Michigan Wine Industry: From Freeze to the Future

Bowers Harbor Winery scores high with an impressive Pinot Blanc offering

Several Michigan wineries have made comeback efforts after two profoundly poor vintages of low harvest and severe stock damage to multiple vineyards across several AVAs. The early 2017 vintages show promise, as do a number of off-varietal 2016 bottlings that suggest a certain directional influence of what we might expect in the future particularly from the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula (OMP) AVAs.

The 2015 harvest in Michigan’s wine countries around Traverse City was devestating. A series of late hail storms towards the end of the 2014 growing season knocked fruit of the vine prematurely and damaged the wood of many plants particularly in Leelanau.  Across the Traverse City Bay area in particular, sub-zero temperatures during the winter leading into the 2016 growing season killed many vines and stunted fruit production in ways the region has rarely, if ever, seen.  The result was soft wood, low fruit, and what fruit was conserved was of such less density of previous vintages that many wineries simply threw up their hands and began blending fruit sourced from regions outside of the state.

Where there was a lack of local fruit, there was certainly an abundance of creativity for Michigan wine makers. “We had to sell something,” one winery manager reflected on a recent visit. “People still came to the region and we needed wine to pour.”  The creativity led to a number of humourous – if not cynical – labels such as “The Project” from Shady Lane Cellars and the straight-up “Polar Vortex” from 2 Lads Winery.  These wines, sourced from Lake County and Washington State, respectively – and others – gave wine makers a chance to experiment with not only what fruit was harvested but also what was possible from other regions across the United States.

And the wine makers showed promise, if not excellence in some of these and other less-impacted varietal offerings from 2016 and moving into 2017.  Our reviews of several winemaker efforts began to demonstrate a consistent minerality common across both red and white varietals, something we hope continues into future vintages and could become a noteworthy characteristic of the region (think New Zealand wines, which experience many similar climate affects).  The impressive Bowers Harbor Pinot Blanc OMP offering rivals many Oregon and California offerings, while our top score went to an Austrian style Gruner Veltliner Leelanau from Shady Lane.

While the area is best known for its Reisling and Cabernet Franc varietals, it will take a few vintages for at least Cabernet Franc to make its return. What few offerings we did taste from the 2016 vintage are soft and worn, without the boldness of dark fruits of years prior to the deep freeze.  Still there is a trace of minerality that could emerge stronger over time.  The 2017 and highly anticipated 2018 vintage – still on the vine – could prove a statement for area wine makers whose creativity was built on a rare Polar Vortex.

Bowers Harbor Vineyards

16 Bowers Harbor Red Blend OMP – Simple every day table wine with white pepper and light red fruit nose with dark berries and pepper on the palate with moderate finish. Nice QPR at $16/btl retail. 87

16 Pinot Noir Wind Whistle Leelanau ⁃ Nose of red fruits and licorice whip, with cream and nut flavors on the palate with moderate finish. 12% ABV 89

16 Pinot Noir Nicholas OMP ⁃ Toffee nose with pepper traces yields to a cherry cobbler finish. Very expressive wine of the growing Pinot Noir of the AVA 12% ABV 89

11 Pinot Noir Nicholas OMP ⁃ Compared to the younger brother a much softer nose with a much longer finish. Cherry cream pie with nutmeg notes. Some cellar potential remaining. 90

16 Cabernet Franc Erica Vineyard OMP – 60/40 French new oak to second use oak for 18 months. Blackberry on the nose with berries and cream with spice on the palate with moderate finish. 13.5% ABV

13 2896 Langley OMP – 18 months on oak and another 18 months in the bottle before release. 50/40/10 Cabernet Franc / Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon. Earth and light leather tones with a full plum and dark fruit palate with a long allspice finish. Some moderate cellar potential remaining. 89

17 Pinot Blanc Wind Whistle OMP – bright fresh minerality with cool strawberry expressive notes on the palate. Very nice representation of the AVA. 90

2 Lads

15 Crisp Sparkling – nice minerality and citrus on the nose, tangerines and pineapples on the palate with a long finish for a sparkling wine. 75% Chardonnay, 25% Moscato with only 1.8% residual sugar. 13% ABV. 89

16 Pinot Grigio OMP – gravel minerality on the nose with traces of guava fruit. Peach and watermelon traces on soft palate. 87

16 Chardonnay OMP – Creme brûlée at sunrise on the beach with fresh melons. Peaches and cream on the finish. 50/50 stainless / French oak. Light 13% ABV makes this more than a picnic and rather a meal wine for summer days or other fun occasions. 88

16 Reserve Chardonnay OMP – lemon zest on the nose with a rich full palate of cream and toffee with a long mineral finish. 100% French oak. Quite an expression of the AVA potential. 14% ABV. 89

17 Riesling 2L Vineyard OMP – banana cream pie on the nose yields a Caribbean fruit basket of flavors with nice minerality and a long, drawn finish. Very dry 0.8% residual sugar, 11.9% ABV. Picnic with this or end a nice meal over ice cream banana split. 90

16 Pinot Noir D. Cuvée OMP – tobacco leaves and cloves on the nose with a medium finish of Smokey Lappin cherry. 13.2% ABV. This is a BBQ and cobbler wine, that rolls into the fire pit after dinner conversation. 89

16 Merlot OMP – spice cassis and vanilla traces with dark fruit and a hint of rosemary. I tried this wine to see how OMP is progressing on the big red scale. Still tender for the varietal yet making nice progress over previous vintages. 88

16 Cabernet Franc OMP – leather and earthy traces this is my favorite varietal from the winery. Dark fruits with almond and hazelnuts with a moderate finish that does drop off slightly at the end. 13.5% ABV. Good with sauce dishes and grilled meats. 89

Shady Lane

16 Sparkling Riesling Leelanau – very refreshing sparkling expression of the local varietal with sparkling pear and peaches. Residual sugar 1.3% 89

16 Pinot Gris Hennessy Vineyard Leelanau – green apples melons and citrus nose with delightful crisp citrus palate that lingers. Very expressive of the AVA plays well in blind taste with other regions like Oregon. 90

16 Gruner Veltliner Leelanau – very impressive off dry tribute to this Austrian staple. Stone fruit and minerality in the nose with crisp honeysuckle melon on the palate with a long finish. 91

16 Gewurtztraminer Leelanau – sweet butter and flowers yield traces of melon and green apple on the palate with a prolonged finish with butterscotch pops. 90

14 The Project Viognier Lake County – sourced from Lake County AVA a full California expression of honey and and baked apple pie on the nose with long refreshing citrus on the palate. Hardly a project this wine stands on its own with its local estate cousins 89

16 Cabernet Franc Leelanau -dark fruits with black pepper with light tannins on the moderate finish. Subsequent vintages should return a more robust finish after vine recovery. 88

16 Blaufrankisch Leelanau – black pepper and clove on the nose with moderate tannins and a long finish 89

16 Franc n’ Franc Leelanau – 43/43/14 Cabernet Franc, Blaufrankisch, Merlot Blend. Soft pepper and dark fruit notes with moderate tannins. Great go to wine for pan-Asian cuisine or other curry recipes. 89


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