Along the Michigan Wine Trail
As a dedicated student of the vine, I often find myself in areas that are off the beaten wine path. Since I live in California, I've explored almost every vineyard region in the state, so whenever I'm away from home I make a concerted effort to see what my new location has to offer. On a recent trip to the Mid-west, I meant to visit the wineries of Illinios, but found myself amongst the vines and corn of Michigan instead. That's right, I said Michigan. (I know. Illinois isn't the first state to come to mind for wine either.)
While California, Oregon and Washington along with New York and to a small degree Texas (you can taste their wines at a bar in the DFW airport) get the bulk of national and worldwide attention almost every state in the union has some acreage under the vine. The reason many of us have never tasted their products is due to outdated and restrictive shipping laws that make purchasing wine across state lines very difficult. Whether you'd actually like a bottle of Chardonnay from Virginia (which has 134 wineries) is a question that will be hard to answer. Unless you find yourself in Virginia.
For myself, I'm willing to try anything once. Most of Michigan's 55 wineries are located in the Upper Peninsula around Traverse City, which was way too far a drive from Chicago our home base. Lucky for us, the Lake Michigan Shore AVA was only about 2 hours away. Seventeen different wineries call this region home, most of them small, family-run businesses. Though there have been vines planted for many decades, the region has grown 60% since 1998. It certainly beats growing corn. Most of the grapes planted produce white wine with the cold-loving Riesling at the top of the list followed by Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are the main red grapes grown with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah not far behind.
We didn't have much time to meander since Michigan is on Eastern Standard Time, causing us to lose an hour the minute we crossed over the border and leaving us confused for most of the afternoon. We were surprised to encounter as many people as we did. Wine tasting is popular everywhere and Michigan is clearly no exception. Apparently over 800,000 people slaked their thirst at a tasting room there last year. A respectable number by any measure and one I was happy to augment. Not only did I add Michigan to my list of states visited (though it was only for 5 hours), I'm the only person I know to have sampled their wines. A small and somewhat dubious accomplishment, but sometimes all you get to take are baby steps.
While most of the tasting rooms aren't super fancy, they are clearly trying to deliver a quality experience. As usual, some of the pourers were more friendly and knowledgeable than others. How people can be cranky pouring wine I'll never understand. I felt naked without my tasting notebook, which usually garners me a bit more attention and respect. Pourers fear the notebook. We made it to Round Barn Winery (nicest tasting room), Free Run Winery (winemaker is the son of Round Barn's owners), Domaine Berrien Cellars (best staff) and Lemon Creek Winery (also a fruit farm).
With the wines priced in the $10-$25 range, it's hard to complain too much about the quality, which was about as good as I expected. Nothing that will knock your socks off, but drinkable nonetheless. If you've ever been to Temecula, California, you'll know what I mean. Plus, except for special bottlings the tastings were free. The white wines definitely came off better than the reds, which for the most part were too thin and under ripe for my taste, except for the few 2005 wines we tasted that had a bit more flavor and finesse due to an extraordinary vintage. The Merlots, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs showed the most promise.
While it may be true that Michigan is along the same latitude as Bordeaux, they have a long way to go to generate that level of distinction. They seem to be doing the right things by planting varietals that like the climate large bodies of water mitigate extremes of weather and make grape-growing possible in cold places so everyone will just have to wait and see how vine age and winemaker experience affects the quality. People were buying it though, which only goes to prove that every wine is somebody's favorite. Would I go back? Absolutely. I only scratched the surface of what this region has to offer and I'm sure with time they will raise the wine bar.
2007 Domaine Berrien Cellars Marsanne ($16) You rarely see this Rhone varietal bottled by itself anywhere and this has to be one of the best I've ever tasted. Yes, I know that's saying a lot, but it was truly a well-crafted, complex and delicious wine that you'd pay twice the price for in California.
2005 Lemon Creek Winery "Snow Moon" Vidal Blanc Ice Wine ($35) The purity of fruit was amazing and even though it was sweet, it had enough acidity to cleanse the palate and immediately make you want more. If you've never had ice wine you are truly missing one of nature's great treats. Wish I could have taken a bottle home, but we weren't checking luggage and that damn airport 3-1-1 rule kept it out of my carry-on.
The best reds were the 2005 Lemon Creek Shiraz, 2006 Domaine Berrien Syrah and the 2005 Free Run Reserve Cabernet Franc, but they didn't exactly justify their $28+ price tags.
TO LEARN MORE: Visit MichiganWines.com