Northern Michigan: Fresh and Expressive Cool Climate White Wines
Near the Canadian border in the Midwest, sits a region uncharted and vibrant making world class white wines. Northern Michigan offers an oasis of opportunity for grape growers and winemakers to create truly distinct wines that reflect its unique climate and terroir. The region benefits from the moderating temperature effects of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, keeping the grapes dormant later into the spring resulting in a growing season occasionally into late October. The “Lake Effect” –as it is commonly referred to– creates an agricultural oasis that stretches up to ten miles inland from the respective bodies of water. The snow the region gets during the winter helps to blanket and protect the vines.
From a terroir perspective, Northern Michigan has hillsides often with sandy loam soils, providing great drainage. That being said, grape growers are forced to consider every aspect of a site before planting or replanting a vineyard as the weather can pose key challenges for vineyards as parcels tend to be smaller in size compared to California for instance.
Within the cool climate of Northern Michigan, you tend to have raw fruit that maintains a higher level of acidity that can often be lost in warmer regions giving these wines a freshness factor, typically resulting in white wines that have lower alcohol, higher acid, brighter fruit and a nice floral profile.
The region is in its infancy going back about 50 years and mainly consists of small producers and family wineries. This piece touches upon several of those vintner and winemaker journeys as well as their goal to make high quality white wines that showcase the region.
Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery
Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery was originally established by partners Charlie Edson, his wife Amy Iezzoni and her parents Domenic and Ruth within south Lake Leelanau, the heart of the Leelanau Peninsula. The key driver was a profound interest in viticulture as well as the science and artistry that goes into winemaking. Leelanau Peninsula provides that bucolic backdrop of beautiful lakes, wooded hillsides and spectacular sand dunes.
In 1987, they planted their first one-acre vineyard on the family farm, which was several different varieties and clones to learn what might fare well on the Leelanau Peninsula. In 1995, they added North Farm, now called Moreno Vineyard in honor of their long time vineyard manager, Tomas Moreno, Sr. They added an additional 28 acres of grapes to include nearly 100 varieties. Bel Lago was a pioneer and early adopter helping to pave the way for determining what grapes were optimal for the soil, topography and climate conditions of the region.
“The name Bel Lago means beautiful lake in Italian. Dom [Domenic] was the grandson of an Italian merchant and grew up making wine with his father in New York,” said Charlie. “Our focus has been on making wines with grace, balance and substance from the place that is Leelanau.”
In 2018, Bel Lago Vineyards was sold to the Heekin family. John and Lynn Heekin also acquired French Valley Vineyards resulting now in over 50 acres of planted grapes. Charlie would stay on as part of the team maintaining that level of consistency and quality customers have come to expect.
Bel Lago makes white wines with a focus on emphasizing vibrant aromatics and textural components consistent with the varieties. Auxerrois is one of their unique signature offerings which they offer both in dry and sparkling versions.
Their wines present very differently based on the fermentation and winemaking strategies. The Brut Auxerrois Sparkling wine is crisp and bright, made from grapes picked earlier. The Brut Auxerrois relies on CO2 to drive the aromatics while the unoaked version is picked later and features a richer, broader flavor profile than the Brut. The dry Reserve Auxerrois benefits from up to two years in neutral oak barrels with the goal of not extracting oak flavor, but rather providing an additional layer of complexity and richness.
“Bel Lago was one of the first wineries in the country to grow and bottle this exquisite Alsatian varietal, Auxerrois,” said Charlie. “In Alsace, they consider Auxerrois mainly a blending grape, primarily due to its propensity to drop acidity as it ripens. However, on Leelanau Peninsula, Auxerrois holds onto its acidity while retaining the beautiful flavors that make it such an attractive variety.”
In 1983 Bob and Nadine Begin purchased a 65-acre cherry farm located in the Old Mission Peninsula. Their dream was to bring European style hospitality to the region. In conjunction with setting up a bed and breakfast, they planted a vineyard as well, starting with Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. For the region, it was the first of its kind melding that agritourism experience of lodging and wine tourism.
“Being located in the overall tourism destination that is Traverse City, provides a great opportunity to build local food and experience connections. With about 50% of our wine sold through the retail tasting room and 50% in distribution, we play in both markets,” said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal.
Chateau Chantal’s approach to viticulture with their white wines is to anticipate a short season, but when a long one comes you tend to see more ripeness in those vintages. The area is known for distinct bright aromatics that are driven by sandy sites that are on glacial moraines, the result of a glacial recession. It is tough to compare the viticulture to an old world region as the vineyards are distinct. They share similarities to Alsace and Alto Adige, although the flavors are slightly different.
