Courtesy of Mari Vineyards

A little region best known for cherries, sprawling sand dunes, massive blue lakes, and bucolic scenery may just be America’s next great wine touring region.

Julie H. Case
November 27, 2018

In northwest Michigan, where sand dunes tower above massive lakes and sweet cherries dangle from boughs, vineyards also string across hilltops. For years, two wine regions have been quietly excelling in the United States’ most underrated field of wine: cool-climate winemaking. Long under the radar, Michigan is finally beginning to take its place among the top emerging wine regions to watch. As it turns out, northwest Michigan — "Up North," as the locals call it — has a great wine scene, innovative winemakers, and a beautiful landscape, too. 

Michigan — which currently ranks sixth in the U.S. in wine grape production — is home to five American Viticultural Areas, or designated grape growing regions. In the southwest corner, with roughly 20 wineries, is the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, which also includes the Fennville AVA. At the top of the lower peninsula is the new "Tip of the Mitt" AVA, with about five percent of the state’s grape acreage. 

Then there are the two AVAs that are most worth traveling for, both set on peninsulas flanking Traverse City — some five hours northwest of Detroit; six hours northeast of Chicago; and due east of Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Bay. To the west of Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsula juts fingerlike into Lake Michigan. To the east, the Old Mission Peninsula splits Grand Traverse Bay in half. Combined, the two are home to 35 wineries, grow nearly 55 percent of the state’s wine grapes, and some of the most picturesque wine touring in the United States.

Where else can you stand in a vineyard, gaze out across a sea-sized lake, and sip on sparkling wine? 

Though set along the famous 45th Parallel — which also runs through Piedmont in Italy and the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France — both the peninsulas shine for cool climate winemaking styles and grape production. Think crisp Rieslings, bright Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay that make for bubbles that sparkle. What makes this region so good for quality grapes? Just three miles apart at their nearest point, the proximity to Lake Michigan tempers weather for each peninsula in unusual ways: it provides excessive snow (versus just freezing temperatures) which protects vines in winter. Come spring, the lake effect helps delay bud break, preventing damage to the buds when warming temperatures suddenly dive. And, it extends the overall growing season by as much as a month, which allows for full ripening. 

Another reason these peninsulas are worth a visit: wineries there are branching out into new territory, experimenting with varietals and techniques previously rare in Michigan. The wine regions around Traverse City are Riesling heaven; cold winters and comparatively cool summers help whites keep their acidity, yet long daylight hours in summer allow grapes to build sugar. Lately, there has also been a boom in sparkling wine production in the area.

You can see the depth and breadth of the region’s winemaking by touring the two winemaking regions on either side of Traverse City, the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. For a scenic Michigan wine tour, head to the gorgeous Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, home to dozens of wineries, plus quaint fishing towns and miles of beaches. Arrive — by car or via a flight into the region’s Cherry Capital Airport — and you can spend full days touring wineries, and stopping for a swim along the way. (Or lighthouse views. Or leaf tours in the fall. Or smoked fish in old shanty towns.)

Here’s where to drink, what to eat, and the best places to check out the scenery in between.

Courtesy of Black State Farms

Leelanau Peninsula: Sand Dunes, Smokehouses, and Bubbles

West of Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail offers three different tasting routes and is home to a total of 25 wineries. 

West and North

The wine trail's Sleeping Bear Loop stretches from the western edge of South Lake Leelanau to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 450-foot high sand bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, and north to the area surrounding the town of Leland. Here, perched above serpentine South Lake Leelanau, is the charming 30-year-old Bel Lago, where they grow 100 varieties, but focus on cool-climate varieties — Auxerrois (a lesser known French variety), Chardonnay, and Riesling in three styles included — and also an ice wine, when the season permits. From Bel Lago, roll to the northern end of Lake Leelanau for a visit to Laurentide, where, in keeping with what the region has long done best, they focus to near exclusivity on whites — Pinot Gris, Fumé Blanc, and Riesling included. 

It’s just a short jaunt to the quaint village of Leland, home of the 34-year-old eponymous wine festival, and the site of Fishtown, where wooden fisherman-style shacks cluster at the edge of Lake Michigan sending plumes of smoke into the crisp air. Lunch on smoked whitefish, a delicacy here, before heading north, where 10 other wineries dot the landscape between M-22 north and south. 

Northeast to South

Across the Peninsula, outside of Suttons Bay, off of M-22 south, bottles hang from trees at Black Star Farms, with perfect pears, like ships in bottles, sprouting within. In the spring, bottles are placed over the pear buds in the orchard. At harvest time, the bottles — now with fully grown pears inside — are filled with pear brandy from the same vineyard. Beyond spirits, though, Black Star is dedicated to wine — and especially whites — and the Arcturos line regularly produces some of Michigan’s best wines, from multiple types of Riesling to Chardonnay. 

Farther south still is Mawby. Mawby set the standard in the region for sparkling wines, and it remains their focus to this day. While they started out with table wine, in 1984 founder Larry Mawby, believing the cool climate would be perfect for sparkling wine, began producing a cuvee brut in the traditional style, méthode champenoise, or fermented in bottle. By 2000, he had discontinued still wines, and focused exclusively on sparkling. Today, Mawby produces Blanc de Blancs, Cremants, Brut Rosé, and more. 

Making just 5,000 cases per year, Shady Lane focuses largely on cool climate wines. Fall or winter, you can visit their tasting room inside a restored fieldstone chicken coop; come summer, the winery serves up everything from Grüner Veltliner to Gewurztraminer in their covered outdoor tasting pavilion.

Courtesy of Shady Lane Cellars

Old Mission: Lighthouses, Orchards, and Pinot

Roll through the hilly orchards and farmlands of the Old Mission Peninsula on M-37, but plan on stopping en route. Farmstands sprout along the roadsides offering everything from cherries to apples, and, of course, pumpkins in fall. 

Michigan’s first large-scale planting of European vinifera grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling — versus native grapes or hybrids, were planted on the Old Mission Peninsula in 1974. Today, its nine wineries also grow Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In addition to making dry and still wines, several of the nine wineries here also make sparkling and ice wines. 

South to North

The newest tasting room on the Old Mission Peninsula belongs to an older winery: Mari Vineyards first planted grapes in the area in 1999. The sprawling winery itself opened in 2016, boasting the area’s first extensive underground wine cave. Today, Mari produces some classic Italian varietals, as well as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. 

Chateau Grand Traverse, among the region’s oldest wineries and largest producers, still cleaves to varieties that thrive in cooler climates, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot and Gamay Noir. 

Beyond just grapes, lavender flourishes at Brys Estate, set just one mile from — and overlooking — the East Bay. They produce everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Gewürztraminer in whites, and four reds: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and a Cabernet-Merlot blend. 

From atop Chateau Chantal’s 65-acre estate, watery vistas abound. Both the Grand Traverse East and West Bays fill the horizon. In addition to the local wines, which range from very dry to lightly sweet as well as an eau de vie made from Michigan cherries, Chateau Chantal also produces a Malbec sourced from their Argentina estate. 

Near the very tip of the Mission Peninsula is the outlier, the über-modern 2 Lads Winery. In addition to sustainable practices and views of the East Bay, 2 Lads brings a focus on cool climate reds — Pinot Noirs, especially — and sparkling wines. 

Beyond them all, past the acres of grapes and hilltop wineries, stands the now decommissioned Old Mission Lighthouse — where, in addition to hiking and picnicking, it’s also possible to sign on for a one-week stint as the keeper. Perhaps the perfect way to detox after a long weekend of everything from bone-dry bubbles to ice wine. 
 

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