American Viticultural Areas in Michigan
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.
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.