• Ian Verhey

Many of the most famous wine regions around the world have attached their name and reputations to specific grapes that thrive in their specific terroir. This is applicable in both old world and new world areas. In France, Burgundy is known for the finest Pinot Noir. Bordeaux and the Southern Rhone are known for specific red blends. Australia has attached their name to Shiraz, and Oregon to Pinot Noir. Because of these associations built through high-end producers making great examples of those wines, the location and style types become almost interchangeable. This focus on specific varietals or styles allows marketers in those areas to target lovers of those styles of wine, and encourages producers in those areas to focus on creating the highest quality possible given the significant local competition. These associations are not without drawbacks, though, as they can encourage low-quality producers to jump in and attempt to attach their product to the region’s reputation on certain wines. Additionally, the areas may also have the ability to produce other high end wines, but knowledge of those other products get choked out by the main style of the area (or outlawed if you’re in France).

As an emerging wine region, Michigan doesn’t necessarily have an attachment to a specific grape or style, though some varietals seem to do well in the state. Because it is fairly common to see areas attach their reputations to certain wine styles, the discussion occasionally arises on which red grape should be Michigan’s focus. Recently, this topic was discussed on the Michigan By The Bottle podcast (Episode 93 - give it a listen if you haven’t!), and their polling of winemakers in different parts of the state resulted in a few different answers, with most of those centering around one or more of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Blaufrankisch (Lemberger), or Marquette. The hosts discussed the different options, and though they agreed on their top choice, that decision was certainly not final as the state continues growing its reputation for producing high quality wine. After thinking about the topic for a while, I have my own thoughts regarding what approach the state marketing bodies and local producers should take in terms of red wine.

Several factors go into the decision regarding which red grape should be the state’s main red grape, including ripening ability, other areas also known for that grape, and ability to produce high-quality examples. Some argue that in order for a red grape to be the “state grape”, it should be able to ripen in any of the main areas where wine is grown. By that standard, Marquette would be the best choice as that grape is cold-hardy and does not require a long growing season, allowing the grape to be grown both inside and outside of the current designated AVAs. High-quality wines have been made from the grape in the relatively short time it has been available, and there isn’t currently another area largely attaching their reputation to the grape. Marquette has strong potential for a larger future in Michigan wine, but the fact that it is a hybrid variety would not do justice to the fact that many producers in the state are having great success with red vinifera (European wine grapes), a feat which is uncommon in the Upper Midwest.

In order to show off Michigan’s ability to produce high-end vinifera wines, a grape chosen as a showcase grape for the state should probably be of European origin. These grapes are not as cold-hardy, and thus are far more limited in where they can be grown. However, these grapes also have more recognition globally and will allow the state to improve its reputation by competing alongside similar wines from areas that have built a reputation for those red wine varieties. This is not without complication as well, though, considering that the quality of the wines needs to be more widely equivalent to wines from those established areas. A state red grape would need to be something that can be produced at a very high quality in most years. The problem is the fact that the more prominent growing areas in the state have growing seasons that vary in length and heat, making those different growing areas better suited to producing different wines.

While Michiganders often have a great deal of pride in their state, my opinion is that the best route to take in this grape debate may be to look at the grape growing areas separately, rather than the state as a whole. California is a much larger state and is much more established, but this approach is common in California, with certain areas specializing in what they do best. The state has several well-known wine producing areas, and while there is plenty of overlap in styles, certain areas are most well known for certain grapes. This is also the approach in France, where there are even laws stipulating what can be produced in certain areas. These differences are based on varying climatic factors revolving around climate and soil.

For comparison sake, the North-South distance between Traverse City (near the Leelanau AVA and the Old Mission AVA) and Berrien Springs (in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA) is similar to the distance between Beaune (in France’s Burgundy region) and Orange (in France’s Southern Rhone region). Burgundy features a climate that allows for a long enough season to properly ripen Pinot Noir, but often lacks the heat to ripen most well-known red varieties. 220 miles South of that in the Southern Rhone, though, wineries produce warm-weather red blends that are rich, deep, and complex. While the variation is not quite as pronounced between the two main areas of Michigan, the growing season in Berrien Springs brings about a heat accumulation (base 50 growing degree days) that is roughly 30% greater on average each year than that of the Traverse Wine Coast. Around the Traverse Wine Coast, common red wines include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, while wineries in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA can more regularly ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Blaufrankisch as well as those commonly seen “up North”.

Given these factors surrounding the varying growing conditions in the state among the established AVAs, my answer to the question as to which grape should be the focus for Michigan producers is that the state as a whole should not focus on a specific grape or blend. Rather, the producers in different areas should focus on creating the highest quality examples of the grapes that grow well in their own areas. In areas that require cold-hardy varieties, Marquette should be a focus. Along the Traverse Wine Coast, Pinot Noir, Blaufrankisch, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are the obvious varietals, but perhaps Gamay, Zweigelt, and Saint Laurent would also be worthwhile. In Fennville and the Lake Michigan Shore, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the more well-known focus points, but Blaufrankisch and Syrah can also do well (outside of the polar vortex years).

