The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 2.

First off, I want to apologize for two things, 1. that this post is in two parts and 2. that I didn’t get it done during Michigan Wine Month, which is May. The excuse for both items is: No time. The school year is winding down and all the summer things are winding up and you know how it goes. I will later merge both posts together, just so it’s all in one spot for ease of later reading.

Last time, I took a broad, statewide look at Michigan’s vineyards. For this part 2, I will look at grape growing by region and by variety, the things this blog (and many others) talk about the most. I will again be using the 2020 Small Fruit and Hops Inventory published by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council.

Michigan’s grape producing regions are divided up into four regions: The Northwest (essentially Leelanau & Old Mission), North (Tip of the Mitt), Southwest (Lake Michigan Shore & Fennville), and everywhere else. For each region (further broken down by county), the number of farms and total vineyard acreage are both give for the years 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2020, with the exception of the North, which only has data for 2016 and 2020.

For the Northwest and North, there is a steady increase in the number of farms and total acreage during the period in question. The Southwest is a different story, though. In 2011, the region contained 288 farms and over 13,000 acres of vineyards. In 2020, those numbers were down to 166 and 8,600 respectively. In the other counties, the number of vineyards shows a strange bell curve, but shows a modest net growth from 2011 to 2020. The number of farms, however, steadily declines during the same period.

What do we make of these differing trends? First, since the vineyards of the Northwest and North regions are almost all dedicated to wine grapes, I think that growth represents the steady growth in the Michigan wine industry over the past ten years. The substantial losses in the Southwest, can be attributed to the decline of the grape juice industry in Michigan. While wine’s growth is good news for Michigan’s economy, the bottom dropping out of the grape juice market is not.

The picture doesn’t change much when broken down county by county, but the growth in the number of farms in Grand Traverse county (Old Mission Peninsula AVA and neighboring areas) is striking, going from 54 farms in 2011, to 60 in 2014 and 2016 (likely due to the Polar Vortex) and then to 66 in 2020. Both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties added around the same number of farms during the period (220 vs 210) with Leelanau adding the higher percentage (I think).

As of 2020, the top county in terms of farms and acreage was Berrien (SW), followed by Van Buren (SW), then Grand Traverse (NW), Leelanau (NW), and Emmett (N) counties. If the other counties of the Southwest region were their own county, they would replace Emmett in fourth place.

Next up, we have the juiciest category (apologies for the pun), grape varieties. To no one’s surprise, friend of the blog Riesling came in at #1 for the most commonly grown wine grape variety by a wide margin. Here’s the top ten vinifera, and top ten hybrid wine grape varieties grown in Michigan, as of 2020, in acreage.

Vinifera

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Gewurtztraminer 77
  8. Sauvignon Blanc 64
  9. Pinot Blanc 62
  10. Cabernet Sauvignon 56

Hybrids

  1. Vidal Blanc* 105
  2. Chambourcin* 100
  3. Marquette** 97
  4. Traminette* 81
  5. Vignoles 76
  6. Seyval 64
  7. [Marechal] Foch 63
  8. Frontenac ** 34
  9. Petite Pearl** 33
  10. Cayuga White 31

Combined Top Ten

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Vidal Blanc* 105
  8. Chambourcin* 100
  9. Marquette** 97
  10. Traminette* 81

*”Noble hybrid” variety, something I made up

**University of Minnesota cold-hardy variety

Apologies for the formatting, WordPress’s block editing system is very bad. Aside from the asterisks, there are a couple things that should be noted. First, some wine is made out of Concord and other juice varieties like Niagara and Catawba. Second are the “others”: There are 95 acres of other (outside the top 20) vinifera varieties, 110 (!) acres of other hybrid varieties, and over 2,000 acres of non-Concord native grape varieties.

There are not a lot of surprises in the top five vinifera varieties, There is a big drop off, though, between 1 & 2 in the vinifera and combined lists, though. I was surprised that there is as much Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc grown in the state as there is, though neither made the combined list. The biggest surprise to me is the other meteoric rise of a grape that came in at 11 on the vinifera list: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch. Despite the lack of a catchy, elegant-sounding name, the grape is very popular with Michigan growers, and is finding its way into more and more blends and varietal bottlings across the state, but especially in the Northwest. I’ve reviewed a few. I think this one is my favorite so far.

