“Welcome to The Mitten!”
Wait, what? That was my puzzled reaction when I first moved to Michigan from New York in 2010. Chances are that if you spend more than 30 seconds with anyone from Michigan, they’ll hold up one of their hands with their thumb pointing to the right and use it as an impromptu map of the state to illustrate a location. Michigan is, indeed, shaped like a mitten, and that shape is one of the reasons that it has become a formidable wine-producing region.
The “mitten” (Lower Peninsula) and “scarf” (Upper Peninsula), are surrounded in total by four of the five Great Lakes. The largest concentration of wine grapes grown in Michigan is in the Lower Peninsula within about 25 miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline, which mitigates the otherwise frigid winter temperatures and helps stave off potential weather-related vine and crop damage. But, as they say, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and Michigan embraces these challenges with the best of cool- and cold-climate wine regions.
The labor of love that is winegrowing took root here as early as “1679, when valiant French explorers [made]wine from grapes growing wildly along the beautiful Rivière du Détroit,” according to The Early History of the Michigan Wine Industry by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway. Despite that rich history, Michigan’s five American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) were all established in the last 40 years: Fennville (1981), Leelanau Peninsula (1982), Lake Michigan Shore (1983), Old Mission Peninsula (1987) and the newest, Tip of the Mitt (2016). Fennville and Lake Michigan Shore are in the southwest corner of the state about 90 minutes from Chicago; Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula are in the Northwest corner of the state with Traverse City as their small metropolitan hub; and Tip of the Mitt extends from North Central to Northeast Michigan, encompassing Alpena, Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet, and Presque Isle counties. There are more and more vineyards popping up across the state from central Michigan to metro Detroit, so it’ll be exciting to see where the next AVA develops.
When I moved here, I thought Michigan would be a carbon copy of the upstate New York wine region in which I had worked for 10 years, except with more cherries. How different could it be? Cool climate viticulture in a northern state with harsh winters, large bodies of water to moderate the temperature for grape growing, and many of the same grape varieties… Turns out I wasn’t too far off; Michigan does produce grape cultivars and wine styles similar to the Finger Lakes, which makes a great case for banding together with our Great Lakes colleagues and working together on regional promotion and research. Like most of the emerging regions I visit, Michigan is continually striving to improve vineyard/grape/wine quality, lacking funding, and sorting out its regional identity, but on a promising trajectory.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the expanse and diversity of Vitis vinifera grown here—70% of the total wine grape production! I figured with such a cool climate that the percentage of cold-hardy grapes would be much higher.
There are about 3,100 acres planted to wine grapes, with 700 acres devoted to riesling, followed by 1,450 acres of over 15 other vinifera varieties and about 1,000 acres of more 27 cold hardy hybrid varieties.
Michigan doesn’t have a “signature grape” at this point besides many dry, semi-dry, and late harvest expressions of riesling, but my other favorites and those that I view with the most potential include pinot blanc (never thought I’d say that about this usually-boring grape), gamay, grüner veltliner, Auxerrois, pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet franc, vidal blanc, Marquette and LaCrescent. I’ve had the opportunity to taste more cold hardies in the last two years than in all my prior wine years combined, including new crosses out of the University of Minnesota grape breeding program, like Itasca and Frontenac Gris, and more and more are being planted every day in areas less-suitable for vinifera. Michigan grape wines range from bone-dry to soda-pop sweet, from delicate to unexpectedly rich and ripe, from still to sparkling, and there are excellent examples of each that can easily compete on the world wine stage.
And about those cherries…no one does racy, taste bud-titillating cherry wine or unctuous cherry port like Michigan. This state quickly insisted that I abandon some of my preconceptions, as should you.
Michigan is host to about 150 commercial wineries, and there’s plenty of room for growth on the vineyard side: there simply are not enough wine grapes planted to meet current wine production demand. This is common in many emerging regions, like New Jersey, Texas, Minnesota, and others. While most wineries use grapes from within the state for the bulk of their production, a few bring in grapes from other states for all or part of their production, and that number increases in years like the 2014 and 2015 vintages, when back-to-back polar vortices decimated most of the Michigan grape crop and a significant percentage of the vines themselves. In that case, most wineries transparently explained to consumers why there were different grapes in the bottle that year. (A handful of producers continued to import out-of-state fruit after the polar vortex years and quietly put the words “American” or “For sale only in Michigan” on their labels. The average consumer is none the wiser, the margin per bottle increases, and the winemakers that support local growers usually have something to say about it, but that’s a whole different article…)
Michigan, like other not-West-Coast regions, is special because of its soils, climate, and people, who won’t give up despite the challenges of growing grapes in a cool and cold climate mostly situated between the 42nd and 46th parallel. The winegrowers’ hard work and tenacity over the last 40 years have propelled the industry to $5 billion annually, and it will continue to improve with more investment, brand-building, outside interest (both on the production and sales side), and, well, more grapes.
My job as an industry supplier and volunteer position as a state wine advocate grant me a front row seat seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing the stories that end up in your glass. I can’t wait to introduce you to the growers, makers, movers and shakers that make The Mitten a rising wine star.