A Visit to Wyncroft/Marland Winery

Back in June of 2021, as Liz and I were planning our visit to Dablon Winery and Vineyards in Southwest Michigan (read the account of our visit here), I sent an email to James Lester of the nearby Wyncroft/Marland winery in Fennville asking if we could pay him a visit while we were out there. He obliged and we arranged a date and time to visit.

Why the two names? Wyncroft is the main, flagship label for higher-end single vineyard wines, and Marland is the one used for the more affordable line of wines from grapes sourced from other vineyards in the region. James made a point of saying that he only buys grapes from vineyards that adhere to his precise viticultural standards. I will be using Wycroft to refer to the winery for the rest of this post to avoid repeated slashes. There are only two full-time employees at Wyncroft, James, and his partner Daun Page.

Wyncroft is only open by appointment (no walk-in tourists!), but that appointment includes a personal tasting of at least five wines with James at the winery. It’s not free though. Tastings are $25 per person and no discounts are given. The tastings are scheduled for two hours but two hours with James can easily turn into four or more, especially as the wine and conversation start flowing.

On the afternoon of our appointment, I got an email from James reminding us of the tasting charge and that he does not give freebies or engage in quid pro quo arrangements with writers. As you know, dear readers, I never ask for or expect freebies, although when I visit wineries in my “official” Sipology Blog capacity, I do usually get complimentary tastings and occasionally get media discounts which I always disclose. I emailed him back and told him that we understood and that was perfectly fine.

We showed up to the front gate on time, even though Liz wasn’t sure if it was the right place since there is no sign (to deter the dreaded walk-in tourists). We were in the right place, I assured her, and I pushed the buzzer at the gate. After a few minutes with no response, I did it again. Still not response. I walked around the gate, wondering if we were supposed to just park there and walk. The winery buildings weren’t visible from there, so that was unlikely. I then checked the first email I received from James, and, of course, it contained his phone number and instructions to call him when we arrived so he could open the gate. I did so, he answered on the second or third ring and opened the gate for us to drive through. We drove up the short (by car) driveway up to the winery and parked in the precise spot James directed us to. We got out, greeted our hosts, and got the visit underway.

The Winery

 Unfortunately, the only notebook I brought was a large, ringed binder that was a little difficult to jot notes onto while standing. I think I did fairly well under the circumstances, and I have a pretty good memory when it comes to wine. That said, our conversation with him during our visit was wide ranging, and James frequently tossed tangential anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge our way. It was engaging conversation but it made note-taking difficult. To make this post readable, I’ve had to arrange most of my notes topically, rather than according to the flow of the conversation.

Trying to keep up with James!

The first part of our visit was a tour of the property and its vineyards. As James told me, “You can do a lot in the cellar, but flavor begins in the vineyard.” The circular end of the drive is flanked by two buildings, the winery and James and Daun’s home. Surrounding them is ninety-four acres, most, but not all, of which is vineyard, which they’ve named LePage, a combination of their last names. Other Wyncroft-owned vineyards are nearby. The vineyard is technically in the Fennville Sub-AVA, making Wyncroft one of only two Michigan wineries to use Fennville on their labels. The other one, unsurprisingly, is Fenn Valley.

James also grows apples and pears on the estate, with plenty of room left over for prairie land, multiple ponds and twenty acres of forest. The forest includes the trees that ring the property, acting as a wind break and snow fence. Before James purchased the property it was a private arboretum. Many of the trees from that era are still standing and healthy, including several rare Asian conifers. The woods do attract deer, unfortunately, so James will occasionally drive through the vineyards while firing off a shotgun to scare them away.

We didn’t tromp over the entire ninety-four acres, but we did visit a few blocks of Merlot and Pinot Noir. Aside from those, he also grows Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Semillon on site. The rows are three feet apart, like in France (and at Dablon). James says this makes cropping easier, and that he crops in the sub-Grand Cru range, ten to fifteen clusters per vine. The rows are kept in a natural state, and clippings from the mower are left in place to act as a natural weed-blocker.

