I’m in the home stretch of writing a book which celebrates winemaking and grape growing in all 50 of the United States. During the process, a number of people have asked me which region in the “other 47” (Drink Local Wine.com’s term for winemaking states other than California, Oregon and Washington) I’ve found to be the most exciting.
It’s a tough question, because I’ve found something fascinating about every state, and experienced enological electricity in several regions that I had previously under-rated or was unfamiliar. California is a swell place to buy California wine -- Oregon and Washington bottles, too -- but good luck finding a Texas Blanc du Bois or a Colorado Baco Noir on a store shelf here (I would happily buy them). That’s the problem with the majority of wines produced in the other 47: They are often available only in the other 47.
Small production amounts, state alcohol sales regulations and lack of wholesaler representation leave many of America’s most intriguing wines unavailable to many Americans.
However, Rieslings from the chilly Finger Lakes region in New York State appear to be finally making headway on the West Coast. Eight years or so ago, before direct shipping from New York was legal, no Finger Lakes Riesling producers had distribution in California (although Dr. Konstantin Frank previously had representation and regained it later). Today, half a dozen top-flight Finger Lakes producers have distribution in California, with the result that their laser-focused, energetic wines have become the darlings of sommeliers, critics, savvy consumers and other winemakers. The direct shipping lanes are now open, too.
Regarding the question about which U.S. wine region excites me the most, I can answer if I project which one might be the next Finger Lakes, catching fire with aficionados and broadening distribution so that more Americans can enjoy the wines. Michigan state just might be that place, and to be specific, Old Mission Peninsula in northwestern Michigan. The wine quality is superb, the cold-climate wine styles cannot be produced on the West Coast, and a tight-knit band of seven producers have been positively proactive in marketing OMP in states afar.
Riesling Rendezvous in Woodinville, Washington? The gang was there. The International Alsace Varietals Festival in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley? Check. Outreach to wine and food media outside of Michigan? Ongoing.
The wineries of Old Mission Peninsula are 2 Lads, Black Star Farms, Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Brys Estate, Chateau Chantal, Chateau Grand Traverse and Peninsula Wine Cellars. Their best varieties are Riesling (in several sweetness styles), Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Old Mission Peninsula is a 4-mile by 18-mile finger jutting into Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan. The “major” city is Traverse City, which has become a great food and wine town. The climate is extremely favorable to producing wines, particularly whites, that are crisp and minerally, with assertive natural acidity. Vineyards are surrounded by the East and West Traverse Bays, so the temperatures stay cool in the spring, protecting plants from frosts; summer and fall warm up to ripen the grapes, yet the “lake effect” mitigates potential heat spikes. Snow protects the grapevines in winter, insulating them from freeze injury,
The white varieties, with Riesling being the superstar, are relatively easy to grow on the peninsula, as they ripen earlier than red grapes, which can run out of season before they reach full maturity in colder and/or wetter vintages. The Traverse City region is on the 45th parallel, roughly the same as Germany, so it’s a natural that Riesling and other cold-hardy grapes do well here.
Chateau Grand Traverse, founded in 1974, was the first Michigan winery to go full-speed ahead on Riesling and other vinifera grapes, when it would have been easier -- yet less rewarding to owners the O’Keefe family -- to grow French-American hybrids or the ubiquitous Concord grape sold to Welch’s for juice and jelly.
Today CGT is the third-largest winery, with Sean O’Keefe the small-lot winemaker and head OMP cheerleader. His must-try wines, if you can find them, are the Dry Riesling, Lot 49 Riesling and Laika Grüner Veltliner.
Black Star Farms has two wineries, one on OMP and one on the Leelanau Peninsula. Of its OMP efforts, Arcturos Pinot Gris is remarkably flavorful and with fine palate weight; the Riesling is medium-dry and juicy.
A relative newcomer, Brys Estate Vineyard Winery opened in 2004 and was an instant success. My personal Brys picks are the perfumed Estate Gewurztraminer and fresh, nicely fruity Naked Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir is made in a lean, European style.
The Chateau Chantal Proprietor’s Reserve 2010 Pinot Gris is perhaps the best domestic PG I tasted in 2011. It’s crisp and minerally, with pretty citrus and white peach fruit and admirable richness. Bowers Harbor Vineyards’ Riesling Block II has great verve and tastes bone-dry, with just 12% alcohol. Wish I had a case of it.
Peninsula Cellars’ Pinot Blanc and Manigold Vineyard Gewurztraminer are flagships for this veteran OMP producer. 2 Lads Winery arguably has the most success with red wines of the group; its Cabernet Franc-Merlot strikes a keen balance of ripe fruitiness, firm acidity and polished tannins. The cool growing conditions show in this Euro-like red; the winery is also cool in a contemporary, all glass, metal and concrete architectural way.
Vineyards and tasting rooms are popping up all over Michigan, and increasing tourism is somewhat softening the economic blow to the state’s automobile manufacturing industry. Twelve new wineries opened in 2011, bringing the state total to 89.
Old Mission Peninsula is not alone in the Michigan quality game, although it is the leader in getting more critics and out-of-Michigan event attendees to taste its wines. Leelanau Peninsula, to the west of Old Mission Peninsula (look for wines from Left Foot Charley and L. Mawby Vineyards) and Fennville, southwest of Grand Rapids (Fenn Valley Vineyards & Winery), are winemaking stars as well, with Riesling ruling the roost. Move farther south, almost into Indiana, and one will find Tabor Hill Winery, which produces an excellent Traminette, a close relative to Gewurztaminer that has similar floral aromas and lychee flavors.
Michigan is the ninth-largest wine-producing state in the nation, and Old Mission Peninsula’s bottlings are a micro-drop in that bucket. Yet OMP vintners understand that they are well-positioned to earn the same global recognition that their Finger Lakes peers have won for their wines, and that marketing and distribution are the keys to their success.