(April is Michigan Wine Month, as certified by Governor Rhymes-With-Spider, who’s been at the business end of more recall referendums than my Ford 150).
Ever since Al Gore starting criss-crossing the country in his gas-gulping Jetstream 400 to lecture about global warming, global warming has had nowhere to go but up. Whereas it spells disaster for polar bears and Christmas elves, it’s a shot in the arm for Michigan farmers, where—according to Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association—corn yields have risen from 81 bushels per acre in 1970 to 153 per acre in 2011—this despite last year’s wet, late planting season.
He predicts that the trend will continue, increasing to 250 bushels per acre by 2025.
“Technological advances in both machinery and the crops themselves also are part of the equation,” he admits, “but global warming is key.”
So, Let’s Talk About the Wines and Vines Among the Pines
What’s good for the corn is good for the cab franc, and Karel Bush of the Michigan Wine & Grape Council reports that vineyards from all across the state have reporting 2011 yields well above normal.
Jim Byrum points out that the bane of benumbed bears is a windfall for weather-weary winemakers, resulting in a longer growing season and longer hang times, which is one reason why Michigan reds have seen such a marked quality upswing in the last thirty years.
“This is a great time to be in agriculture,” he raves.
Paul Hamelin of Leland’s Verterra Winery says, “2011 is a monumental vintage; one of those exceptional years where all varietals did well;” sentiments echoed by Charlie Edson of Bel Lago: “2011 is potentially one of the top vintages since 2000.”
…Although, damn if ol’ Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms didn’t find something to wheeze about: “Many winemakers are feeling stressed because of size of the crop, but this is part of the learning curve in winemaking.”
Gentlemen, start those Hummer engines; this is a trend that we’d to see develop some legs. The polar bears, like Lee Lutes, will just have to deal with it.
Michigan Wineries: A Savvy Sommelier’s Snack Pack
Michigan currently boasts nearly a hundred wineries, so I could no more can handle covering them all in a single column than you could handle reading that much pedantic prose. So, here’s an absolutely random, dart-at-the-dartboard omnibus from each of our four federally-approved AVAs:
Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula
Black Star Farms
A destination joint as much as an eno emporium, Black Star encompasses a picturesque peninsula parcel twelve miles north of Traverse City; there is, beside the winery, a a distillery, an equestrian facility and a Select Registry Distinguished Inn of North America inn for those who just can’t tear themselves away. Handcrafted wines by Lee Lutes are perennial prize winners and Lee himself is among the most engaging wine personalities in Michigan—which allows me to yank his chain, as above.
Standouts: A Capella Ice Wine, 2008; Arcturos Pinot Noir Rosé, 2010; Plum Eau de Vie.
10844 East Revold Road
Suttons Bay, MI 49682
Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery
Likely the only winery in the world born via the U.S. Navy and an ophthalmology degree, the Grossnickles (Navy vet Steven and Alanna) vacationed in Leelanau up until 1983, when they moved in. The winery’s name, of course, refers to its global coordinates, identical to Bordeaux’s—and like Bordeaux, Forty-Five North enjoys a climate meliorated by the big body of water to the left. 37 acres are under vine, with three more planted to raspberry, the winery has consistently ranked highly in competition thanks, in the main, to the skills of winemaker David Hill.
Standouts: Rosé of Cabernet Franc, 2010; Unwooded Chardonnay, 2010.
8580 East Horn Road
Lake Leelanau 49653
Gill’s Pier Vineyard and Winery
Founded by Ryan and Kris Sterkenburg in 2002, Gill’s Pier (named for a once-bustling landing on the west shore of the Leelanau Peninsula) produces a passel of delightfully named, delightful-tasting boutique wines that run through a gamut of varietals—with a special emphasis on riesling. They’re an ultra-cool and chatty couple who’d love to see you in their pole-bar, Bacchus-flanked tasting room someday soon.
Standouts: Riesling, 2010; Merlot, 2008; ‘Just Unleashed’ NV red blend.
5620 N. Manitou Trail
Northport, MI 49670
Solidly old school, LC has been producing Wine Coast wines for 35 years. Under the honcho-hood of Bob and Michael Jacobson, the winery produces thirty varieties (from blueberry to baco, and every shade between) that maintain a consistent reputation for quality and affordability.
Standouts: Dry Riesling, 2008; Reserve Chardonnay, 2008
5019 North West Bay Shore Drive
Omena, MI 49674
Left Foot Charley
Old Left Foot himself did not get his name from a Hokey-Pokey addiction, but from owner Bryan Ulbrich’s gimpy childhood. He’s turned it into a wine-centered adulthood just opposite the downtown Traverse City bocce court. His wares include oodles of wine, but also cider, including a wonderful ginger version that, served warm, takes the bite out the fiercest Michigan winter.
Standouts: Aforementioned Ginger Cider; Pinot Blanc Island View Vineyard, 2010; Riesling Seventh Hill Farm, 2010.
806 Red Drive
Traverse City, MI 49684
Harbor Springs Vineyard & Winery
Five miles north of Harbor Springs, the HDV & W is removed from the hustle of the already laid back Leelanau AVA and hidden within a tunnel of trees along lake Shore Drive. In addition to a small, but serviceable roster of wines, owners Jimmy, Marci and Sharon Spencer and Jim and Kim Palmer offer organic menu at the adjacent Garden Café.