Ironically, a large north-facing slope is the warmest part of the vineyard, so that’s where he puts the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. James claims the slope is so warm, his Pinot can overripen if care is not taken, a relatively rare problem for Michigan. He uses early-ripening, loose clustered Dijon clones for his Pinot Noir. He believes that Michigan is much better suited to Pinot Noir cultivation than warmer climates like California, because of how closely Burgundy’s and Michigan’s climates resemble each other. He believes that varieties are adapted to particular climates and that it’s foolish to attempt to grow them in a different one. It was hard not to think of some other Michigan vineyards after hearing that comment. “So it would be foolish to try to grow something like Tempranillo?” I asked. He gave a thoughtful smirk, then told me that Tempranillo is grown in the highlands in Spain, so it can actually be grown well in Michigan.

I’m a big fan of Michigan Merlot, and James makes some of the very best. He has five different clones planted, including two from Pomerol, one Northern Italian, and one Inglenook California clone. I know that only adds up to four, but I couldn’t find the fifth one in my notes. James says that Merlot is just as fussy as Pinot Noir, but it’s easier to grow, so it’s often grown in bad sites, which is to blame for its bad reputation in some quarters. He says his Merlot tastes like Pomerol, and I can’t disagree.

Lester’s business model is a bit different from that of his neighbors’, even wineries like Dablon or Domaine Berrien. James is the founder, winemaker, and vineyard manager and Wyncroft.  Daun handles most of the business end of the business. As I noted above, they are the only full time winery employees, although part-time seasonal help is used. He uses distributors in Chicago (his biggest single market) and in Michigan. Wyncroft and Marland wines can be found at better wine shops in Southeast and Southwest Michigan, and, of course at Friends-of-the-Blog Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, specifically the one in Auburn Hills, Michigan. In the early days, though, he self-distributed, but the job quickly became too big, especially in Chicago.

James was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family (West Michigan is a big center of that denomination) and never had a glass of wine until he was twenty-nine years old. He made his first wine as a hobbiest in 1983 becoming interested in aged Burgundy and Bordeaux, and reading books on the topic. His first wine was a Pinot Noir, and he liked it a lot. He sent samples around to friends and people in the wine industry and they all enjoyed it as well, so he kept at it. He counts Willy Frank of Constantin Frank winery in New York and Leonard Olson of nearby Tabor Hill as mentors.

James’s business philosophy is to make wines he likes, and then to find customers for them. The wines he likes are for the most part traditional, French-style wines. He describes his style as classic, full flavored “wow” wine, that is an expression of its terroir.

To be fair, a lot of winemakers say things like that, but what sets Wyncroft apart is James Lester himself. He cuts a dashing figure with long gray hair, an open lapel, and a full, well-groomed beard. James is one of those rare people who talks a lot about himself and his business but is able to back up every word with excellent product. His wines are as much an expression of his unique personality as they are of Wyncroft’s beautiful vineyards.

Wyncroft isn’t a part of any official wine trails or Michigan winemaking organizations, partially to prevent tourists from showing up unannounced, but also because James has reservations about the way those organizations operate. He takes grape-growing and winemaking very seriously and is concerned that not all wineries take it as seriously as he does. Why should wineries like his and tourist-oriented ones making plonk from bulk grapes get the same benefits for the same fees? James doesn’t think that makes much sense.

Most of James’ red wines, in both lines, are classic red Bordeaux blends in various configurations. Cab Franc/Merlot, Merlot/Cab Fran/Cab Sauv, etc. Their ability to age varies with the varieties in question (as well as the label they’re bottled under), but all should have at least a full four years on them before drinking.

The crown jewel of his Red Bordeaux blends is Shou (pronounced “show”) from a Chinese word meaning longevity. In 2019 it was 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc, and 13% Merlot. As the name suggests, this is a wine made for an extended time in the cellar. As the percentage of grapes suggests, it is intended to be James’ take on a Left Bank red Bordeaux blend. When our tour finally got to the cellar, I was able to taste some of the wines that would go into the 2020 vintage. The Cab Franc was chewy and dark with lots of berry flavors. The Merlot was deep purple and tasted like blackberry pie. The Cab Sauv was brick red and tasted like fruit of the forest pie. When I remarked on how little sulphur I tasted in the barrel samples, he was very proud of the fact. “Too much sulphur in a barrel sample is a sign of bad winemaking.”

