Learn about one of Northern Michigan wine’s signature varietals, riesling, then wind your way through the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. The following essay was first featured in the September 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

A drive along M37 or M22, the stunning arteries that trace the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, reveals a universe of green-gold riesling clusters hanging in acres of vineyards on rolling hills. Come September, wine grapes have shifted their energies from growing to ripening. Sugars compound, acids convert, and the eventual character of this year’s riesling crop coalesces in the chemistry of millions of juicy green globes growing on the surrounding hillsides.

Riesling, considered one of the seven noble vitis vinifera (read wine grapes) has helped establish Northwest Michigan as a wine region of global significance and serves as the economic and symbolic backbone of our blossoming local wine culture. The grape’s cold-hardiness allows it to thrive in our maritime microclimates, and riesling’s chameleonic expression of soil types and winemaking styles allows it to communicate an electric spectrum of flavors and food pairings unmatched by other wines. As September ushers in the peak season for vineyard harvest and tasting room visitors, we explore the golden soul of local riesling and discover why it’s the go-to grape for geeks, gastronomes and all kinds of Northern Michigan wine lovers around the planet.

wine rielsing grapesRiesling’s provenance rises from Germany’s Rheingau region, where the grape has been cultivated since the 15th century, but it was Ed O’Keefe, local oeno-maverick and founder Chateau Grand Traverse, who first planted riesling vines on the Old Mission Peninsula in the 1970s. Prehistoric glaciation that carved the deepwater trenches of East and West Grand Traverse Bays created a thermal utopia for viticulture on the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, moderating temperature in both warm and cold months. A shallow soil substrate of glacial till mixing clay, loam and gravel transmits nutrients to the vines, while the underlying sand provides excellent drainage and forms hillsides that make for optimal elevation and sun exposure. The particulars of our weather and geology are components of the local Northern Michigan terroir, an abstract albeit widely accepted French concept that asserts wine conveys a distinct sense of the locale that gives it birth.

The places where riesling grows in Northern Michigan are certainly essential to its appreciation and burgeoning popularity. “We want people to experience our region up here,” says Sean O’Keefe, riesling fanatic and second generation winemaker at Chateau Grand Traverse, “see the water, see the hills and drink these rieslings alongside the fruit from our orchards and the fish from our lake.” Vine-studded hillsides rise along the side of curvy country highways in Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties, interrupted by apple and cherry orchards, stands of mature hardwoods, sprawling hundred-year-old farmhouses and the omnipresent azure horizon of Lake Michigan.

Stopping off to taste at Brys Estate on Old Mission’s bucolic Blue Water Road, the line blurs between wine and place as a dry riesling’s crispness speaks to the early autumn breeze, and its effusive aromas of ripe apple and pear echo the fragrant fruit-laden orchards abutting the vineyard land. Sit down to dinner at Bistro FouFou in downtown Traverse City and witness the natural magic of sautéed walleye with local fennel and lardons played against the fresh lemony notes of Bowers Harbor Vineyards Smoky Hollow Riesling.

So riesling is bright and beautiful and tastes like a travel brochure for the Grand Traverse region, but it’s the stylistic scope of the Northern Michigan wine, the unrivaled range of bone dry to intensely sweet, that turns regular folk into riesling zealots. A late-ripening grape, riesling is capable of producing naturally high levels of both sugar and acidity, a duality that gives the wine balance and longevity. The degree-days over the course of a growing season determine the development of acids and sugars, with cooler years yielding lean high acid wines and warmer years producing richer wines with more sugar and higher potential alcohol.

Racy dry riesling wines represent grapes that were picked earlier and retain more malic acid (also responsible for the tartness in green apples). Viscous, honeyed late-harvest rieslings, like the enigmatic and oft-coveted ice wine, are made from grapes left to hang into December. The Northern Michigan winter freeze concentrates the grape sugars and they become shriveled amber shadows of those juicy round October fruits. To lock in the sugar level of a particular riesling, vintners chill the wine to arrest alcoholic fermentation once it reaches the desired sweetness. Chateau Grand Traverse’s O’Keefe and other winemakers maintain that the sweet spot, or maybe the not-so-sweet spot, for Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula rieslings is in the medium-dry range between 0.8 percent and 1.5 percent residual sugar. This range avoids the occasional bitterness that can result from the uneven ripeness of early harvesting, allows the aromatic and textural nuances of the wine to shine and is delightfully versatile when paired with food.

With a flavor range spanning the spectrum between citrus peel and stewed apricots and innumerable iterations of sweetness and texture, Northern Michigan riesling can be rightly dubbed the ultimate food wine. The surging popularity of dry and medium-dry riesling is intrinsically linked to the current American food revolution, where the noble grape has found a delicious symbiosis with the noble pig, riding its own wave of popularity. Duroc, Berkshire, Mangalitsa, pick your heritage pork, put it in a roasting pan, sous vide machine or sausage grinder with almost any alchemy of seasonings and you’re guaranteed there’s a riesling to go with it. “Riesling and pork were made together in heaven,” says O’Keefe, whose wines (along with those by other riesling star vintners like Left Foot Charley’s Bryan Ulbrich and Chateau Fontaine’s Shawn Walters) are well represented on local wine lists and in iconic temples of Midwest gastronomy, like Chicago restaurants Publican, Avec and Vie among many others.