Marquette’s meteoric rise to become one of the most commonly planted varieties in the state at a mere fifteen years of age, was the biggest surprise to me in the hybrid category. I was a little surprised that Vidal Blanc was the number one hybrid, but pleasantly so. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for years that Michigan should be producing more brandy. Now I can add the knowledge that Vidal Blanc, descendent of the great Cognac grape Ugli Blanc, is the most widely planted hybrid grape in the state! One weird thing I learned is that there is a grape variety called Himrod and that there are 14 acres of it in the state. It’s apparently a table grape, but the name sounds like some sort of male dance review.

Anyway, the next table looks at bearing and non-bearing grape vines by category and color. There are over twice as many acres of vinifera grapes as there are of hybrids in Michigan and a little less than twice as many acres of white wine grapes as there are red (and pink) wine grapes. That’s to be expected when Riesling and Chardonnay are at one and two in the standings. Our climate is kinder to white wine grapes as well.

The next table examines acres of grapes by district and use. As other tables implied, table and juice grapes are king in Southwest Michigan. A whopping 7,425/8600 acres of Southwestern vineyards are deicated to them. So while the Southwest and four times as many acres of vineyards as the Northwest and North combined, the North and Northwest have nearly twice as many acres of wine grapes.

Finally, we get a brief glimpse into the future of Michigan vineyards in the Acres planted by variety 2017-2020 table. At least think we do. Since the numbers don’t correlate to any of the other data in the report, I assume that planted is the operative word in this description. These are, I believe, referring to varieties that were planted during that period. Riesling and Chard were the top two, but Lemberger was third, Marquette was fourth, and Pinot Gris/Grigio was fifth. Lemberger and Marquette seem like they are more than a passing fad at this point and they’re here to stay. One surprise is the University of Minnesota hybrid Itasca, which appears at number eight on the list. Could we be seeing that grape a lot more in the next few years? Stay tuned my friends!

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 1

Back on March 30 of this year, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council produced its annual small fruit and hops inventory. What we’re going to focus on, unsurprisingly, will be the section of the report dealing with grapes. If you want to look it over yourself, you can find it by clicking the links above.

What I want to do is crunch some of these already crunched numbers and see what they can tell us about the state of grape-growing and wine production in Michigan in 2020. The authors of the report have very helpfully included historical data going back to 2011 for most of the tables, so readers can get a picture of the medium term trends as well. Now, my brain and numbers don’t always mix well, so I ask forgiveness in advance for any and all screw-ups in this post.

Politically and culturally, Michigan is a part of the upper Midwest, but agriculturally, it’s the westernmost third of the Great Lakes Fruit Belt that stretches from upstate New York, through Southern Ontario to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes, and the many other smaller lakes between them, have a moderating effect on the climate of the area, cooling the air in the summers and warming it in the winter. Michigan is among the leading producers of sugar beets, potatoes (for chips), asparagus, blueberries, cherries, apples and grapes in the US. It also does pretty well with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, raspberries, and blackberries.

The grape industry has been big in Michigan for a long time, but for most of its history, most of the vineyard space in the state has been dedicated to table and juice grapes. That has been changing, however. As the report shows, in 2011, 60% of the vineyard acreage of the state was growing Concord, with 23.4% growing other native varieties used for juice and table grapes like Catawba, Delaware, Fredonia, Niagara, and Norton. That’s a total of 83.4%, with 12.1% being used for vinifera, and 4.5% used for hybrids wine grapes. In 2020, Natives were down to 69.1% (Concord down to 50%), with vinifera at 21.3% and hybrids more than doubling to 9.6%. When we look at the raw acreage numbers we can see that the growth wasn’t only from new acres of vinifera and hybrid vineyards being planted, but fewer acres of the native juice and tables grapes being grown. In fact there were over 4,000 fewer acres of grapes being grown from 2011 to 2020. Very little of this can be attributed to the 2014/2015 polar vortex, since most of the losses occurred between 2016 and 2020.