A pair of Shous

The Wyncroft LePage Pinot Noir ages very well and should also be at least four years old before drinking, but the Marland Pinot Noir can be consumed early with no loss of flavor. They’re both elegant, but easy drinking, in fine Burgundy style. Aside from the usual suspects, James also makes a Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger) under the Marland label. The grape has been increasingly popular with winemakers in recent years, since it grows so well in Michigan and produces very flavorful red and pink wines. Despite my early skepticism about the grape, I am now all in on Blaufränkisch, and James is too. When I asked him if Blaufränkisch had a future in Michigan, his answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

 James Lester’s reds are probably his best-known wines, but his whites should not be slept on either, as the kids say. We tasted the Wren Song Vineyard dry Riesling which was close in style to dries from Alsace and Oregon. James regularly makes Riesling Ice-wine as well. The Wyncroft website shows a Marland Late Harvest Riesling, but I don’t recall ever tasting it.

James produces two Chardonnays, the single vineyard Wycroft Chard with oak, and the Marland Chardonnay “Non Affecte”sur liewithout. When he discussed Wyncroft Chard with me, he compared it to a picture in a frame. The oak acts as a frame, supporting and drawing attention to the aromas and flavors of the grape, like a frame supports and draws attention to a picture. It’s not an attraction in itself. “Nobody cares about the frame.” I had a taste of Chardonnay (Wyncroft I think, the samples were coming fast and furious) in the cellars and enjoyed it quite a bit even at that early stage. It had lemon, a little butter, and tropical fruit. He also produces an Auxerrois, with grapes from Bel Lago’s Moreno vineyard.

The white wines he seems most proud of are his Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc blends, aged in acacia wood barrels, like in Bordeaux. He sells two, the Wyncroft Shou Blanc and the Marland Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends. The website also lists a Marland Pinot Grigio, which I think I may have tasted at one point, but I don’t recall when or where.

Wyncroft produces only one pink wine, Marland rosé of Cabernet Franc. I asked why he doesn’t make a Pinot Noir or Blaufränkisch rosé, and he replied that he thought Cab Franc made the best rosé of the varieties he uses (to which I agreed), and he didn’t find it necessary to make more than one pink wine. I asked about orange wine and he smirked. “I’ve never had an orange wine that wouldn’t have tasted better as a white,” he replied. It’s intended to be consumed promptly, but I think quality rosé is at its best the spring or summer after its first birthday.

After the vineyard tour (and before going into the cellar), James led us to a small table that he or Daun had set up outside the winery for the more formal tasting portion of the visit. We tasted through most of what he had in stock. It was all good. We also had a nice long discussion about my blog and James said some very kind things, and that he would, after all, give us a media discount, and throw in a few “freebies” for tasting purposes. We ended up leaving with six bottles after originally thinking we would only buy three (due to price). The strange thing was that when we received our receipt via email a few days later, no discounts of any kind had been applied. I contacted James and he was apologetic and said they would get it sorted out and adjust the bill accordingly. That hasn’t happened yet.

I have an enormous amount of respect for James and Daun and all they’ve accomplished. I only mention this because I feel obliged to be transparent to my readers about the discounts that I may or may not receive. As I said above, I never demand or expect discounts or free product from any winery, distillery or anywhere else when visiting. If I ever do receive any, I always disclose what I received in the post about the visit and in any subsequent reviews. So I feel like I need to disclose all this, in the event that we do end up getting the media discount at some point.

Discount or not, James’s wines are worth every penny we paid for them. We got a great tour, and bought some great wine. A visit to Wyncroft/Marland is highly recommended. It’s a beautiful estate and James Lester is one of the best conversationalists in Michigan wine. Call and arrange your visit today!

Note: All photos by Liz Wright

Cody Kresta Marsanne-Roussanne, 2018

Maker: Cody Kresta, Mattawan, Michigan, USA

Grapes: Marsanne (60%), Roussanne (40%).

Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA.

Vintage: 2018

ABV: 12% (I think)

Purchased for $23 (Michigan by the Bottle wine club)

Appearance: Gold.

Nose: Dried apricot, canned peach, lychee.

Palate: Full-bodied and dry. Fresh apricot, dried mango.

Finish: Dry and a little chewy.

Parting words: Cody Kresta is a winery I need to drink more from. I think one reason I haven’t is that I get it confused with another winery in the same area with a similar name that I visited once and was unimpressed with.

Syrah is one of the best kept secrets of Southwestern Michigan. If quality Syrah can be produced there, then why not Marsanne and Roussanne, the signature white grape varieties of the Northern Rhone valley? Friends of the Blog Domaine Berrien produce a fine Marsanne and have for years, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for Cody Kresta to produce this blend.