Take the pig out of the picture though and riesling’s still got plenty of pairing love left for complex international cuisines that might confound other wines. Drink a medium dry riesling like the Two Lads Fouch Vineyard with sushi and dashi-based ramen dishes. Pour a medium sweet wine like the late harvest rieslings from Blustone or Verterra with Korean barbecue and kimchee or a not too fiery red Thai curry. Cream sauces? Veal sweetbreads? Stinky cheeses? No problem, Northern Michigan riesling’s got you covered.

Chateau Grand Traverse Talks About Rieslings:

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Battling itself out of the blue-bottle stigma of yester-century’s insipid sweet schwag, riesling, more importantly Northern Michigan riesling, has scraped up some serious street cred from the international wine press. Highly respected wine critic Jancis Robinson gave her first shout-out to Northern Michigan riesling with resounding praise for Chateau Grand Traverse’s Lot 49 Riesling. British-born and Berlin-based riesling guru Stuart Pigott was recently on American Public Radio’s heavily syndicated Splendid Table show singing the praises of Old Mission Riesling. Local winemakers from both peninsulas have swept some mighty shiny international prizes, like The Jefferson Cup that went to Left Foot Charley’s Seventh Hill Riesling and the prestigious John Rose Award that Chateau Fontaine’s Dan Matthies scored two years in a row, beating out rieslings from all over the world.

“I’m just a winegrower from Northern Michigan, but walking into that room I felt like Mick Jagger,” said Matthies, thinking back to when he received his award. Matthies just completed a tour of German vineyards in the Rheingau, where he “affirmed that what’s happening here on our peninsulas is every bit as good as what the Germans are doing.” Our local vintners have concentrated 600 years of European tradition into three decades of innovation and have shelves full of trophies to back it up. Go riesling.

Riesling Primer

Riesling can produce compelling flavors anywhere between bone dry and super sweet. The International Riesling Foundation has produced a helpful scale to indicate the sweetness of individual bottlings, and we break down the essential characteristics of each category.

Lean, tart and racy, showing off primarily green apple, citrus and mineral tones. Drink as an aperitif or pair with Great Lakes fish. Less than 1 percent residual sugar.
Medium Dry
Stone fruit, floral and tropical notes start to show up. Pair with pork, salads and soft cheeses. 1 to 2 percent residual sugar.
Medium Sweet
Aromatics can become more intense and texture more viscous. Play the sweetness against spicy Korean barbecue or salty choucroute. 2.1 to 4 percent residual sugar.
Sweet Honey and candied fruit flavors enter the mix. Weight goes up, alcohol goes down. Pair with pear and apple tarts, pâtés and pungent washed-rind cheeses. 4.1 percent-plus residual sugar.

Sleep Among the Vines

Check out these local wine country inns for post-riesling respite:

Tesoro Inn
15627 Center Road, Traverse City, 231.223.7686
Three luxe modern suites with full exposure to the surrounding garden, orchard and vineyards. Savor gourmet breakfasts al fresco, en masse or in bed.
Chateau Chantal
15900 Rue de Vin, Traverse City, 231.223.4110
This expansive chateau has room options ranging from cozy queen beds to a fully equipped executive apartment. Terraces, hearths and hot tubs are steps from the vineyard and tasting room.
Inn at Black Star Farms
10844 East Revold Road, Suttons Bay, 231.941.1251
Elegant agri-tourism at its finest. The Inn’s rooms are appointed with designer fabrics, fireplaces and spa tubs. Lavish locally inspired breakfasts, pre-dinner wine receptions and 160 acres of pastoral bliss to explore.
Whaleback Inn
1757 North Manitou Trail, Leland, 231.256.9090 This idyllic stone and cedar shake lodge has cozy rooms, three deluxe suites and the five-bed Maple House Cottage for a riesling rendezvous with friends. Continental breakfast spread and a private dock with views of Lake Leelanau.

Stand-out Rieslings

With more than 30 wineries between two peninsulas and a full spectrum of styles, there’s tasty riesling everywhere Up North. Here are a few to try.

Black Star Farms Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling
Rich, honeyed elixir eked from partially frozen grapes. Drink now or age for decades.
Chateau Grand Traverse Lot 49 Riesling
Medium-dry with complex fruit and terrific texture from oak Stück aging.
Good Harbor Vineyards Dry Riesling
White peach and apple fruit. Lean, crisp and long on the palate.
Left Foot Charley Seventh Hill Farm Riesling
A sexy tropical bouquet and brilliant balance of sweetness and acidity.
Chateau Fontaine Dry White Riesling Linear and zippy with loads of stone fruit and lemon peel.

This feature and additional photos are available in the September 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy today!