The Wolverine State is sailing toward world-class wine production.
You might not guess that the second-most agriculturally diverse state is Michigan, trailing California. Snow piles high from November to March and winter temperatures can rival those of Antarctica, but the state’s history of apple, strawberry, cherry and Concord grape growing was a hint that Vitis vinifera would thrive, too.
Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, Old Mission Peninsula and Tip of the Mitt
Most of its quality wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan, where day-night temperature swings and late-breaking buds mean appellations ideal for aromatic whites reminiscent of those from Germany and Champagne.
“It’s a different expression, a balance of flavor, sugar and acid in the fruit, and partly what allows us to make interesting wines across the board,” says Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Riesling notable Black Star Farms in Traverse City.
The state’s lauded Riesling owes its start to Edward O’Keefe Jr., founding winemaker and CEO of Chateau Grand Traverse. During the 1970s, he upended a century of sweet-wine production from Concord and French-American hybrid grapes with the first large-scale planting of Vitis vinifera varieties on Old Mission Peninsula.
Michigan Wine Facts
Michigan has 148 wineries
Vineyard area doubled over the past decade
About 3,050 acres of wine grapes planted
Top Grapes: Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling
“All Dad needed to hear was that it wouldn’t work,” says Sean O’Keefe, Edward’s son and winemaker at Mari Vineyards in Traverse City. Sean is among the winemakers that continue to push the envelope via season-extending techniques like hoop houses and novel plantings like Schioppettino and Teroldego, grapes with gritty tannins and aging potential.
To the south, in Fennville, the rolling moraine hills contain glacial soil. Winemakers like James Lester of Wyncroft Wine, whose elegant Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays grow at the 42nd parallel, have established themselves as favorites of Chicago fine-dining icons like Alinea and Parachute.
Wineries to Know
To produce great wine here isn’t easy. Unpredictable weather demands intimate vineyard knowledge and the litheness of an “army medic,” says Sean O’Keefe. Climate change threatens to make crop-obliterating phenomena like polar vortices into semi-regular events.
“We’ve been on the cusp for three to five years now,” Lutes says. “Mother Nature willing, in the next five or 10, we could be on the verge of struggling to make enough wine to meet demand.”