They produce it very well. I haven’t had enough white Rhone wine, so I can’t make an informed comparison, but I can say that this is a good wine on its own terms. It a nice change of pace from the unoaked Chards and semi-dry Rieslings that make up the majority of my white wine consumption. $23 is more than fair, factoring in the rarity of this sort of blend in Michigan. Cody Kresta Marsanne-Roussanne is recommended.

Braganini Reserve Trempranillo, 2016

Maker: St. Julian, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA.

Grape: Tempranillo (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $21 (Troy Tasting Room)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Cherry jam, red currants, cedar.

Palate: Medium bodied. Dry but fruity. Red currant jelly, black raspberry, clove.

Finish: Slightly chewy with a tang.

Parting words: Back in July, when we were visiting the Wyncroft/Marland winery and vineyards, I was talking with owner James Lester about some of more unusual European grape varieties that some vineyards have been attempting to grow recently. He mentioned a few varieties that were being grown and expressed skepticism at whether they could successfully be grown in Lake Michigan Shore. I mentioned Tempranillo (primarily grown in Spain, and he said, “Well…actually Tempranillo is grown in the highlands so it can probably do pretty well here.”

Judging by this wine, Tempranillo can indeed be successfully grown in Southwest Michigan. While no one would mistake this wine for a high-end Rioja Gran Reserva, this is a quality wine, roughly equivalent to a Crianza. It’s excellent with beef or rich pork dishes, from braised beef shank to pepperoni pizza. I didn’t notice any drop in quality over the three nights we drank it, either, which bodes well for its cellar life. That said, it’s drinking very well now, so I wouldn’t hold onto it for much longer than another 6 months to a year.

$21 is a fair price for a Michigan Tempranillo, given its rarity and quality. Braganini Reserve Trempranillo, 2016 is recommended.

A Visit to Dablon Vineyards

Disclosure statement: We received a free night in the guest house, and a complimentary wine tasting of just about everything on the menu during our visit.

Back in December of 2020, I received an email from Bill Schopf, owner of Dablon Vineyards (and the Music Box theater in Chicago and Music Box film distributors). He had seen my head-to-head review of Dablon’s 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2Lads’ 2016 Cab Franc and offered to host me in the winery guest house and show me around the place. December of 2020 being December of 2020, I told him I didn’t feel comfortable going there at that time, but I would email him back when I did feel comfortable.

Dablon and da big blue sky

 By mid-May, Liz and I were both fully vaccinated, and things seemed to be settling down for the moment, so I emailed Bill again and took him up on his offer.  We arranged to stay at the Dablon guest house for one night on July 5, as the opening night of our scaled-back 20th anniversary trip.

We arrived at the winery at around 2 pm on July 5.  Bill was at the tasting bar when we arrived, and he promptly gave us a tour along with one other person, Magda, a friend of Bill’s. It was a very hot day by southwest Michigan standards, so we only visited the vineyards right outside of the tasting room, which happened to be planted with Pinot Noir. Later, Liz and I did have a chance to wander through the Cabnernet Sauvignon, though.

Bill stressed the importance of vine density in the vineyard. His Pinot Noir vines are planted about three feet apart, mirroring the density found in many French vineyards. This results in about 2,000 vines per acre, cropped to yield around 3 tons of fruit per acre. All Dablon’s grapes are harvested by hand, which can be a challenge, given the the tight harvest window here in the Wolverine state. That said, trimming and hedging are done mechanically for the Burgundian varieties. All wines produced under the Dablon label are estate grown. The nearly phased out Music Box label is used for wines from grapes that were purchased from elsewhere.

I asked Bill which clones he used for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bill referred us to his winemaker/vineyard manager Rudy Shafer, who responded via email. Out of curiosity I asked about some other varieties as well. Here’s how it breaks down*:  Four out of the five Pinot Noir clones used are from Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The other one (clone 23) is from Switzerland. For Chardonnay they use two clones from California, two from Dijon in Burgundy, and the remaining three are other French clones. For Riesling, Dablon uses all German clones: 3 from the Rheingau, 2 are from Pfalz, and one from the Mosel. All their Cab Franc and half of their Cab Sauv clones are French. The rest of the Sauvignon clones are from Mendoza in Argentina and one is from California.

