Michigan Wines: Great Wine At Our Back Door

April 22 2011 - 10:00 AM

While it’s very hard to find here in Chicago, but of good quality and a short ride away, Michigan wines have recently been surprising me.  Far from the wineries advertised by expressway billboards that serve blush wine and plonk, I was curious to network with people familiar with Wolverine State wine.  I asked to meet recently with Kelly Kniewel, co-owner of Fresh Coast Distributors, to give me more information regarding what Michigan wines have to offer fussy Chicago consumers.    We met at eno, a wine bar in the Fairmont Hotel just off of Wacker Drive just east of Michigan Avenue and met with Daniel Freedman, sommelier of eno and Aria.

Kelly explained that much of Michigan’s wine comes from the Traverse City area and the Leelenau Peninsula, the “pinkie” on the left side of the state.   She explained that the bay shallows off the coast of Traverse City create a bathhouse effect, whereby the waters insulate the area and allow for a longer growing season, thus allowing vignerons to pick in October or November.   In addition, several of the winemakers now have vines over ten years old, so as the vineyards become more mature and viticulture improves, Michigan wines can only get better.

We started out with a relatively dry 2007  Pinot Grigio from Peninsula Cellars, based in Traverse City, and run by sixth-generation fruit farmers.   There was a nose of gooseberries, a palate of citrus, and a good amount of acidity for a Pinot Grigio, a grape that, quite frankly, I find flabby.   This would make a great substitute for Pinot Grigios from Alto Adige, many of which unfortunately are substandard, and perhaps a more apt comparison is Pinot Gris from Oregon.

It was followed by Peninsula’s ’07 Pinot Blanc, a really nice wine that stacks up against some of Alsace’s Pinot Blancs in my opinion.   Much as I love Alsace, I find their Pinot Blancs disappointing, and I would buy a bottle of Peninsula over most Alsatian Pinot Blanc.    There was a gravelly nose that really picked up the limestone of Michigan’s terroir, followed by a palate of almonds, green apple, and good acidity.  Alcohol was a modest 12.5 percent.

Next was a ’09 Bel Lago Auxerrois, perhaps my favorite (0r second favorite) of the day.  Bel Lago is owned by a Michigan State University professor, known throughout the state as a person who experiments with natural viticultural practices and is known for growing over one hundred varietals.  From the Leelenau Peninsula, it was a low acid wine, which is to be expected from Auxerrois.  It had a fruity nose and was aged in 50 percent neutral French oak, and had some nice garrigue on the palate.

Some other wines from Peninsula were an Old School White, an interesting mix of Cayuga, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc; a Cabernet Franc with some characteristic bell pepper and spice flavors, and an Old School Red, a decent quaffing wine.  They also made a Hot Red Cherry, a nice blend of sweet and tart cherries with 5 percent residual sugar.

There was a 2008 Bowers Harbor Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, a wine that competed for favorite, an off-dry wine that showed notes of petrol at its young age, combined with a palate of apple and citrus, reminding me faintly of wines from Germany, and is of excellent value in contrast to rapidly-increasing European wine prices.

Also there were a couple fantastic dessert wines, one of which was the NV Fenn Valley42˚Ice Wine, named for the 42nd parallel in which the winery is located, from 100 percent Vidal Blanc grapes, popular in the northern United States and Canada, with honeyed notes, as well as flavors of tangerines and apricots.

To close, Daniel was generous to share a 2009 Domaine Berrier Cellars Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, at 8.6 percent alcohol, and notes of tart cherries, strawberries and cherry liqueur.   It was an impressive wine that had a lot of complexity and would be a nice complement to a rhubarb tart.

According to Google Maps, Traverse City, where most of this was sourced, is over five hours away, so these grapes don’t exactly grow in our backyard.    It is, of course, within driving distance and makes for a great weekend getaway.    I’ve receive some surprised looks when I bring up Michigan wine, but I believe misperceptions dominate this thinking.  New York State, for instance, is now the second-largest wine producer of all fifty states, over closely-behind Washington as well as Oregon, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.   Regrettably, about four-fifths of this number is concord grape wine, and roughly another 10 percent are hybrids, accounting for the large number, of which Washington and Oregon have little, but of the ten percent New York wine has been getting some serious praise in the press over the past few years, especially Rieslings from Finger Lakes.  I even had a Cabernet Sauvignon from Long Island a few years ago that drank surprisingly very well and was quite balanced, in contrast to a lot of sweet and big New World Cabs grown in warmer climates.

The point of this is that there will continue to be improvements to the Michigan wines, and it can happen here.  All of this will take a lot of time and education, as well as some coordinated marketing by the Michigan wineries and distributors, and as the wine market in Michigan matures, there will open a lot of opportunity here in Chicago.

Michigan wines from Fresh Coast Distributors can be found at these locations.

–Brian Ziegler