Michigan: The Great Grapes State

From dry to sweet, wines reflect terroir

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great grapes state
Photo courtesy of DaleBrock/Gravity

If you like elegant Rieslings, delicate Pinoit Noirs, robust Cabernet Francs and a host of other delicious wines, Michigan is the place to look.

In terms of the state’s specialty, “Riesling is the obvious answer,” says Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Craft Beverage Council. “We grow more of this variety than any other, and nearly every winery makes at least one Riesling. Many produce several, ranging from very dry to very sweet. It’s versatile and delicious.”

At 675 acres planted, Riesling far surpasses its vinifera counterparts in Michigan, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. It’s trailed by Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all in the mid-200s for acreage.

Riesling and Pinot Noir in particular fare well in Michigan due to their cold hardiness and enological adaptability, says Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor of viticulture in Michigan State University’s Department of Horticulture.

“Our summers are very variable,” he explains. “You can fully ripen fruit some years, and in others, you need to use fruit with low sugar concentration and high acidity because of the short, cool summer. With Riesling and Pinot Noir, you can produce fantastic wines, completely different in style, with both kinds of fruit.”

A handful of wineries grow Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger, originally from Austria).

Hybrids — many of which are specifically developed to withstand colder temperatures — also are a popular option in Michigan, especially in the southwest and Petoskey areas. The USDA report lists Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, Vignoles, Marquette, Traminette and Maréchal Foch as the most widely planted hybrids in the state.

Deeply colored and aromatic, Chambourcin is most similar to red vinifera, especially when aged, and can produce quality wines with moderate residual sugar or none at all, says Sabbatini.

Vidal Blanc, planted consistently since 1970, performs well as anything from “semi-sweet wines, rich with dried apricot, honey and pineapple aromas, to sweet, late-harvest wines, full-bodied with raisin, plums and caramelized apple,” he adds.

For “up-and-coming” grapes, Bush sees more wineries producing Pinot Blanc.

“It’s not the first wine people ask for, but when they mention Pinot Grigio, I offer Pinot Blanc as an alternative,” she says. “I’ve never had someone say they disliked it.”

On the hybrid side, “Marquette is receiving a lot of attention — especially after it won the Best Dry Red in the Michigan Wine Competition in 2017,” Bush says. “More growers are planting this grape.

“It has a good level of tannin and deep red color that blends beautifully, but also stands up on its own as a single varietal.”

This article originally appeared in the 2019 Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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