It was a very hot day by Michigan standards so after showing us the Pinot Noir block, Bill quickly hustled us inside to take a look at his equipment, his winemaking equipment, that is. Bill said he loves technology, and I could tell by the pride in his voice when he ran down the vital stats on everything in the winery proper. He was especially proud of his new bottling machine.

For fermenting the whites, Dablon uses temperature-controlled, Italian-made jacket tanks. According to Rudy Shafer, Dablon has thirty of these tanks ranging from 1500 to 13,000 liters in campacity for a total capacity of 40,000 gallons. All Dablon wines are cold stabilized to reduce the amount of tartrate crystals in the finished product. Personally, I like wine crystals but I’m not in the business of selling wine. Different yeast strains are also used for different varieties.

Dablon almost exclusively uses French oak for their wines that spend time in wood. Bill estimated that less than 2% of their barrels are non-French. “Good for whiskey, not good for wine.” The exception is their forthcoming Tempranillo, with which they’ve been using American oak, since Bill thinks it works better with wines made from that grape.

The highlight of the tour was the wine library, a small room will racks covering the walls and high-top table and chairs in the middle. All the racks are made from the wood of a single ash tree from the property that was cut down shortly after Bill purchased the farm in 2008. It’s a beautiful room, and he said there had been many proposals made there. I assume he meant marriage, but he wasn’t specific.

We then headed back up to the tasting room for a tasting with wine club manager Cassondra Rudlaff. She grew up in the area and was able to give us some nice insights into the state of SW wine and agriculture in general. One issue that came out of my look at the Michigan Craft Beverage Council’s Small Fruit and Hops report back in May was the slow decline of juice grape farming in southwest Michigan. I asked her if she could see SW Michigan grape-growers shifting over the wine grapes entirely (or close to it). She noted that there are geological limits to where good quality wine grapes can be grown, wine juice types can be grown nearly anywhere. She also expressed pessimism on the future of the blueberry industry in the state, which is facing competition from the coasts.

The tasting room itself is beautiful with lots of glass and wood and an open, airy feel. Liz was instantly a fan because of the purse hooks underneath the bar.

Magda also joined us for the tasting. We started with dry white wines, as one does. Cassondra poured all three of us the 2017 unoaked Chardonnay to start and it ended up being everyone’s favorite of the whites. The other stand-outs in that category were the 2017 Eastate White Blend (75% Chardonnay), the 2017 Pinot Gris (oaked, unlike the Pinot Grigio), and of course the 2017 Dry (<1% residual sugar) Riesling.

Next were the 2018 Pinot Noir Rosé and 2018 sparkling Blanc de Blanc. The Rosé was strong, and according to Cassondra there are no plans to make any of other varieties. The Blanc de Blanc was even better. They make it themselves, and it is a money-losing proposition even at $50 a bottle, according to Bill. It’s a matter of “honor” for him, though. I’m with Bill on this. When you can grow Chard of this quality, producing a Blanc de Blanc is the right thing to do.

As good as their whites were, dry reds take up the most space on the Dablon tasting menu. At the time, it listed one Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Carmenere (according to Bill, the Dablon estate is the only place in Michigan where this grape is being grown), two Cabernet Sauvignons, and three red blends. Petit Verdot and Tannat were available by the bottle but not for tastings and large format bottles of the 2016 Syrah and Cab Sauv Reserve are also available for purchase. Older varietal bottlings and an exclusive blend are available through the wine club. A Tempranillo blend was released earlier this year (2021) and a varietal Nebbiolo is planned for release sometime in the next few years, according to winemaker Rudy Shafer.

All of the dry reds we tasted were good. My favorites (earning the coveted ++ mark on my menu), were the 2016 Merlot, 2017 Cab Sauv, and the 2016 Estate Red blend. The Estate Red varies in its composition from year to year. In 2016 it was 59% Cab Sauv, 25% Merlot, 10% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. The constituent wines spend one year in oak separately and then another year together. The 2016 Estate Red Blend sells for $50 a bottle at the winery.

The other dry red blends include Producer’s Cut and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot. The producer’s cut also varies from year to year with regard to grapes and percentages of those grapes. The 2016 we tasted was 45% Cab Franc, 45% Merlot, and 10% Malbec. It sells for $36. The Cab Sauv/Merlot blend is always 50/50, had good acid, and also sells for $36 a bottle.

