By Kim Schneider
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.
Call it Michigan wine country serendipity that a college librarian named Bernie Rink happened to own 16 acres of rolling hills on Michigan’s temperate Leelanau Peninsula when he stumbled upon the book “American Wines and Winemaking” some 50 years ago.
Visitors with a good GPS can still wind their way past scenic orchards and lakes to Rink’s unpretentious Boskydel vineyard tasting room, though it may be one of Rink’s sons who’ll share the story of how their father experimentally planted French-American hybrids like De Chaunac and Vignoles, in part to keep them working hard and out of trouble.
That experiment has today led to many other touring and tasting options concentrated, for those familiar with the way Michigan’s shaped like a hand, in the state’s little finger. With 25 wineries, the Leelanau Peninsula boasts the state’s largest wine trail, so many now that it’s been divided into three more easily navigated loops.
The Northern Loop
Step into the Northern Loop’s Verterra Winery, a short stroll from a wide swatch of Lake Michigan beach along the pinkie’s edge, and you’ll find a colorful chalkboard filled with fun facts. there, you’ll learn that it takes 12 grape clusters to make a bottle of Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc — two of the winery’s signature pours — or 3,600 clusters for one barrel. But owner Paul Hamelin’s favorite numbers are those that tell the bigger story of what’s happening on the peninsula.
Of the 250 wines submitted to the four largest international wine competitions held in North America last year, he says, 51 of those won a gold medal or best in class award — that’s in blind tastings against some 15,000 wines from around the world!
“What the numbers are saying is that almost one in five wines you can taste here in the peninsula is a gold medal winner in international competitions — or in the top 10 percent of wines in that category in the world,” Hamelin explains. “We’re entering these competitions because we don’t want people to say, ‘it’s just a Michigan wine.’ no, these are wines as good as you can get anywhere in the world.”
That is only partly due to the skill of winemakers, he and others admit. The many newer wineries have the advantage of ever-advancing winemaking equipment, Hamelin notes. But the main reason Leelanau wines are so notably fruit forward and crisp is owed to a combination of the microclimate and discovery of how well certain European vinifera (Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and much more) can do in the peninsula’s temperature profile and soils.
While the past year’s harsh winter was a notable exception, the peninsula benefits from the tempering effect of Lake Michigan and the positioning between two bodies of water. Any given winter day might be 20 degrees warmer here than a town directly across Lake Michigan. For the eight years prior to this one, Hamelin says, the temperature never dropped below zero in Leelanau, a key cutoff for the ability to grow not just cold-hardy hybrids but the more delicate viniferas. Long falls with warm days and cool nights help the flavor profiles. And the fact the soils aren’t especially fertile is counter intuitively a good thing, adds wine expert Michael Schafer, aka “The Wine Counselor,” a Detroit-based wine educator and sommelier.
“People, when they struggle, develop more character and are a heck of a lot more interesting than those born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” he notes. “the same is true with grapes.”
But tasting, the experts note, is the most interesting (and fun) way to judge wine — especially when touring options are increasingly being paired with small plates of gourmet food, by outside fireplaces and overlooking vineyards, or via bike tours of rolling hillsides.
On the northern loop, a passport program ($25 per person or couple) comes with three free tastings at each tasting room,
a logo glass and entry into a drawing for those who make it to all 10 stops on the loop. One prize is a free stay at the cottage tucked within the Silver Leaf Vineyard (also available for rental).
Three of the 10 are connected in another unusual way: a new cross-country skiing or hiking trail. the 7.5-mile trail, developed last winter, winds through vineyards and the countryside and connects three very different tasting room experiences. at Forty-Five North, you belly up to a tasting room bar within a recycled (but decidedly elegant) barn on a barstool shaped like a saddle; at Blustone, gaze out contemporary floor-to-ceiling windows; and at Tandem Ciders, sip nationally acclaimed ciders in a setting as friendly as a neighborhood tavern. A picnic in the Forty-Five North Vineyard is also included in a guided Leelanau Wine road tour by bike that’s offered each Thursday through fall by Grand Traverse Bike Tours (grandtraversebiketours.com), as is a final glass of wine enjoyed alongside the Lake Leelanau Narrows at Boathouse Vineyards.
Sleeping Bear, the name of the southernmost loop, wraps in tasting rooms positioned closest to the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a must-visit for a shoreline hike or a bit of motoring on the too-pretty-to-believe Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Stop at Good Harbor Vineyards to meet Sam and Taylor Simpson, cast members of a new reality show Wine Warriors, still in the pilot stage. and don’t miss the view (and wine) from Bel Lago, where the “beautiful lake” moniker fits and PhD-trained winemaker Charlie Edson has strategically planted 32 Pinot Noir clones.
Many peninsula pioneers are located within the Grand Traverse Bay Loop, where the drives between wineries and tasting room windows often boast bay views. at Ciccone Vineyard and Winery, where owner Tony Ciccone often gets the most press for his famous daughter (Madonna), red wines and unusual Italian varietals like Dolcetto are a focus, and the hilltop vineyard with its popular event barn is a starting point for fall’s Harvest Stompede. The longer vineyard run includes one spot, he says, where a sign says: “look left” and offers a mesmerizing view of distant water. Want to help with the harvest? call ahead, because Ciccone often sends volunteers out with aprons and pruning sheers.
On a nice day, Shady Lane is a must stop for its new patio area with fireplace, as well as its notable wines. Just don’t say anything about Michigan not being able to make great reds around winemaker Adam Satchwell, though he’ll take the challenge and try to prove you wrong with a vintage like his spicy blaufrankisch, or blue franc. “We are living on the edge of viticulture insanity,” he says. “Go a few miles, and this cannot be done. Living on the edge is exciting, and the results are exciting.”
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.
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