There was talk a few years ago about Michigan possibly running out of vineyard space due to the rapid growth of demand for Michigan wine and the growth in the number of wineries. Now, not every site suitable for Concord will be suitable for wine grapes, but the overall decline in acreage dedicated to grapes along with the growth in the number of acres dedicated to wine grapes makes me think that we won’t be running out of vineyard space any time soon.

One particularly interesting aspect of the report is the section that has to do with the size of Michigan grape farms. They are broken up into four categories. 1-9 acre farms (I’ll be calling these small farms), 10-29 acre farms (medium), 30-99 acres (large), and 100 or more acres (very large). It’s hard to know what to make of the data, but between 2011 and 2020, the number of small farms went from 215 to 233, a moderate increase. The medium sized farms declined rather sharply during that period, going from 132 to only 73. The large farms stayed the same, more or less, going from 75 in 2011, to 70 in 2014, to 74 in 2020. So maybe over time more people have started new small farms while consolidation took place in the other categories. The same thing seems to have happened on a smaller scale to the farms dedicated to wine grape production, as seen in the table following that one.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the even jucier (no pun intended) parts of the report: The regional and varietal stats, and then I’ll have a few parting words. Stay tuned!

Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Domain Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: Undisclosed (“table wine”)

Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Oak, sautéed mushrooms, mulberry, white pepper, nutmeg.

Palate: Tart blueberry, oak, clove, mace.

Finish: Mild, but a little spice and oak on the back end.

Parting words: I reviewed the 2011 vintage of DB’s Syrah back in 2016. It had spent a little longer in the bottle than this wine, but only by a few months. 2016 was a very warm vintage so I expected the 2016 to be fruitier than the 2011 was. While it can be hard to remember what I was thinking four and a half years ago, that does not seem to be the case. The notes are similar enough to be nearly identical. The only difference seems to be the earthy mushroom aroma I got in the nose. Earthiness is a Domaine Berrien trait, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the 2011 didn’t seem to have much in the way of earth at all.

Anyway, Syrah does well in Southwest Michigan when it can get ripe enough, and 2016 was one of those years. $22 is a steal for a relatively rare, high quality wine like this. Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016 is recommended.

Troglodyte Rosso

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Teroldego, 10% Merlot

Place of origin: Mari Vineyards Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style: Dry red blend.

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $26 (Red Wagon, Rochester Hills)

Appearance: Slightly overdone fruit of the forest pie.

Palate: Medium bodied. Wild blackberry, black currant, clove, a little smoke.

Finish: Medium chewy, a little acid, a little fruit.

Parting words: Teroldego is a grape grown mostly in the Alpine vineyard areas of Northern Italy. It produces wines that are sometimes compared to Zinfindel, but it also bears more than a passing resemblance to its nephew Syrah. I don’t know how much Teroldego is grown in Michigan, but I’m guessing that it’s not a lot. I don’t know enough to say whether it should be grown more widely in Michigan, but I do like it in this blend. It brings a spicy, tarry (in a good way) punch to this wine that makes it food-friendly and well-rounded. For a grape this rare, and a wine this good, $26 is more than fair. Troglodyte Rosso is recommended.

Moon Shadow Rosé

Maker: Charlevoix Moon, Charlevoix, Michigan, USA

Grape: Marechal Foch (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Charlevoix Moon estate, Tip of the Mitt AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Style: Rosé

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $23 (Boyne City Farmers Market)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Raspberry jam, sweet cherry, light oak.

Palate: Full bodied and semi-dry. A little oak, Fruit of the Forest pie, and white pepper.

Finish: Long. A little oaky, with some acid and sweetness.

Parting words: I talked about Charlevoix Moon when I reviewed one of their Beacon 17 Reisling here, so I won’t do that again. I will say that this is more of the sort of wine I expect to come from good producers in the Tip of the Mitt. That’s not a slam, just a statement of my expectations.

Better red hybrids like Foch are at their best in table-ish blends and varietal bottlings like this. There’s maybe a little more oak than I would like, but this is a well-made, food-friendly rosé that would pair well with grilled chicken, pork, or salmon. It even did well with the Reubens we ate tonight. Don’t scoff at the $23 price tag. This wine is well worth it. Charlevoix Moon’s 2019 Moon Shadow Rosé is recommended.