Dablon produces a limited number of sweet wines. The standouts in that category were the 2018 Traminette, and 2020 sweet Riesling. The only remaining Music Box wine still on the menu was the 2017 Matinee Red, made from the relatively new Arandell variety, a Seyval Blanc descendent created at Cornell University. The grapes were grown in the vineyards of the Nitz family, frequent St. Julian collaborators. Dablon does not produce any fruit or true dessert wines.

After the tasting Cassondra showed us to the guest house. It was a short three-minute walk away, but five to ten minutes by car. (They frown upon driving through the vineyards). I expected a tiny one-room cottage or trailer, but it’s a comfortable, fashionably decorated three-bedroom, three level house with a full kitchen, dining room, patio and a den in the basement. No food or WiFi was provided, but there was an extensive DVD collection (all Music Box films of course). I was too tired to cook anything at the end of the day, so we picked up some grocery store fried chicken and ate it in the dining room.

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we ate a light breakfast and decided to talk a walk along the forest trail next to the house. After a pleasant stroll among the cohosh and ferns, the trailed ended at the top of the huge (by lower Michigan standards) hill that is home to Bill’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a hill made even bigger by dirt excavated from what’s now the wine cellar. We wandered around the vines a bit, taking a few photos and enjoying the beauty of the scene before heading back to pack.

Parting words:

What sets Dablon apart from its peers? A couple things do, in my view. First, their Burgundian-type wines are very good, but Dablon’s overall strength is in age-worthy Bordeaux style reds. This puts them in relatively rare company in Michigan, but what sets them apart from even from the other winemakers  that produce strong is their willingness to experiment with different varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are relatively rare in Michigan, but Malbec, Tannat, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot are almost unheard of. Nebbiolo is only grown one other place in the state to my knowledge, and as noted above Carmenere is probably unique to Dablon. You’re not going to get to taste Michigan Carmenere anywhere other than at Dablon’s tasting room, and varietally bottled Michigan Malbec is nearly as rare.

Future 2021 Pinot Noir.

Second, there’s an independent streak to Bill, and Dablon in general. The winery is not a part of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail or the Michigan Wine Collaborative, so Dablon doesn’t appear on wine trail maps or participate in many Michigan wine events. They’re a little too big to be called a cult winery, but they do have a dedicated group of fans that have sought them out despite their rugged individualism and remain loyal year after year. After this visit, I think Liz and I consider ourselves a part of that group.

What’s the future have in store for Dablon? Besides new vintages of their current line-up, they’re very excited about the upcoming Tempranillo and Nebbiolo releases. According to Rudy, the 2020 unoaked Tempranillo was released in September, with the 2022 vintage due to be released in the summer of 2022. The 2019 Tempranillo blend may be released this November (2021). As for the Nebbiolo: “The 2021 Nebbiolo will be made as a 100% varietal and aged in French oak. We will taste it every few months to determine for how long we age it in oak. It could be as long as four years.”

Our visit to Dablon was a lot of fun and we appreciate Bill’s hospitality, Cassondra’s knowledge and Rudy’s willingness to take time out from harvest to answer my questions after we returned home. If you have to opportunity to take a tour, visit the tasting room or just buy a bottle of their Cab, I highly recommend it!

*Pinot Noir clones: 115, 667, 777, 828, 23. Chardonnay: 17, 96, 41, 76, 70, 69, 72. Riesling:  09, 21, 23, 17, 01, 12. Cab Franc: 12, 04, 214, 13, 11. Cab Sauv: 06, 04, 33, 337, 43, 05.

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!

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.

Cabernet Franc Head to Head: Dablon vs 2 Lads

D= Dablon

2= 2 Lads

Maker

D: Dablon, Baroda, Michigan, USA

2 Lads: 2 Lads, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grape

D: Cabernet Franc (100%)

2: 85% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot

Place of origin (at least 85%)

D: Lake Michigan Shore AVA.

2: Old Mission Peninsula AVA.

Vintage: 2016

ABV

D: 12.7%

2: 13.5%

Purchased for

D: $23 (Holiday Market)

2: $38 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance

D: Dark ruby.

2: Very similar, maybe slightly lighter.

Nose

D: Plum, cedar, black currant

2: More subtle. French oak, cherry

Palate

D: Tart blueberry, red currant, leather.

2: More integrated. Chewy leather, unfoxy table grapes, ripe blueberry.

