Behind America’s Unexpected Cool-Climate Wine Region, Michigan | Wine Enthusiast
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Behind America’s Unexpected Cool-Climate Wine Region, Michigan

It’s true: Michigan can be quite cold. And it’s in the Midwest. These things don’t typically add up to the most friendly environment for growing wine grapes, but the state’s wine industry dates to the mid-1800s.

The longest freshwater coastline in the U.S. stabilizes the climate in Michigan, where most vineyards are located within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. The insulating “lake effect” can extend the cool-climate growing season by up to a month.

Because Michigan is uniquely structured, some members of the state’s wine industry banded together in 2016 to form the Michigan Wine Collaborative (MWC) to ensure their economic and environmental sustainability. The member-driven organization backs research and marketing support with collaborative and educational programs.

In 2016, MWC established The Great Lakes Sustainable Wine Alliance, which connects wineries throughout the Great Lakes region to key resources and a proactive sustainability program.

“Sustainability is always at the forefront of what we do,” says Brian Lesperance, a vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards. In fact, sustainability in the face of climate change is why some industry experts have warmed to Michigan.

Three women standing at a conference, smiling at the camera
Some of the women behind the MWC / Photo courtesy of the Michigan Wine Collaborative

In 2016, the state’s Leelanau Peninsula American Viticultural Area (AVA) was labeled an emerging cool-climate region at the 9th International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, held every four years. In a joint presentation, climatologist Gregory V. Jones and agricultural scientist Hans R. Schultz revealed a study of Leelanau Peninsula’s climate patterns since 1895, which were examined to determine the future potential of the growing region.

“We are in it for the long haul, and recognize the only way that works is to be good stewards of our environment,” says Lesperance. “Because there is so much agriculture in our area, the idea of sustainability is innate.”

There are five appellations in Michigan, each with a slightly different vibe and environment. Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville AVAs are in the southwest corner of the state, above the border with Indiana and directly across Lake Michigan from Chicago. The other appellations are along the northernmost coastline of the mainland: Leelanau Peninsula, Old Mission Peninsula and Tip of the Mitt.

Red wine squirted into a glass on top of a barrel on its side
Tasting red wine straight from the barrel / Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery

Lake Michigan Shore AVA

St. Julian Winery, located in Lake Michigan Shore, is one of the state’s oldest wineries. The family-run operation, originally set up in Windsor, Ontario, moved to its current location in 1936 and was an early adoption of French-American hybrids for dry table wines.

The vice president/winemaker at St. Julian, Nancie Oxley, credits the diversity of more than 40 cool-climate European Vitus vinifera, American Vitus labrusca and hybrid varieties for balancing out wines from vintage to vintage in a region where weather can be highly unpredictable.

“To truly make a difference in a wine region, you must use the fruit in your own backyard,” says Oxley.

Almost ripe green grapes overhanging a vine and trellis
Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley Vineyards

Fennville AVA

Fenn Valley Vineyards doesn’t mince words about its location. It employs the tagline, “The Lake Effect Everyone Loves,” to hint at the phenomenon’s vineyard benefits as opposed to the not-so-lovable whiteout snowstorms it produces.

“Lake Michigan is huge, and as a result, tempers our weather, critical for the vinifera varieties,” says Lesperance. “On any given day, our temperatures will be more moderate as a direct result of the big lake.”

A number of crossed and hybrid varieties thrive in Fennville. “Our maritime climate tends to produce warm days and cool evenings in the heart of the growing season,” says Lesperance, who adds that it provides a natural acidity that helps balance rich fruit flavor.

Woman pouring a sparkling rosé into a flute from a bottle labeled Sex
Pouring Sex at Mawby Sparkling / Photo by Michael Poehlman

Leelanau Peninsula AVA

Compared to its counterpart regions, Leelanau Peninsula experiences a cooler growing season, a later spring and an earlier harvest, which delivers acid-driven wines.

“Although a later ripener, Riesling is the most widely planted wine grape here,” says Peter Laing, co-owner of bigLITTLE Wines and director of operations at Mawby Sparkling, a sparkling wine house that’s found success in cool-climate bubbly. “With climate change and extreme weather events, we are looking at planting more cold- and disease-tolerant varieties for the long term.”

A large machine rolling over vines
Mechanical harvesting / Photo courtesy of Chateau Chantal

Old Mission Peninsula AVA

Kyle Brownley, director of marketing at Chateau Chantal, says Old Mission Peninsula supports 20 grape varieties, which include cool-climate fruit that’s enjoyed success in Germany and throughout Europe.

“[The] area has long been known for producing world-class Rieslings,” he says. “We love that the average wine consumer is familiar with our excellent Rieslings. However, we believe we are making some of the best cool-climate, Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs available.”

Tip of the Mitt AVA

As the newest AVA in Michigan, Tip of the Mitt seeks to build its reputation on lesser-known varieties such as Marquette, Frontenac Gris and La Crescent, according to Dustin Stabile, head of production at Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery. The three hybrids came out of the University of Minnesota’s respected cold-hardy grape breeding program, and are gaining attention for cool-climate stability.

“Tip of the Mitt is bringing new wines, experiences and excitement as the newest AVA in Michigan,” says Stabile.

Person ladling sauce over Patagonian toothfish filet, white plate on a wood table
Thai-Style Chilean Sea Bass / Photo courtesy of Bentwood Tavern

Where to find the wines

The sustainable and local aspect helps place many Michigan wines in front of new consumers, from tasting room visits to fine dining.

“One of the things that attracted me to this region was the growing wine industry,” says Robert Kemper, managing director of Toast Hotel Group, including Bentwood Tavern restaurant in New Buffalo, where local bottlings are featured on the wine list and seminars on state wines are held.

“Our commitment to promoting the wine experience in our area is not just marketing spin,” says Kemper. “We really believe in the connection to the farm and agriculture that it provides.” This sort of collaboration and cross-promotion, along with MWC shared resources, help Michigan producers spread the word that something special is happening in “The Great Lakes State.”

“Rising tides raise all ships,” says Oxley. “Wine connections all over the U.S. have given me the opportunity to get Michigan wines in front of many skeptical people, and most are surprised and impressed by Michigan wines.”