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Northern Michigan Wines: Trek up Northern Michigan's wine country on the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas for the fall-time favorite—riesling.
A drive along M37 or M22, those snaky asphalt arteries that trace the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, reveals a universe of green-gold riesling clusters hanging under canopies that undulate with the curve of the Northern Michigan land. 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.
Riesling’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.