Michiganders have a way of showing their hand. They have a technique — a tradition, really — of lifting their right hand and pressing their left index finger into a spot on their palm to give you, the Michigan-geography-challenged, a lesson in what’s where.
The state looks like a mitten (thus the palm, with closed fingers and a slightly extended thumb), sitting solidly in the Midwest and virtually surrounded by massive, freshwater lakes. While you could point to several spots on the mitten to show where vineyards and wineries are, most are close to the western and northern shorelines — from the outside of the wrist up the pinkie and around to the tip of the middle finger. These vineyards optimize Lake Michigan’s moderating effects, which extend the growing season and translate to slower grape ripening and acidity retention.
There are five regions in Michigan that have been granted official AVA (American Viticultural Area) status. In the southwestern tip of the state (in the palm-geography game, near the outer wrist) is the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, which includes the smaller Fennville AVA.
At the tip of the pinkie, there are two AVAs — Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula — and more than half of all Michigan wine comes from this area, which is anchored by Grand Traverse Bay. (Don’t confuse either of these with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the landmass that reaches clear across the top of Lake Michigan and connects with Wisconsin; the wines of Michigan come from what is officially known as the Lower Peninsula, aka “the mitten.”)
The final AVA has the most mirthful of names, Tip of the Mitt, and I don’t need to tell you where that one is; the name says it all. I tasted scads of wines from Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, both of which extend north from Traverse City, and a baker’s dozen of noteworthy bottles are listed below.
Michigan produces a lot of wine, and not all of it is made from fine wine grapes — or even grapes. Various fruits are used (like cherries), along with some native and hybrid grapes, but close to three out of four bottles of Michigan wine come from European wine grapes. Among the most popular are pinot blanc, pinot gris (also called pinot grigio by some Michigan winemakers), sauvignon blanc, riesling, gewurztraminer and chardonnay on the white side; or pinot noir, cabernet franc and merlot on the red side.
Michigan’s first commercial winery was established in 1868, but the state’s wine region has experienced highs and lows through Prohibition, World War II and a number of developments through the ’70s. Today, more than 140 wineries call the state home, and its vineyards reach across more than 3,000 acres. Some Michigan wines are available in retail stores outside the state, and most can be ordered directly from the wineries.
Below are notes from a recent tasting of wines from Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula. The wines are listed by wine style — sparkling followed by white and red — in ascending order, according to price. They’re not cheap, but included in the price is your ability to surprise your guests with the phrase, “This next wine is from Michigan.”
2011 Brengman Brothers Cold Sophie Blanc de Blancs. This traditional method sparkler offers notes of bread crust, pear, anise, tangy citrus and a clean finish with 11.5 percent alcohol. $35
2016 Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Pinot Gris. Apricot plus other stone and tropical fruits give way to a soft mouthfeel, minerality and a nutty finish with a tiny pinch of lime. $13
2016 Hawthorne Vineyards Pinot Blanc. Notes of candied fruit, lemon-lime and apple lead to a crisp, clean finish in this wine, which clocks in at 13.4 percent alcohol. $18
2017 Rove Estate Unoaked Chardonnay. This refreshing wine offers up the aroma of boxwood accompanied by pear, anise seed, lemon and green apple notes. For chardonnay lovers who don’t want butter. $22
2016 Brengman Brothers Gary’s Reserve Gewurztraminer. Floral and herbal notes mingle with apricot, honey and exotic spices in this Leelanau Peninsula wine with 12.5 percent alcohol. $20
2017 Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery Reserve Pinot Blanc. From Old Mission Peninsula, this wine delivers peach and pear with a balancing nuttiness, luxuriously soft mouthfeel and a clean finish. $22
2016 Mari Vineyards Dry Riesling. With classic notes of petrol and lime, plus orange zest, lemon, ripe red apple and lively acidity, this wine was racy and refreshing. $28
2016 Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Cabernet Franc. This 100 percent varietal offers notes of violets, blackberry, plum, dark cherry, pencil shavings, raspberry and incense. $28
2016 Rove Estate Pinot Noir. Black cherry, blackberry, vanilla, smoke, pine needle, white pepper and spice lead to a long finish in this wine, which spent 12 months in French oak. $30
2016 Shady Lane Cellars Cabernet Franc. Plum, smoke, black cherry, vanilla, roasted meat, herbs and cedar notes are all present in this 100 percent varietal from Leelanau Peninsula. $36
2016 Mari Vineyards Bel Tramonto Red Wine. The winery’s take on a Super Tuscan, this blend of mostly merlot and sangiovese offers cherry, cranberry, baking spices, vanilla, cola and lively acidity. $45
2012 Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery Merlot. Plum, smoke, leather, tobacco leaf, cola and black pepper gave way to a zippy spice on the finish of this Old Mission Peninsula wine. $40
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