Michigan, USA

Mari Vineyard - Vines sloping down to the lake

Mari Vineyard - Vines sloping down to the lake

With over 140 wineries in the state and more coming on line all the time, Michigan is not an insignificant player on the US wine scene. But, like several other really interesting, quality wine growing regions in the US, it is over-shadowed by the sheer size and marketing power of California, Oregon and Washington. To me, as a Canadian familiar with the Niagara Peninsula wines of Ontario, the reality of a high-end, cool climate wine industry just across the border to the west is not surprising at all. On the other hand, for people outside North America, the concept of a major wine industry within a stone’s throw of Chicago and Detroit might be an eye-opener. The winemakers of Michigan are chilled regardless - they know they make great wine and they don’t have a problem selling it.

The story of winemaking in Michigan has got a crazy, fun kind of historical aspect to it. Ask yourself this: “Would an explorer from France overlook the opportunity to make wine in the New World?” The voyageurs who were exploring and trapping in the wilderness here in the 1600’s were already on the case. There is a study called From the Vine: Exploring Michigan Wineries that was written by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway on behalf of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. They record how wild grapes were discovered by the voyageurs in 1679 and vineyards were being planted as early as 1702 in the modern day Detroit area by a French military commander named Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. So that’s where the name of the luxury car came from!

Why Michigan For Wine?

Riesling is one of Michigan’s powerhouse grapes

Riesling is one of Michigan’s powerhouse grapes

At this point we have to revert to our recurring theme of how cool climate regions capture certain key wine quality elements more readily than warm climate regions. Freshness of acidity, richness of fruit flavours and depth of colour are the gifts of a cool climate and coincide nicely with the characteristics that winedrinkers often look for when they pick up a glass. Make no mistake, to call Michigan’s climate “cool” is a bit of an understatement. We are on the very edge of vineyard viability here. But the farmers have got a few things going for them. For one, they are on an oversized peninsula that is virtually surrounded by three of the largest lakes on the planet: Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The lakes help moderate temperature extremes. Then there are the vines they grow: Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Merlot etc. These are grapes that are long acclimatized to tough winters and short growing seasons. The resulting wines are truly exceptional. The Rieslings of Michigan, for example, are legendary. The problem for most of us is to find a bottle…..

Michigan has 4 recognized AVAs (appellations)

Michigan has 4 recognized AVAs (appellations)

Where Is Michigan’s Wine Country?

The state of Michigan (or at least the main part of it) sticks out in the shape of a mitten into the 3 afore-mentioned lakes with the thumb of the mitt pointing up to the north east. The massive industrial complex of Detroit sits down at the south eastern corner of the state, at the base of the mitten’s thumb, snugged up against the Canadian border. Chicago (which is in neighbouring Illinois) lies very close to the south western corner of Michigan. Two of Michigan’s recognized AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are located in the southwest corner of the state near the Illinois border. The other three (including a brand new one called Tip Of The Mitt located, appropriately enough, at the northern-most tip) are in northern part of the state.

Who Are The Winemakers?

For a full listing of the wineries and a wealth of information on the Michigan wine scene visit www.michiganwines.com. Here are a select few wineries to get you started:

The vineyard crew moves quickly

The vineyard crew moves quickly

Mari Vineyards

Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery

Chateau Grand Traverse

Black Star Farms

Left Foot Charley WIne and Cider

Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery

Shady Lane Cellars


When Is The Best Time To Visit?

As a Canadian I think I can say this - avoid January and February!

Useful Links:

www.michiganwines.com is a website dedicated to providing information on Michigan’s wineries and wine scene

Pure Michigan has loads of information for tourism and attractions in Michigan, including wine tourism

Michigan Wine Cooperative is a website and resource for the Michigan wine industry

Michigan Wine Trails

Aerial View of Brys Estate

Aerial View of Brys Estate

Map and photo credits: www.michiganwines.com; Brys Estate; Chateau Grand Traverse; Mari Vineyards.