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Northern Michigan winemakers hunt for a signature grape

Photo courtesy of Michigan Wines

Michigan’s wine grape acreage has doubled over the past decade, and many say the quality of Michigan wine has also grown dramatically.

But to uncork a young wine region’s fullest potential, you need something more… you need a signature grape.

And there’s debate among winemakers in northern Michigan as to whether that’s been discovered yet.

Think of Champagne, France – and immediately sparkling wine comes to mind. Napa Valley is known for warm-climate reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

And though the northern Michigan wine regions are not even 50 years old, there is already a stand-out grape, as some customers told me recently in the Traverse City tasting room of Left Foot Charley.

Customer One: “My impression is that the Riesling is the signature grape, but I see them growing amazing wines out of all the whites right now.”

Customer Two: “Yeah, the Riesling, definitely, and the cherry wines.”  

But winemaker Jay Briggs of 45 North in Lake Leelanau says the Riesling may not end up as the region’s signature at all.

This is a young wine region. So, he says, let’s not rush into anything.

"We're almost like a teenager in the whole wine arena worldwide. So having a signature grape right now is kind of like choosing your whole career when you're 15 years old."

“We’re almost like a teenager in the whole wine arena worldwide. So having a signature grape right now is kind of like choosing your whole career when you’re 15 years old,” says Briggs.

The Riesling is a white, northern European grape, and often, it makes a rather sweet wine.

Briggs says a lot of winemakers actually prefer the drier Rieslings. But those are harder to sell to customers.

“I think that’s a big downfall, is that the quality Riesling isn’t what people are really looking for,” he says.

An upside to the Riesling – when grown here – is that it develops a flavor unique to the region.

Winemakers say it’s a special grape that way; very sensitive to the dirt, or terroir.

So – don’t discount the Riesling – says Left Foot Charley’s Bryan Ulbrich. But it’s also popular elsewhere – and that means there’s a lot of competition.

Maybe the Pinot?

Among others, Ulbrich is watching the Pinot Blanc.

He says, like the Riesling, it tastes different when grown here… fruitier.

“They stand out in the world of Pinot Blanc. And it will change perceptions of the grape variety. And that kind of gives some good indications that maybe we’re onto something with this grape,” he says.

At the tasting room of Brys Estate, the Pinot Blanc is growing in popularity with customers.

Behind the scenes, winemaker Coenraad Stassen agrees the grape has some promise for northern Michigan. But Stassen says not to rule out the reds.

Maybe the Cabernet Franc, he says. Again, there’s less competition.

“We have to establish ourselves with a specific variety and do that better than any other place in the world, if we want to be taken serious(ly).”

Michigan wines competing globally

But other vintners say the region is already doing that.

Just down the road, behind the tasting room at Chateau Grand Traverse, a bottling factory does 4,000 cases a day… a thousand a week just to Southeast Michigan.

Ed O’Keefe Senior was the guy who started it all on Old Mission Peninsula in 1974.

“We sell to Japan, China, Germany and the Cayman Islands. (Does) that surprise you? We have a big market in China,” he says.

He’s banking on the Riesling. Look around – he says – customers are buying. And so are judges.

“The one we did in England, for example, where we entered that contest – there were 10,000 entries, 40 countries and we took best in class for Riesling. That’s Michigan. I don’t think people know that,” says O’Keefe.

What do you think Michigan's signature wine grape should be? Tell us in the comments section below.

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