For Chateau Chantal, dry white wines provide a great framework for their business because of their acid backbone and light tannin structure while remaining food friendly. “The nature of vintage variation here is very exciting because these wines dislike the typical boring consistency of hot places that grow them that can fall flat or be almost salty from the constant Tartaric adds to maintain acidity,” said Brian Hosmer, winemaker at Chateau Chantal.
Their Pinot Grigio is unique in that it has an aromatic uniqueness not often seen in this variety pushing out peach and light floral notes. The Rieslings tend to show an interesting progression from youth as they can go from tight and crisp to more green apple flavors and peach dominant as the wines age in bottle. “The terpenes are always present, but really take time to come to the fore because of the expressive nature of the temperate fruit notes, “said Brian
Black Star Farms
Established in 1998, Black Star Farms has been producing wines from both Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. Originally established by four partners, the venture has changed over the years as several partners have bought each other out, but the focus has remained consistent, creating a destination experience, growing high quality grapes and creating fantastic wines.
As part of the venture from the early onset, Lee Lutes has played a pivotal role in helping to build and expand the winery. A self taught winemaker with a finance degree–, Lee got his start working in New York City for a wine importer while making small amounts of wine on the side. He caught the wine bug and had the opportunity to apprentice as an assistant winemaker at Abbazia di Vallechiara in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Many Italians claim the harvest he worked in 1992 was the worst in 50 years. Eventually, he came back to Michigan and ultimately joined the team at Black Star Farms.
Black Star Farms is unique in that the winery is a separate entity from the main farm, which manages hotel, food and beverage under an umbrella of different hospitality as well as agriculture functions. To be a partner in the wine venture, the prospective person must grow grapes. For growers who do not have access to a production facility, it represents a great opportunity to be part of a team with a great track record both from a business and quality perspective.
For Lee, it is about crafting dry white wines where the acid gives the palate both length and richness striving for perfection. They celebrate each vintage– in a good warm year the wines are more complex and slightly broader wines. Cooler vintages are simpler and more oriented toward quicker release at a lower price point. A milder growing season provides many opportunities to showcase the maximum flavor profile of the fruit.
They make a Pinot Blanc, which is a great representation of what Northern Michigan has to offer. Their Pinot Blancs get better with age after five to ten years in bottle as the acid keeps the pH levels low resulting in the wines softening with time and more fruit coming forward.
White Wines in Northern Michigan– Next Steps…
The region will continue to have a unique expression of white varieties as climates like Northern Michigan have opportunities to present styles with lower alcohol, higher acid, brighter fruit and a unique floral profile. Lee sees the market footprint expanding, but not massively as the raw acreage for grape growing is not available. Grapes are competing with other significant crops and the cost barrier to entry is significant. One bad cold snap can decimate an entire vintage as the region anticipates one major event every ten years. The region is always going to have a unique expression of white varieties and as climate change continues to impact the world, Northern Michigan will continue to be an attractive place to grow grapes.
“I see Michigan continuing to propel itself on the world wine scene as we learn more about what varieties work best in our region,” said Marie-Chantal. “The future holds a lot of unknowns, but the wine industry continues to collaborate and work toward more recognition and growth for our world class wines.”
Disclosure: The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives was provided from wineries or importers for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative and unbiased reporting.
Chateau Chantal 2020 Proprietor’s Reserve Riesling- Lovely floral aromatics on the nose with flavors of green apple, pear and a touch of grapefruit. Nice acidity while showing great balance.
Chateau Chantal 2019 Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay- citrus aromatics with flavors of
orchard fruit and honey. A long gentle finish maintaining fruit flavors while showcasing restraint.
Chateau Chantal 2020 Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Gris- flavors of pears, apple and a hint of pineapple with a clean, crisp lingering finish.
Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery 2018 Auxerrois Reserve- melon and mango flavors with an earthy, musky aromatic profile. Extreme balanced with a rich and luscious mouthfeel.
Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery 2018 Auxerrois, Moreno Vineyard- on the palate flavors of caramel, tangerine and orange. Crisp and bright with a refreshing finish.
Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery 2019 Sparkling Auxerrois- flavors of bananas and with apples with beautiful floral and creamy notes showcased by a nice, weighted structure and balance.
Black Star Farms 2020 Chardonnay- creamy flavors of key lime pie, apple and melon. Nicely balanced with acidity while maintaining bright flavors on the finish.
Black Star Farms 2020 Dry Riesling- fresh and vibrant with fruit flavors of green apple, lime and a little bit of honey.
Black Star Farms 2019 “Arturos” Pinot Blanc- flavors of citrus, apple and pear. This wine shows great minerality and nice acidity.