Going To The Heart Of Local Wine Country, Part I: Old Mission Peninsula
[This is part one in a two-part series about the two preeminent wine-making regions in the Midwest: the Old Mission Peninsula and the Leelanau Peninsula, both located adjacent to Traverse City, Michigan.]
It’s worth noting at the outset in any article about Michigan wine that Michigan is the second-largest producer in the country (after California, of course) of varied agricultural products. Except for tropical fruits, there’s relatively few things that Michigan does not produce locally. (Local dried beans, anyone?) In late 2009, Gourmet (RIP) highlighted Michigan’s move toward more direct farm-to-table production (as opposed to mainly supplying giant food processors). Thus, before someone stands up to recite to me that “just because all 50 states can grow wine grapes, doesn’t mean they should,” let me say that a state with the varied agricultural bounty of Michigan *should* produce wine, if only – if only – to pair with, at a base organic level, the food that was grown in the same soil. It seems obvious to me that a basic tenet and value of eating local embodies the notion of returning to the soil and the purity of food that is lovingly and carefully grown nearby. However, we seem to be behind the eight-ball in grasping the value of pairing all of this gorgeous, Midwestern-grown food on our tables with wine grown in the same place and that this is, by its very definition and nature, an extension of an eating-local philosophy. If you were to complain about the scarcity of quality Midwest wine to pair with local food ten years ago, I would probably agree with you. However, that complaint is now becoming more of a statement of willful ignorance than actual reality.
Take, for instance, Old Mission Peninsula. Although there are several winemaking pioneers in the Midwest, the current epicenter of local winemaking is on the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas in Northwest Michigan. This area sits on the 45th parallel, home to many other winemaking regions around the globe (including Bordeaux). But what sets this area apart is not necessarily that it is situated on a celebrated, global wine-making parallel, but that it is uniquely positioned between two large bodies of water.
That this region is nestled in between large bodies of water is no small thing in terms of wine-making. We all know that Midwest winters can be harsh, but the water insulates the area by moderating the climate, as well as protects the vines during the growing season. This moderating effect has made Old Mission Peninsula a proven success story in growing delicate, vinifera grapes, such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, to name a few (and the list is growing). These grapes thrive on rustic hills reminiscent of Sonoma (albeit the hills are a lot less steep). Traverse City, adjacent to Old Mission Peninsula (actually it shares a zip code with Traverse City), has a history and culture that is conducive to quality wine-making. Whereas, historically, Midwest wine either intentionally or unintentionally veered toward the sweet side, ostensibly, to appeal to novice or occasional wine drinkers, the winemakers on the Leelanau and Old Mission began producing vinifera wine that would appeal to wine-drinkers whose palates were not afraid of drier, more complex tastes. Riesling, in particular, is an exciting wine with its rich, complex notes of green apple, peach, pear, lime, tropical fruits, minerals and sometimes even petroleum (as compared to the popular two-note bomb of oak and butter typical of many California Chardonnays). Like Alsatian Rieslings, these wines are high in acid and aroma, and along with their funkier aromas and tastes, are more unusual to occasional wine drinkers.
Serious local wine-making began on Old Mission Peninsula
Serious winemaking in northwest Michigan began on Old Mission Peninsula in 1974, when Ed O’Keefe started Chateau Grand Traverse. The first winery in Michigan to plant 100% vinifera grapes (as opposed to cooler-climate hybrid grapes), Chateau Grand Traverse is best known for its award-winning Riesling. CGT is now producing 80,000 cases per year, and edging toward the title of the top-selling winery in Michigan. Today, many will say that CGT’s dry Riesling is world-class, and is helping to put Michigan on the short list of top U.S. Riesling producers (along with Oregon, Washington and New York).
Including Chateau Grand Traverse, Old Mission Peninsula is now home to seven wineries: 2 Lads, Brys Estate, Bowers Harbor, Black Star Farms (also on the Leelanau), Chateau Chantal, and Peninsula Cellars. All except 2 Lads focuses heavily on white wines. Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir are favorite Old Mission Peninsula red varieties, and the more unusual Gamay Noir is produced by CGT as well.
Gaining National Attention
The wines of Old Mission Peninsula, along with the Leelanau, have steadily gained their share of national attention lately. Eric Asimov, the wine columnist for the New York Times, commented excitedly about Michigan’s Rieslings – a wine he believes is terribly underrated. Food and Wine got in the action, and since then, so has Elin McCoy for Bloomberg. In Chicago, the Sun-Times and Chicago Magazine have recently written about its wines. Still, though, the region is relatively unknown even in Chicago wine circles.
What To Drink
Despite my strong belief that the upper Midwest’s forté is white wines, some of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted recently from the Old Mission Peninsula have been red wines. Not your usual reds, though; I mean, Cabernet Franc and Gamay Noir. (I wrote about Cabernet Franc here on The Local Beet.) If you can snag a glass of Peninsula Cellars’ 2007 Cabernet Franc at Hopleaf or Eno at The Fairmont in Chicago, you won’t be sorry. As for Gamay Noir, Chateau Grand Traverse is producing some exciting stuff. Of course, Riesling continues to represent well in this area (especially Chateau Grand Traverse’s version), as well as Peninsula Cellars’ Pinot Blanc. All summer, I was a regular drinker of 2 Lads’ Rosé of Cabernet Franc with its raspberry, rhubarb and herbaceous tones. I’ve been on record numerous times as a fan of Bowers Harbors’ semi-dry Riesling, and Chateau Chantal is producing some notable late harvest wine as well. Anything by red-phobic Left Foot Charley will satisfy you immensely.
If you still need convincing to check out Old Mission Peninsula, here are some pictures: