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.