Just around the bend, skirting the tip of Lake Michigan, travelers winding their way north into the state of Michigan expect to see the famed fruit orchards lining the roads spreading out for miles on either side. Imagine you are in a convertible on a Sunday afternoon with the warm sun on your face and shiny red apples, crimson cherries and juicy plums enthusiastically bobble in greeting as the breeze blows effortlessly through their tree branches. Take a few detours off of Highway 94, however, to Union Pier Road, Red Arrow Highway or Lake Street, and you will find a number of micro climates beautifully suited to the production of grapes. These are not the table grape varieties destined for jam; you know the one..it starts with a “W”…, but the kind every hopeful viticulturist and winemaker envision as flowing out of a bottle, a perfect accompaniment to food.
I confess that, until a few short months ago, I had not tasted any wines from Michigan. I have tasted wines from other parts of the Midwest, but with mixed results. Part of the challenge for a wine professional is the ability to stay open-minded when the opportunity to try something new presents itself. Normally, trying something new translates to a wine from a producer, a region or a grape we already know. I am disappointed with some of my colleagues’ dismissive attitudes who automatically assume that outside California, Washington, or Oregon, quality wines are not to be found in the US. I was determined not to be hailed as another wine snob; and so, a very enthusiastic Michigan native convinced me that I need not go far from Chicago to find wines that are indeed not only worth tasting myself, but that others just might enjoy as well.
For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan’s wines, here are a few facts from Michigan’s official wine industry website, http://www.michiganwines.com:
- Michigan has 15,000 acres of vines, making Michigan the fourth largest grape producing state in the nation.
- 2,650 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan the fifth state in wine grape production in the United States.
- Vineyard area has doubled over the last 10 years.
- Michigan’s 101 commercial wineries produce more than 1.3 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan 13th in wine production. The vast majority of production is from Michigan-grown grapes.
- Wineries attract more than 2 million visitors annually
Recently, atop the Willis Tower at the Metropolitan Club, a group of fellow wine lovers spent an evening with Wally and Katie Maurer, owners of Domaine Berrien, and Matt Moersch, winemaker at Round Barn Winery. Both of these wineries are located in the southwest appellation of Lake Michigan Shore.
The Round Barn label has developed several different brands (including a brewery and distillery) with Free Run Cellars representing the premier wine category. First in the lineup, the 2012 Riesling, a 100% varietal wine. The first whiff of fragrant floral and citrus aromas assured me that I had indeed met with a Riesling true to its character. Bright, straw-colored with a tinge of green on the rim, the wine was very clean, dry (.5% residual sugar), a bit broader in style than its German counterparts. The wine making techniques of whole cluster press and stainless steel fermentation at a cool temperature belie the winemaker’s vision of creating a fresh, aromatic style of Riesling with mouthwatering acidity.
The 2012 Gewürztraminer, Fox Hollow Vineyard followed. The word “Gewürz” in German translates to “spice” in English, and, again, after assessing its brilliant appearance, my nose twitched in appreciation of the familiar lychee and rose wood aromas. More golden in hue than its Riesling counterpart, this medium-bodied dry wine certainly dispelled any doubts that Michigan is not capable of producing quality, complex wines.
Finally, the 2011 Cabernet Franc, rounded out the list. The most widely planted red wine grape in Michigan, Cabernet Franc (one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon) manages to ripen in the cooler climate of Lake Michigan Shore and the sandy loam soil native to the area. Matt decided to add 5% Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend which added complexity and color to the finished product. Lighter in color than your Napa Valley counterparts and more like its Loire counterpart, this Cabernet Franc was medium ruby in appearance and was fermented and aged in oak for about 18 months. Black cherry, vanilla and a soft, supple texture invites the imbiber to drink now and enjoy.
Lest I forget, in case you are hankering for a creamy delight, Round Barn makes a DiVine Black Walnut Creme “wine” from grape wine, walnuts and creme. Similar to a Baileys in style, add to a crème anglaise and you have a decadent dessert topping or substitute in your favorite cocktails for a new favorite.
Stay tuned, and I’ll introduce you to Domaine Berrien in my next blog post.