Michigan Merlot Head to Head: Crane vs Lane

C= 2016 Sandhill Crane Merlot

L= 2016 Shady Lane Merlot

Makers

C: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA

L: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Grapes

C: Merlot (at least 75%)

L: Merlot (at least 85%)

Places of origin

C: Michigan (at least 75%)

L: Shady Lane Estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV

C: 13.7%

L: 12%

Purchased for

C: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

L: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)

Appearance

C: Translucent ruby, almost like a Pinot Noir.

L: Darker, more purplish.

Nose

C: Cedar, blueberry, oak.

L: Cherry jam, Hawaiian Punch, white pepper.

Palate

C: Tart. Black currant, smoked ham.

L: More balanced and better integrated. Oak, BEAR jam, clove.

Finish

C: HiC, oak. Fades quickly.

L: More harmonic. Blackberry, oak, nutmeg.

Parting words: Merlot is a grape that, if it gets ripe, can produce wonderful Michigan wines. In some years that’s a big IF, but 2016 was not one of those years, to the relief of vineyard owners who had just come off two Polar Vortex years in 2014 and 2015. 2016 was hot by Michigan standards, and the wines of that year are generally full of ripe fruit flavors. These two wines are great examples of that.

I tasted these two with a meal shared with friends-of-the-blog Amy and Pete. The dish was potato chorizo tacos (one of my favorites) made with my own homemade chorizo. Both of these wines performed well, and easily stood up to spiciness of the sausage and earthiness of the potatoes.

All of us agreed that Shady Lane was the superior of the two wines. There was nothing unpleasant about Sandhill Crane Merlot, but it lacked the depth and integration of flavor Shady Lane had. I would classify Sandhill as a good BBQ wine and Shady Lane more of a steak dinner wine. I was surprised when I saw there was only a dollar difference between the two, but there’s no need to make the great the enemy of the good, so to speak. Sandhill Crane Merlot is worth the price, it’s just that Shady Lane is worth much more than its price. Both Sandhill Crane and Shady Lane 2016 Merlots are recommended.

Chateau Aeronautique Syrah, 2010

Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Michigan (at least 75%)

ABV: Not listed (“Table wine”)

Purchased for $28 (Michigan by the Bottle Sipper Club selection)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Cedar, pink peppercorn, cherry juice, mulberry.

Palate: Juicy and a little tannic. Red currant, wild blackberry, leather, white pepper.

Finish: Leathery, with a little acid and spice

Parting words: Chateau Aeronautique is the project of airplane pilot Lorenzo Lizzaralde. He’s been at it for quite some time now and the ChA empire has expanded to include a brew-pub and coffee shop in downtown Auburn Hills, Michigan, both joint operations with the Caseys of Michigan by the Bottle.

Lorenzo’s wines are, generally speaking, bold. I like spicy Syrah, but my favorites are balanced with fruit and acid. This wine may have started out a little brash, but ten years in a bottle has done it a lot of favors. The oak is a little heavier than I prefer, but everything else is nicely balanced and great for drinking with or without food. $28 is a fair price for a wine of this age. Chateau Aeronautique Syrah, 2010 is recommended.

Ultima Thule, 2013

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 45% Nebbiolo, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot

Place of origin: Mari Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for $60 at winery (minus 18% [IIRC] media discount)

Thanks to Sean O’Keefe and everyone else at Mari for the generous media discount.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, black currant jam, blackberry, white pepper, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and tart. Raspberry, black currant, mulberry, tart cherry, oak.

Finish: Acidic and relatively short. Chewy on the back end.

Parting words: The islands of Thule were first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (died c. 285 BCE). It was as six days sail north of Great Britain and was the most northern point known to people of the ancient Mediterranean. It’s unclear what, if any, real place Thule was. Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, or some island off Norway have all been suggested. One later geographer suggestions the name may come from an old name refering to the Polar night, the sun never sets for weeks or months on end in high latitudes. When we were in Orkney, locals refered to it as the “simmer (summer) dim” when the sun never completely sets but just hangs around the horizon all night. We actually experienced a bit of this ourselves during our brief time there. I remember waking up around 2 am or so to see sunlight peaking through the blinds in our B & B.