As a whole, the state should have a common focus when it comes to red wine, though. That focus should be in constantly improving quality and setting Michigan apart as a home for cool-climate wines. Reputation will grow with wider improvements in quality, and the focus on cool-climate styles will allow consumers to set their expectations on what they’ll find. This means producing red wines that don’t try to match the huge, jammy flavors that California is known for, but rather producing red wines with great natural acidity, bright red and dark fruit flavors, and a great ability to pair with a variety of foods. It also includes focusing on cool-climate red wines that are not as commonly seen like Northern Rhone-style Syrah, Austrian reds, and other cool-climate reds. We already see many wineries producing these high quality cool climate wines in different areas of the state, and hopefully with a common focus, we can see and enjoy many more of these high quality red wines of different varieties in years to come.

  • Ian Verhey

In 1978, the ATF (now under the authority of the TTB) established a system to designate specific areas of land as valuable wine grape growing areas similar to designations that are found in European wine growing areas. While certain European wine growing areas have very strict restrictions on what can be grown in those areas, the American system places no restrictions on what can be grown. Instead the American system is tied to requirements that bottles labeled with a certain area contain a certain percentage of grapes from that area, giving the consumer confidence in what they will find in that bottle of wine. Through the system, areas with distinct characteristics important for wine grape growth, including favorable conditions and soil types, can apply to become an American Viticultural Area (AVA). If a bottle of wine states the name of a specific AVA, at least 85% of that wine was grown in the area on the label.

One of the first to be granted AVA distinction is the Fennville AVA, which located in Southwest Michigan. Since Fennville’s designation in 1981, four more AVAs have been approved in Michigan, with the Tip of the Mitt AVA being the most recent addition in 2016. The five different AVAs feature different growing conditions and winemakers, but all share something in common: their proximity to the climate-regulating waters of Lake Michigan.

In this post, I’m going to give a quick run-down of the different areas, some notable facts, and what you may find in each.

Tip of the Mitt AVA

The newest and Northernmost AVA is also the largest in the state, covering the 2,760 square miles of the Northern tip of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Despite its large size, most of the wineries active as of early 2019 are located in a smaller portion of the AVA near the city of Petoskey. The Bay View WIne Trail currently features 12 different stops between Ellsworth and Harbor Springs, with about half of those wineries located directly around Petoskey. This area excels in French-American Hybrids that can produce tasty wines but can also survive the extreme cold spells sometimes seen during the winter in this part of Michigan. Many of these wineries are quite young, and it will be fun to see what they can do in the future with the soils and conditions in their area.

Old Mission Peninsula AVA

Established in 1987, this AVA is the smallest of the five at 19,200 acres. The Old Mission Peninsula is a strip of land that is roughly 19 miles long and at most 3 miles wide. The peninsula is directly North of Traverse City and divides the Grand Traverse Bay into its East arm and West arm. The entire peninsula experiences a pronounced lake effect due to its very small width from East to West and the fact that both arms of the Grand Traverse Bay feature deep waters (up to 620 feet deep!) that are slow to warm or cool. The land on the peninsula features sandy soil and plenty of hills, which provide great drainage for growing wine grapes. While the 45th parallel crosses the peninsula near its Northern tip, European wine grapes are common due to the regulating effects of the bay. This AVA is well known for its ability to produce high-end Riesling, but the well-established wineries on the peninsula have been showing great ability to produce high-end examples of other wines as well in recent years.

Leelanau Peninsula AVA

Michigan’s second AVA was established in 1982, and contains the entirety of Leelanau County, which is a large peninsula Northwest of Traverse City. The peninsula is roughly the same size as Michigan’s first AVA at about 75,000 acres. The peninsula is bordered by Lake Michigan to the West and the West arm of the Grand Traverse Bay to the East, but is significantly larger than the nearby Old Mission Peninsula. The 45th parallel crosses this peninsula as well. The peninsula has long been home to cherry and apple orchards, so plenty of farm land is available for future growth in wine grape production. The wine grapes commonly grown in this region are similar to the neighboring Old Mission Peninsula AVA, based heavily around cool-climate aromatic white wines and hardier reds. Examples of grapes produced here include Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, as well as quite a few other traditional European varieties and hybrid varieties.

Fennville AVA

The Fennville AVA is Michigan’s oldest AVA and shares another interesting designation - being the only AVA located entirely within the boundaries of another AVA (this also occurs in other states, including California and Washington). The Northern border of the AVA is the Kalamazoo River, just like in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, but the Southern border is the Black River (near South Haven), restricting the area of this AVA to 75,000 acres. This AVA does not have a significant number of wineries, but features land that has long been used for farming near Lake Michigan for other fruits like apples and blueberries. Several well-known cider makers call this area home, and I expect to see more wineries in coming years.

