Whites form the backbone of the Northern Michigan wine industry—the climate in Northern Michigan is generally considered to favor the production of whites, and the quality bottled in Leelanau County and on Old Mission Peninsula attests that judgement. Learn about Northern Michigan white wines—what to try, where to buy—with the following guide designed for the informed oenophile.
Northern Michigan Riesling
The hallmark variety grown in Northern Michigan is riesling: this German import is notably terroir-expressive, meaning that slight differences in seasonal growth conditions are magnified in the taste of the wine. Leelanau County and Old Mission Peninsula are special because of their numerous micro-climates, which ultimately inflect the wines produced in these regions. Slight temperature differences or a prevailing breeze—though barely noticeable—are nevertheless influential. Discovering how these differences are expressed in the wine—and how to best manipulate those discrepancies—is the job of Northern Michigan’s experienced winemakers. While most Northern Michigan rieslings stray to the sweet side, other styles like semi-dry and dry are widely available, if a little less well known. Follow the links below to learn more about Northern Michigan riesling:
- Wine Scholar Stuart Pigott Schools Us on Northern Michigan Riesling
- The Spectrum of Northern Michigan Rieslings
- Left Foot Charley’s Brian Ulbrich on Northern Michigan Riesling
- Producing Riesling in Northern Michigan
Winemakers from Chateau Grand Traverse discuss riesling:
Northern Michigan’s cold winters (and often, freezing falls) do, in fact, have an advantage: ice wine. By letting grapes linger on the vine long after autumn’s harvest, vintners push winemaking to its chemical limit by pressing frozen grapes. With the grape’s natural flavors undiluted by excess water (which, remember, is now ice inside the grape), the resulting wine is sweet, flavorful and, according to vintner Alan Eaker, something close to the nectar of the gods. Learn more about ice wine by following the link below:
Made from grapes that might otherwise produce both whites and red—from chardonnay to pinot noir—sparkling wines come in a variety of styles. Learn more from the following links, and watch winemaker Charlie Edson explain the science of sparkling wine below:
- Interview with Charlie Edson of Bel Lago Vineyards
- Interview with Northern Michigan’s Sparkling Wine Warrior, Larry Mawby
Chardonnays and Beyond
Beyond riesling, other acidic, fruit-forward white varieties have large stakes on Northern Michigan vineyards. Chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc are offered by many vineyards, while other, more obscure varietals like Grüner Veltliner and gewürztraminer are becoming increasingly popular. Follow the links below to get the skinny on “the other” white varieties:
Chardonnay: this popular and versatile variety is grown across the globe, and is the second only to riesling in production at Northern Michigan vineyards. Expect flavors of apples, citrus, pineapple and other fruit. May be oaked or unoaked.
- Owner of Leland’s Verterra Winery Talks Northern Michigan Chardonnay
- 5 Northern Michigan Chardonnays
Pinot Blanc: Close to chardonnay, but not quite—pinot blanc is lighter and softer in the mouth, making it a very drinkable summer wine. As with chardonnay, expect flavors of apples and citrus.
Pinot Gris: Also known as pinot grigio for those who prefer Italian to French, pinot gris tends to be more intense than the highly palatable pinot blanc, and can fight its way through more flavorful foods. Look for flavors of citrus and melon.
Sauvignon Blanc: A recent transplant to Northern Michigan, find sauvignon blanc in a few blends and even fewer varietal bottlings in Northern Michigan, including those from Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay and Gills Pier near Northport.
Grüner Veltliner: Popular in Austria, this newcomer to Northern Michigan has found a home at Chateau Grand Traverse (their “Laika” bottling is a grocery store stud) and Chateau Fontaine on the Leelanau Peninsula. Minerally, fruity, sometimes on the verge of spicy, Grüner Veltliner pairs well with strongly flavored foods.
Gewürztraminer: The intensity of this wine’s fruity aromas translates to the palate where they are offset by startling spiciness, bright acid and a sometimes oily viscosity. While it favors cool climates, gewürztraminer has high potential sugar and a propensity for late-ripening, making it one of the last varietals to be harvested in October. This varietal is becoming more and more popular in Northern Michigan: find it at Bel Lago and Brys Estate and Forty-Five North, among others.
- Northern Michigan Gewürztraminers (from 2011)
Bianca: A rare varietal, indeed. Chateau de Leelanau inherited a small plot of this Hungarian grape, and are the only producers in Michigan to bottle it. Read more about bianca and Chateau de Leelanau in an interview with the winery’s Matt Gregory.
Among the first grapes planted in Northern Michigan were white hybrids. These varieties are cross-breedings of the Eurasian Vitis vinifera plant (the parent species of the traditional wine varieties like riesling and merlot) with other, hardier grapevine species like Vitis rupestris, Vitis riparia or Vitis labrusca—all of which are native to North America.
In colder climes, Vitis vinifera doesn’t fare well. The buds on these plants tend to wither away at around -10 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which barely raises an eyebrow during a typical Northern Michigan winter. The winter of 2013-2014—with its recurring polar vortices and perpetually frigid temps—caused reported grape losses of about 80% in some plots. Hybrids, however, can reliably produce fruit after the nastiest of winters, making them a nice insurance policy next to relatively riskier traditional varieties.
Grapes with names like vignoles, seyval blanc or aurore are all hybrids used to make white wine, and they may all show up on white blends—or in rare cases varietal bottlings. Check out Boskydel Vineyard for a rock solid vignoles or seyval blanc varietals.