage for Pinot Noir, and one-sixteenth of the acreage for Riesling — or a little less than 1.3% of the state’s total wine grape acreage.

Still, in terms of the number of acres of grapes planted from 2017 to 2020, Blaufränkisch ranked third in Michigan, behind only Chardonnay (second) and Riesling (first), showing its potential in the Great Lakes State. Beyond the vineyard, the grape is making strides in wineries around Michigan as well.

When master sommelier Madeline Triffon went winery touring in northern Lower Michigan in September 2021, she was happily surprised to find Blaufränkisch well established in tasting rooms across the region.

Triffon, who directs tasting events for Plum Market and selects wine for the upscale grocery chain’s wine program, likes Blaufränkisch for its spicy profile — it has “general pepper flavors and fragrances, really nice red fruit flavors, plums and berries, and some dark fruit as well,” she says.

The northwest corner of the state, where she visited, is turning into a hub for Blaufränkisch production.

“There are winemakers in Northwest Michigan really working hard with this cultivar in the cellar and producing very high-quality wines,” Sabbatini says.

That’s what Triffon found in her September travels. Venturing to southwestern Michigan, she also discovered some wineries there producing excellent Blaufränkisch.

“I’ve seen it over the last [few] years but didn’t know it had become so pervasive in tasting rooms, that a lot of people are making it,” she says. “Who knew?”

Triffon singled out the Blaufränkisch she tasted at Shady Lane Cellars, Left Foot Charley, and Aurora Cellars in the north and Modales Wines in Fennville.

“I would say in terms of an all-purpose red for the table, it’s ideal,” she says. “Also, it’s dependably good.”

Even newer, smaller wineries are seeing the potential of this grape. The team at Michigan Wine Co. in Fennville planted an acre of Blaufränkisch in May 2021 and hopes to see some fruit in 2023. Owner and winemaker Joe Krajkiewcz says the grape is a good fit for his winery’s land and microclimate, and the vines produce a large amount of fruit per acre. He also praises the grape’s combination of tannins, fruitiness, spice, and acidity.

“I joke that it sits somewhere within a triangle of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah,” Krajkiewcz says.

And, he adds, it’s different.

“We already grow Riesling, which is quite widely grown in Michigan,” he says. “So for our estate red, we wanted to choose something that you wouldn’t find as widely available.”

Sabbatini predicts that the possibilities for Blaufränkisch to grow in Michigan are strong, noting, “We are just scratching the surface of the potential evolution of this cultivar in Michigan.”

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

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