Lake Michigan Shore AVA

Michigan’s second-largest AVA basically covers the Southwest corner of the state, bordered by Lake Michigan to the West, the Kalamazoo River to the North, and Indiana to the South. This AVA was established in 1983 and covers 1,280,000 acres. Within the borders of the AVA there are currently a couple of clusters of wineries in different areas, namely a group around Coloma / Benton Harbor / St. Joseph and another group around Baroda. Wineries and vineyards appear throughout the AVA, though, with plenty of potential for growth in coming years. With this AVA being the furthest South of the five, the growing seasons are much warmer than the three Northern AVAs, allowing the vineyards to grow wine grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carmenere that would not fare well in the Northern part of the state. These wineries have also been very successful with Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in recent years.

Having gone through the different AVAs of Michigan, one more consideration bears mentioning. While these regions contain the highest density of wineries, these are not the only areas where wineries are found in the state. A good number of the state’s wineries exist outside of the geographical boundaries of these areas, and many of those wineries are able to produce excellent wines in their own corners of the state, from areas surrounding Detroit to other areas along the Eastern Shore of West Michigan to areas in the Upper Peninsula. Throughout the state there are many great places and wineries to explore.


  • Ian Verhey

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

For the first grape-focused post in what I expect to be a long series, I’m going to look at a grape that is known throughout the world and is one of those most commonly-planted grapes in Michigan. In order to avoid confusion with some presentations of this grape, though, I’m going to look at a specific style that is commonly found in the Traverse Wine Coast area. That style and grape varietal is unoaked Chardonnay.

Bowers Harbor's Unwooded Chardonnay is a great example of this style

I, like many others, am not a fan of the Chardonnays typically found in the wine section of a typical grocery store. Those are often heavily-oaked wines made mostly from Chardonnay grown in California. The Chardonnay grape is very versatile in where it can be grown, but exhibits wildly different profiles based on the location it’s grown and how it is treated during the winemaking process. Oak barrels or oak chips can impart strong flavors of vanilla while malolactic fermentation (a fermentation in which a bacteria turns certain acids in the wine into a different, softer acid) can leave Chardonnay tasting buttery or nutty. Both of these processes will smooth out the wine and contribute to a little more body. While some people do enjoy this version of Chardonnay, many others shun it and have written off the grape entirely due to the familiar California profile.

Many wineries in Michigan, especially those in the Traverse Wine Coast, are happy to provide an alternative version that can please anyone that’s not a fan of those heavily oaked, buttery California Chardonnays. This alternative is the unoaked Chardonnay, which is made in a similar style to the famous wines of Chablis in the Burgundy region of France. These wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, and often find their way to the bottle after only 6 months. These wines are also usually prevented from undergoing malolactic fermentation, allowing them to maintain bright acidity and fresh flavors, possibly including tropical fruits, green apple, pineapple, or Meyer lemon. Depending on where it is grown and how ripe the grape is when it is picked, the combination of these flavors can differ. The wine is often quite bright but still easy to drink, offering a great option for a warm day.

Unoaked Chardonnay is a great wine to pair with plenty of foods due to its acidity and fresh fruit flavors. The acidity helps to cut through the fat found in proteins like fish, chicken, and shellfish. Despite the wines usually being dry or semi-dry, the fruit flavors present in the wine can provide a sensation of sweetness to pair well with salt and other milder seasonings on these dishes. One of my favorite simple pairings is to put a good unoaked Chardonnay alongside a caesar salad with pan-roasted chicken

Due to Chardonnay’s ability to grow well in many areas along the Lake Michigan coast and the fact that this style sees no oak barrels, the cost to produce unoaked Chardonnay is generally less than plenty of other commonly-known varietals including all red wines. Many of the unoaked Chardonnays in Michigan end up in the price point between about $15 and $20. If you try this wine and enjoy it, this price point makes it easier to buy a few to take home for enjoying with a meal or on a sunny summer afternoon (and it gets even better if you join your favorite winery’s wine club and get a discount!).

If you purchase unoaked Chardonnays when you’re out on a tasting adventure, my suggestion would be to enjoy them within a year of bringing them home and to do your best to store them in a cooler place. While well-produced versions won’t fall apart after more than a year in the bottle, some of the fresh fruit flavors will start to subside. I really enjoy that bright acidity and crisp fruit, so these don’t last long in my house.

I’ve had quite a few great unoaked chardonnays from Northern Michigan, but if you’re looking for a showcase of what unoaked chardonnay can be, these three are great wines to try:

Bowers Harbor Unwooded Chardonnay ($16)

As the first vineyard to produce an unoaked chardonnay, Bowers Harbor has great experience and produces a great product year after year. This wine is dry and bright, with plenty of fresh fruit flavors. Like most in this category, the price makes this a great value.

Good Harbor Unoaked Chardonnay ($15)

This wine is another great example of the freshness of which a Chardonnay is capable. This easy-drinking wine maintains plenty of acidity, but won’t blow your socks off either. The fresh apple, pear, and citrus flavors make it the perfect sipper for a warm summer afternoon.

Black Star Farms Arcturos Sur Lie Chardonnay ($15.50)

This unoaked chardonnay is made in the sur lie style, which leaves the wine sitting on the spent yeast in the stainless steel tanks. This wine ends up with bright and fresh flavors but also has more body and complexity than the other two wines mentioned because of the time spent on the lees. Definitely a must-try!