On ancient and Medieval European maps, Ultima Thule became a fixture in the northwest, representing the northernmost inhabited bit of land. While the Old Mission Peninsula is much closer in latitude to Bordeaux or Torino than to Orkney or Iceland, Mari’s vineyards are at the northernmost point of Old Mission and this wine represents the ultimate expression of their nellaserra (hoop-house) system. Northern Michigan has enough sun to ripen Nebbiolo, but the cold springs present a big problem for the grape, which needs a relatively long time to ripen. The hoop-houses act as large cold frames and enable Nebbiolo to get the head start it needs to ripen.

As for the wine itself, it’s complex but not busy. It’s more acidic than I expected, but 2013 was a very cool vintage that saw pretty tart and but very long-lived wines. It’s not bracing or pucker-inducing by any stretch, though. The acid is firmly grounded in the fruit, and rounded off with judicious oak and spice.

$60 is a lot of money for a Michigan wine, or any wine period, really. I think it’s worth the money, however, and I think there’s three reasons why. First is rarity. To my knowledge there are no other Nebbiolo vines in Michigan besides those belonging to Mari Vineyards. Second is longevity. Cab Sauv and Nebbiolo are known for their ability to age for long periods of time so I originally planed to open this wine in the fall of 2023 but I just couldn’t wait that long. I have no regrets about opening it when I did but I think it could have gone for two or three more years at least. This is born out by how good it still tasted one and even two days after open.

Finally, this wine is worth at least $60 because it’s just so good. It’s good with food, by itself, in a box, with a fox, however you want to drink it. Mari Vineyards Ultima Thule, 2013 is recommended!

Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA.

Grapes: 73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc

Place of origin: Leorie Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $46 (Holiday Market)

Note: for more information on this wine and vineyard, read this post on Black Star Farms’ Blog.

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Cedar, black currant jam, clove, smoke.

Palate: Juicy but structured. Full bodied. Black currant, cherry juice, blueberry pie.

Finish: A little chewy, with some acid.

Parting words: Leorie Vineyard is in an old gravel pit on Old Mission Peninsula that has become one of Black Star Farms’ finest vineyards, especially for reds. It consistently produces ripe (a challenge for Merlot in Northern Michigan), disease-free Merlot that finds its home under this label year after year.

I’m afraid my notes don’t really do this wine justice. It’s fruity for sure but nicely balanced with spice and tannins producing an elegant but not austere red worthy of the Right Bank of the Gironde. It cellars well too, obviously. I’m looking forward to cracking my other bottle of Leorie in 2022 or sometime after that. $46 is expensive by Michigan standards, but that’s a good price for a quality Merlot blend from one of Michigan’s finest vineyards made by one of Michigan’s finest wineries. 2012 Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc is recommended.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc, 2019

Maker: Verterra, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA

Grape: Pinot Blanc (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA (100%), Leelanau County, Michigan, USA

Style: Semi-dry sparkling wine.

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Light gold with moderate, steady bubbles.

Nose: Ripe mango, pear, custard, Meyer lemon.

Palate: Moderately effervescent with medium body. Off dry with lots of tropical fruit and just enough acid.

Finish: Semi-dry and fruity.

Parting words: The last time I spoke to Verterra Winery owner Paul Hamelin he was extremely excited about making his first sparkling wines. That was several years ago, and now the winery has a full line of blended sparkling wines, all of which are delicious. As far as I know, this wine is the only varietally bottled sparkling Pinot Blanc being produced in Michigan, although it is used frequently in blends.

I really enjoyed this wine, but unfortunately it is currently out of stock at Michigan by the Bottle’s Royal Oak tasting room. MBTBTR owner Cortney told me that they may get some more in soon, so watch for it! In the meantime, go buy some other Pinot Blanc, Verterra, sparkling wine or something else at your local MBTBTR! They are open for wine purchases on NYE & NYD, fyi.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc 2019 is recommended.