Leelanau Peninsula, just west of Traverse City in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is a bucolic landscape dotted with small lakes and bordering Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. It has long been farmland, blanketed with cherry and apple orchards.
But over the past few decades, a new crop has found its home. Leelanau Peninsula, a federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA), now grows about 25 percent of Michigan’s grapes, and about a quarter of the state’s wineries are located here.
While local vineyard owners are still growing native grape varieties and French-American hybrids, they are increasingly experimenting with European varieties, especially from cool climate growing areas.
“We spent a ton of research to support our decision on what to plant and where to plant it,” says Robert Brengman of Brengman Brothers at Crain Hill Vineyards. Grapes grown in Germany and Austria are a proven match, but he feels that current climate patterns also make the region ideal for grape varieties typical of regions a bit more southerly, such as Alsace, Burgundy and even Bordeaux.
Brengman’s methods to determine what to grow include careful evaluation of microclimate, slope and soil at the winery’s various sites. So far they’ve found success with a wide spectrum of grape varieties including Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Rotgipfler, a white grape grown primarily in Austria.
For Larry Mawby of L. Mawby/M. Lawrence – established in 1978 – observing what kind of grapes grow well in the region determined the path he would take as a winemaker. “I’ve always tried to produce the best wine possible from the grapes we grow here on Leelanau Peninsula, and over time, felt that the grapes we grow here are year in and year out excellent for producing sparkling wine.” Of a consistent quality, he adds.
He uses many different grape varieties for his many different types of sparkling wines, including Vignoles, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Concentrating solely on sparkling wines, he says, allows him to do it better.
For other winemakers, like Tony Ciccone at Ciccone Vineyard and Winery, there’s more at play than just practicality when determining what kind of wine to make and what grapes to grow – there’s love. At a recent visit to the winery, he poured his 2011 Dolcetto – fresh, juicy and vibrant – with obvious pride. To his knowledge he’s the only winegrower in Michigan to successfully grow this grape that is primarily from Italy’s Piedmont region.
“Why did I plant Dolcetto? Because I’m Italian and I love Dolcetto wine.”
‘Nuf said. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
If you visit Leelanau Peninsula is a gorgeous place to visit, especially in the fall. The wineries are spread out over a wide area, so try to allow two or three days – more if you want to visit other attractions such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or the nearby town of Traverse City with its great shopping and dining. There are plenty of places to stay, both in Traverse City or closer to the wineries, but if you’re looking for something special, check out the Inn at Black Star Farms. Right in the middle of wine country, it’s a luxurious inn as well as winery, distillery and creamery with on-site dining. For wine touring information, including trail maps, visit the website of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association at www.lpwines.com