Finish

D: Drying with oak, a hint of ripe bell pepper.

2: Chewy. Clove, currant.

Parting words: Cabernet Franc is a “Workhorse” grape that does well in a wide variety of climates, particularly in cooler ones like Michigan. Many excellent examples of cool climate Cab Franc (like these two) are made here, in both the northwest and southwest parts of the state. That said, there are some big geological and climatic differences between the northern peninsulas and Lake Michigan Shore.

Although 2016 was a warm vintage and practically every vineyard in Michigan was able to get grapes as ripe as they wanted, I still expected Dablon’s Cab Franc to be riper and more lush, and 2 Lads’ to be more tart. I was surprised to discover that the opposite was true!

Dablon Cab Franc was quite acidic, but not unpleasantly so. 2 Lads was more elegant and subdued, perhaps helped in this regard by the addition of Merlot. The prices on these vary quite a bit, but every price I’ve seen for either has been within an acceptable range. If I had to pick a favorite between them, I’d say it was 2 Lads, but they’re both worth buying. Both go great with food too. They are both drinking well now, but probably wouldn’t come to any harm in another year or two (or more!) in the cellar. Dablon and 2 Lads 2016 Cabernet Francs are both recommended.

St. Julian Albariño/Riesling

Maker: St. Julian, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA

Varieties: Albariño, Riesling

Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA.

Vintage: 2018

ABV: 12.5%

Price: $19

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Meyer lemon, ripe peach, pineapple sage.

Palate: Medium bodied and dry. Pineapple, peach, lemon verbena.

Finish: Talk, a little chalk.

Parting words: There’s not a lot of Albariño being grown in Michigan, but it grows well in its temperate homeland in Northwestern Spain so seems like a perfect fit for our climate. Riesling, we already know, is perfect for our climate. So why not stretch that Albariño with the noblest of grapes?

There’s more than just stretching going on here, though. These two grapes are blended seamlessly into a crisp, dry, but still fruity white wine that is very food friendly. Albariño/Riesling is part of St. Julian’s experimental black label line, but it deserves to be a regular offering. I hope there’s enough Michigan Albariño around to do that!

St. Julian Albariño/Riesling 2018 is highly recommended.

St. Julian Michigan Grappa

Maker: St. Julian, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA

Grape: Traminette

Style: Pomace Brandy

ABV: 40%

Price: $20/375 ml (only available at St. Julian tasting rooms)

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Alcohol, grape stems, white pepper, ginger, violets.

Palate: Full-bodied, semi-dry. Yellow cayenne, pepper melange, lavender.

Finish: Fresh, clean, more lavender.

It’s much drier and spicier than the other grappa

Parting words: One of my common social media rants about the state of craft spirits in Michigan is frustration at the lack of brandy being produced in a state that makes quite a bit of quality wine. Along with Black Star Farms, St. Julian is one of the few wineries in the state actually making brandy. This “grappa” (Italian for pomace brandy) is the best brandy I’ve had from them.

It’s much drier and spicier than the other grappa I currently have open, one from Moscato grapes. It’s good, but Traminette’s spice does wonderful things to this spirit. I like it a lot. It’s my favorite brandy in my current rotation. At $20, it’s an easy buy, too. St. Julian Michigan Grappa is highly recommended.

St. Julian Dry Sparkling Rosé

Maker: St. Julian, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin

Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: NV

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $8 (? Winery tasting room, Troy, Michigan)

Appearance: Orangy pink, effervescent.

Nose: Strawberry, mulberry.

Palate: Fizzy, medium-bodied and mild. White raspberry, mineral water.

Finish: Acid, a little tannin.

Parting words: I recall tasting this wine at the tasting room and I must have liked it a lot since I ended up buying three bottles of it! Oddly, two of those bottles are listed at $8 and one is listed at $14 in my Cellar Tracker account, so I’m not really sure how much I paid.

This is a decent, quaffable sparkling rosé that tastes best when chilled. There’s not much in the way of balance or integration, though, and the palate is a little flat. For $8 (if that’s what I paid for it), it’s fine. At $14, not so much. I’ll err on the side of generosity, though and give St. Julian Dry Sparkline Rosé a mild recommendation.

Note: This wine is no longer on the St. Julian website, but seems to have been replaced by something called Dry Bubbly Rosé. Hopefully the name change means that the wine has been revamped.