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!

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.

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.

Earnest Dry Cider

Maker: Tandem Ciders, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Apples: Brown Snout, Dabinette, Crimson Crisp, Russet Beauty, Kilcherman Select Penny Blend, Crimson Gold, Swayzee Russet, Harrison, Riene de Pomme, Fameuset, Fameuse, Honey Crisp (according to website).

Place of origin: Leelanau, Old Mission Peninsulas, Michigan, USA.

Style: Dry blend.

ABV: 6.9%

Purchased for $13 (Westborn Market)

Appearance: Dark gold and lightly effervescent.

Nose: Intense. Cut apple wood, sourdough, apple juice.

Palate: Dry and tannic, but juicy. Bitter apple core, freshly pressed apple.

Finish: Dry and clean, with a little astringency.

Parting words: My laptop passed away right before Thanksgiving, so I haven’t been able to post for a few weeks. I appreciate your patience, dear readers!

Anyway, Tandem is one of Michigan’s best cider producers and this is one of their best ciders. It has everything a dry craft cider should have: Fruit, tannin, and yeasty funk. Of those, Tannin is in the lead. It’s never chewy, though, but crisp and a bit woody, although it didn’t spend in time in a barrel as far as I know. It doesn’t clash with food, but it’s better as a sipper than a table cider.

$13 is a good price for a quality dry cider like this. Earnest 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.

Semi-dry Riesling Head to Head: 2017 Shady Lane vs 2017Arcturos

S= Shady Lane, A: Arcturos

Makers

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

A: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Grapes: Reisling (at least 85%)

Places of origin

S: Shady Lane Estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

A: Montana Rusa, Capellla, Leorie vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2017

ABV

S: 10.8%

A: 12%

Price

S: $13

A: $15

Appearance

S: Medium light gold

A: Light gold.

Nose

S: Semi-sweet apple

A: Gravel, peach.

Palate

S: Full-bodied, semi sweet, a little chewy.

A: Full-bodied, drier. Underripe peach.

Finish

S: Sweet and apply.

A: Semi-dry, clean.

Parting words: A few weeks ago, I was perusing my cellar and I discovered I had two or three bottles of Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling and Shady Lane Semi-dry Riesling so I decided to invite friends of the blog Amy and Pete over for some homemade jambalaya and a head to head tasting.

The jambalaya

Everyone seemed to enjoy both of these wines, but Arcturos won the night by a nose, as it were. It’s flinty dryness paired perfectly with the toasty spice of the dish and was a little more balanced and true to type. Shady Lanes’ Semi-dry tasted much more like how I expect a semi-sweet Riesling to taste and was a little chewy (a little lees contact maybe?), not a style that typically does as well with food.

That said, both of these wines are good and worth the price. 2017 Shady Lane Semi-dry Riesling and 2017Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling are both recommended.

If you want to do more comparing, check out my review of the 2017 St. Julian Semi-dry Riesling!

Peninsula Cellars Lemberger Rosé, 2017

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

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

Grape: Lemberger/Blaufränkisch (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room Sipper Club)

Appearance: Dusty pink.

Nose: Strawberry candy, raspberry, cedar, cilantro.

Palate: Watermelon, mineral water.

Finish: Dry and clean.

Parting words: Despite having a fresh new haircut, I have decided to pivot back to text reviews at least for the time being. Video reviews may pop up again from time to time, but text is much better for my erratic summer schedule.

Lemberger is a grape that’s growing in popularity in Michigan due to its affinity for our cool, easy-going climate. My favorites have been ones with enough acid to smooth out the grape’s rustic edges. That makes it a prime candidate for pink wines like this one.

This wine drinks like a typical Michigan rosé, but with some of the rustic character of Lemberger. The only weirdness is the pinch of citrantro at the back of the palate, but that might have just been because of something I ate.

For a high-quality rosé from Peninsula Cellars, $20 is good price. While Riesling will always be first in my heart, dry pink wine is poised to become a Michigan specialty. Get in on the ground floor for this syle and this grape with Peninsula Cellars 2017 Lembeger Rosé. It is recommended.

Hawthorne Gamay, 2016 (review 2)

Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)wp-1578537576438.jpg

Grape: Gamay Noir (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 12.3%

Purchased for $14 (Meijer)

Appearance: Ruby

Nose: Cedar, white pepper, crushed blackberry, blueberry, pomegranate seed, jowl bacon.

Palate: Light bodied. Fruity but semi-dry. Mulberry, raspberry, table grapes, plum.

Finish: A little acid, but mostly tannin and orchard fruit. Fades quickly.

Parting words: I last reviewed this wine over a year ago in September of 2018 when it was around two years old. When I compare those notes to this one, it seems like those months have made a pretty big difference. The wine has deepened and gotten more complex with spice and oak notes getting more prominent. In Beaujolais terms, this wine is moving from out of Fleurie and toward Morgon. I still have one more bottle in my cellar which I plan to open in another year or two to see how it’s changed again!   And the older it gets, the better the price gets. 2016 Hawthorne Gamay is recomennded.

 

Scriptorium Riesling, 2016

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.20191023_205658.jpg

Grape: Riesling (100%)

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

Vintage: 2016

Style: Semi-dry Riesling. Light lees contact.

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $26 (winery)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Lychee, canned pears, gravel, pineapple sage, pinch of epazote.

Palate: Full-bodied and lush. Underripe bartlett pear, mandarin orange, and lemon sherbet but without the sweetness of all those things. A little tarragon too.

Finish: Acid first, then gravel.

Parting words: Scriptorium is a semi-dry Riesling, but it drinks like a lucious late harvest one. There’s a lot of fruit and big acid up front with some minerality and herbs bringing up the rear.

Riesling might not seem to fit the profile of Mari Vineyards at first glance. Mari is known for elegant red blends, especially ones featuring grapes not commonly grown in Michigan like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese (they can grow these grapes because of their nella serra system). Riesling very much fits the profile of Mari winemaker Sean O’Keefe, though. His family founded, and still owns, Chateau Grand Traverse just five miles up the peninsula from Mari. So when he was hired as winemaker at Mari, he knew he had to make Riesling too. It’s in his blood.

I’m very glad it is too. Scriptorium is a wonderful wine that is a bargain at $26. Drink it now or drink it later, but just drink it! 2016 Scriptorium Riesling is highly recommended.