MICHIGAN WINE GRAPE VARIETIES

As the eighth-largest grape-producing state in the nation, Michigan grows a wide variety of wine grapes to suit every wine lover’s taste. Beginning more than a century ago with only a few native American varieties, Michigan today grows more than 50 different grape varieties, offering consumers a broad range of quality wines.

EUROPEAN VINIFERA VARIETIES

These are all varieties of the single species of grapes native to Europe — vitis vinifera. Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling and Pinot Grigio are well-known names, but there are thousands of others. As Roman culture pushed north into Europe, the vines they brought adapted themselves to progressively cooler growing areas. Some of the greatest growing regions in Europe, such as Champagne, Germany and Alsace, are not unlike Michigan; the northernmost region of grape growing in Michigan is at the 45th parallel — the same as Bordeaux and Chianti. These European varieties grow best along the shores of Lake Michigan, where the “lake effect” moderates the temperatures.

Cabernet Franc
Known as one of the sources of great Bordeaux, its wine is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but lighter and less astringent with a lot of spicy notes. This is the second most widely planted red vinifera in Michigan after Pinot Noir and fifth overall after Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon has been called the king of all wine grape varieties, or the noblest wine grape variety, and it is highly regarded worldwide. It originated in the Bordeaux Region of France and is a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. It is a grape that is made into its own varietal wine but is also blended with other varieties, especially Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Some of those blends are now called Meritage blends in the United States. Because of their intense tannin structure, Cabernet Sauvignon wines age well in the bottle for extended periods of time. 

Chardonnay
A cool climate cultivar where the secret is to keep the balance in this grape. Many wineries have invested in French oak cooperage for those special flavors so frequently sought after. However, several Michigan wineries also make traditional versions that are not aged in oak at all.

Gewürztraminer
This superb variety has an exotic aroma and flavor reminiscent of lychee nuts, rose petals and orange peel. It is difficult to grow, but delicious examples from several wineries prove it can be successful in Michigan.

Grüner Veltliner
Grüner Veltliner has been cultivated for centuries. It is predominantly cultivated in Austria, but it is also grown in several other Eastern European countries. The wine has classical notes of spice, citrus and grapefruit. It is a crisp, dry white wine that complements food very well. 

Marsanne
Marsanne is an old variety from the Rhône Valley of France. It is highly productive, producing fruit with high sugar and low acid levels. It has classically been blended with another Rhône Valley variety, Rousanne, to make a very pleasant wine.

Merlot
This exceedingly popular grape can be grown in Michigan if planted in premium sites, managed correctly and not overcropped. Michigan’s version is usually not as soft as those from California, but it is more structured with a higher presence of tannins and earthy flavors.

Muscat Ottonel
Muscat Ottonel was created by a French grape grower in the Loire Valley in the Alsace region of France in 1852. This grape has wonderful character. It is grown both for a sweet dessert wine in Eastern European countries and as a dry table wine in the Alsace region in France. Fenn Valley, among those offering a wine made from Muscat Ottonel grapes, describes the nose as having a palate that is “full of ripe peaches and apricots. This wine is crisp, fruity and completely dry.”

Pinot Blanc
This is a variety that makes very appealing light white wines, getting more traction in Michigan with some new plantings mainly in the northwestern part of the state.

Pinot Grigio/Gris
This grape, from the cooler parts of Northern Italy and Alsace, is also at home here in Michigan as the fourth most planted variety in the state. In Europe, grapes are referred to as noir (black), blanc (white) and the mid-range that we call pink is “grey” — gris in French, grigio in Italian. Many people think that this is one of our best white varieties, and much more is being planted.

Pinot Meunier
With origins in the Champagne region of Northern France, Pinot Meunier is grown in small amounts in Michigan. Sharing the same fingerprint as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, the grape is used to make champagnes at several Michigan wineries. Moersch Hospitality Group describes its Pinot Meunier as “a delicate rosé that opens beautifully on the palate. Cherry, strawberry and honey aromas along with a smooth texture make this a particularly easy-drinking and versatile wine.”

Pinot Noir
This is a great red grape of Burgundy. Commonly used in sparkling wine production, this is the most widely planted red vinifera variety in Michigan and second overall to Riesling. When grown on good vineyard sites and cropped at levels appropriate for our climate, Pinot Noir also makes complex and elegant wines.

Riesling
This is an excellent cool climate grape that is best known in Germany and Alsace, but also does well in Michigan. It is the most widely planted variety in Michigan. Many wineries produce excellent dry versions as well as the better-known semi-dry and sweeter styles. There are also sparkling Riesling and extraordinary ice wines. Many serious wine lovers regard Riesling as the world’s most famous white wine grape.

Rousanne
Rousanne is an old variety from the Rhône Valley of France. It is blended with Marsanne to make a very pleasant wine. 

Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is one of the major white vinifera varieties of the world. It is thought to have originated in the Tyrol region of Italy and has a long history in the Alsace and Bordeaux Regions of France. This grape makes a wide range of wine products, from the very austere, delicious, steely Fumé Blancs to fruity Sauvignon Blancs.

Shiraz/Syrah
Syrah’s origins have been disputed. Some think it goes back to Romans and Persia. Others believe it originated in France. Recent information suggests that its true origin is France, where even today about half of its production is centered in the Rhône Valley. Syrah produces wines with intense color and a rich, full-bodied texture.  

Viognier
Viognier is an ancient variety from the time of the Romans, who are thought to have brought it to France from Croatia. For many centuries, Viognier has been associated with the Rhône Valley of France. It fell out of favor over the centuries, and by 1960 or so, there were only 8 acres known in existence. Then in 1990 there was a worldwide resurgence of interest in this variety. Viognier typically produces low acid wines that can be quite floral when the fruit is fully ripe.

FRENCH/AMERICAN HYBRIDS

These are hybrid crosses between European and native American varieties. Such hybrids are resistant to disease and cold weather events. They are popular with growers in the eastern United States because they adapt well to the climate and growing conditions, and contribute unique and intriguing flavors to the wines.

Cayuga
A hybrid white grape the produces mildly fruity wines, sometimes with hints of Riesling.

Chambourcin
This is perhaps the finest of the black-skinned hybrid grapes. Because it is a relatively late ripener, it grows best in the southwest portion of the state where the growing season is about 20-30 days longer and warmer. It can produce dark, concentrated wines with excellent structure as well as light, pleasant wines.

Chancellor
This is a well-regarded red hybrid that grows successfully in the southwest portion of Michigan. It can be dark and mouth filling without astringency.

Chardonel
This relatively new Chardonnay/Seyval hybrid produces a lighter, attractive wine not unlike Chardonnay.

DeChaunac
DeChaunac has been an important variety for Michigan grape production, producing balanced and fruity red wine.

Léon Millot
This hybrid grape delivers a structured red wine with layers of berries and complex aromas.

Marechal Foch
Named for the famous French general, this grape is widely planted in Michigan. It can produce an exotic red wine but is also a good blush wine grape.

Noiret
Named for the French actor Philippe Noiret, this hybrid grape produces a dry red wine with hints of fruit and pepper.

Regent
With origins in Germany, Regent grapes yield red wines that have moderate acidity and feature cherry and currant aromas.

Seyval
In many respects, this is the workhouse white hybrid grape. It blends well, its slight neutrality adding elegance to more assertive grapes like Vidal and Vignoles. In Michigan it is not usually seen as a varietal wine.

Traminette
This is a new hybrid relative of Gewürztraminer with an attractive spiciness.

Vidal
This is another workhorse white hybrid. Semi-dry versions have pleasant aromas. It is often blended with other varieties to make some of Michigan’s most important proprietary wines.

Vignoles
This is a remarkable white-skinned grape that plays a strong role in Michigan’s viticulture. It rivals Riesling as the world’s most versatile grape, producing quality sparkling wines; dry barrel-fermented wines; and, most importantly, intense and balanced semi-dry and late-harvest wines.

SUPER HARDY VARIETIES

Super Hardy varieties are the most cold hardy varieties, more likely to withstand harsher inland winters and suited to many sites throughout Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

Frontenac
Frontenac’s deep garnet color complements its distinctive cherry aroma and inviting palate of blackberry, black currant and plum. This versatile grape can be made into a variety of wine styles, including rosé, red and port.

Frontenac Gris
Frontenac Gris wines present aromas of peach and apricot with hints of enticing citrus and tropical fruit. A brilliant balance of fruit and acidity creates lively, refreshing wines. Unique and complex flavors make this an excellent grape for table, dessert and ice wines.

La Crescent
La Crescent’s intense notes of apricot, peach and citrus lends itself to superior quality off-dry or sweet white wines. Produced in a Germanic style, La Crescent wine is reminiscent of Vignoles or Riesling. The grape’s high acidity provides good structure for excellent dessert or late-harvest style wines.

Marquette
Marquette wines are typically medium bodied, with aromas of cherries, black currants and blackberries. Sometimes, spicy pepper notes on the finish may also be exhibited. Marquette responds well to oak treatments such as barrel aging and oak chipping.

St. Croix
These grapes yield a dry red wine with fruity aromas and touches of currant and other dried fruit flavors.

St. Pepin
With a name that originates from Lake Pepin, a lake in the Mississippi River, St. Pepin is a cold-weather hardy grape suited to making ice wines or those similar to Riesling. It can also be used as a base for blended wines.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University, where he is a viticulturist and extension specialist, for contributing to and editing these descriptions.

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