Standouts: Pinot Gris, 2010; Cherry Finale
5581 S. Lake Shore Dr.
Harbor Springs, MI 49740
Adam Satchwell is a fool for riesling—his trio of interpretations, dry, semi-sweet and sparkling—regularly win awards in international competitions. But don’t sell his reds short; his lush, plush Blue Franc crush, vinted from blaufränkisch, is among the most user-friendly examples of this unusual varietal that I’ve tried.
Standouts: Blue Franc, 2010; Dry Riesling, 2010, Late Harvest Riesling, 2011.
9580 Shady Lane
Suttons Bay, MI 49682
As grown in the rolling, temperate hills of Leelanau, Verterra grapes have proven to be world-class as vinified by Doug Matthies and Shawn Walters, the wines are superb. Only made since 2010, the phenomenal 2011 growing season has allowed the team to expand from nine wines to 16. Expectations are high that the bulk of them will be prize material.
Standouts: Reserve Red, 2010; Unwooded Chardonnay, 2010.
103 E. River Street
Leland, MI 49654
Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville
Country Mill Winery
Primarily an cider mill and farmer’s market, the wine line-up is based on apple juice rather than grape. It’s low alcohol, semi-sweet and luscious stuff, and a trip to the source offers a full day’s worth of family-centered activity including a petting zoo and a replica farmhouse doll house which is really staggering in its detail
Standouts: Mighty Mac Apple Wine; Blueberry Mac.
4648 Otto Road
Charlotte, MI 48813
Domaine Berrien Cellars
Boondocks, maybe, but worth the voyage: DBC has, since 2001, been squeezing out Rhône varietals in a cherry orchard. From the discerning palates of Wally and Katie Maurer—a Chicago couple who moved here to make wine with Katie’s father until his death in 2007—comes a light but lovely syrah and what is, without doubt, the best viognier in Michigan.
Standouts: 2008 Syrah, 2008; Marsanne, 2009; Viognier, 2009
398 East Lemon Creek Road
Berrien Springs, MI 49103
Fenn Valley Vineyards
Established in 1973 atop a large sand ridge extending inland from Lake Michigan between the Black River and the Kalamazoo River valleys, this vineyard was among the first to exploit the lake effect that has proven key to Michigan wines. Among the most progressive wineries in Michigan, winemaker Doug Welsch continues to work with the research team at Michigan State University, experimenting with exotic blends like edelzwicker, which my homeboy Sean O’Keefe tells me is a gewurtz/riesling blend.
Standouts: Riesling, 2010; Traminette, 2010; Meritage, 2009.
6130 122nd Avenue
Fennville, MI 49408
Free Run Cellars
Along with his brother Christian, Round Barn winemaker Matthew Moersch considers Free Run a birthright—his family has been growing grapes in Southwest Michigan for a quarter century. Birthright with an emphasis on ‘right’, which is what they’re getting, having dominated the 5th Annual Southwest Michigan Wine Evaluation held in February.
Standouts: Gewurztraminer, 2010; Riesling, 2010
10062 Burgoyne Road
Berrien Springs, MI 49103
“Everyone is effected by gravity,” quips winemaker Rockie J. Rick. “We began planting our first vines (cabernet franc) back in the late ‘90s. Since then our vineyards have expanded to encompass 30 acres, with more being planted every year. In 2011, after more than a decade of growing and selling grapes, we decided to open our own winery.” Still small potatoes with a mere 30 acres planted to vines, most of the grapes are sold to local wineries. But the start-up is gaining notice for a pair of pinots, gris and noir.
Standouts: Chambourcin; Pinot Gris
10220 Lauer Road
Baroda, MI 49101
Lemon Creek Winery
The Old Man of the Sea of Michigan wine, LCW has been growing wine grapes for 150 years. 300 acres in the loam/clay countryside of Berrien County, Lemon Creek winemaker Robert Lemon produces a variety of elegant wines, white, red and pink. Distinguished for a really amazing cabernet-based ice wine from the first commercial planting of that varietal in the state.
Standouts: Cab Franc, 2008; ‘Moon Shadow’ Cabernet Sauvignon Ice Wine, 2007.
533 East Lemon Creek Road
Berrien Springs, MI 49103
White Pine Winery and Vineyards
Take this place seriously: Winemaker Dave Miller has a PhD focused on grapevine photosynthesis and how crop level influenced fruit and wine quality. Lest that seem dull, wash it down with one of his delicate and lovely vinifera wines and some truly remarkable hybrids.
Standouts: Reserve Riesling, 2009; Dune Shadow Red, NV
317 State Street
St. Joseph, MI 49085
Michigan’s eno elitist paradise, winemaker Jim Lester has for years turned out superb artisan, super-premium wines which are, for the most part, priced accordingly. But you definitely get what you pay for: Lester operates in the style of Bordeaux’s garagistes (garage winemakers), foregoing a tasting room and on-premise sales in favor of mailing list orders and those wines you can find at a select group of restaurants.
Standouts: Shou, 2009; Bouchet, 2008; ‘December Harvest’ Riesling, 2008
716-B East Front Street
Buchanan, MI 49107