Lake Michigan, the fifth largest lake in the world, is an integral part of quality grape growing in the state. The Michigan coastline is extensive and full of peninsulas formed thousands of years ago due to glaciation. Arctic glaciers pushed south during the ice ages and carved out the major Great Lakes basin. The lake accumulates heat during the growing season and retains it through the autumn when temperatures drop, thus extending the growing season and giving the ‘lake effect’ necessary to produce quality wine.
‘Our vineyards hug the shores of one of the largest freshwater inland seas in the world, in a land once carved out by glaciers – and this unique terroir creates some real magic in any bottle of Michigan wine,’ says Patrick Brys, president & CEO of Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery.
Riesling: Michigan’s great grape
The latest figures show that Riesling is the most widely planted vinifera grape in Michigan, with 29% of plantings. Over 930ha of vinifera grapes are grown in the state, 270 of them Riesling.
Considered one of the great white grapes of the world, Riesling is lauded by experts for its purity and versatility. Despite this, many consumers believe that all Riesling is sweet, when in fact, the grape can be vinified from a bone-dry wine to the stickiest botrytised style. Riesling is known for its prominent aromatics and high acidity. The naturally high acidity from the grape can be balanced with residual sugar, usually from a halted fermentation. Alcohol levels are generally low, sometimes even in the single digits.
The best regions for Michigan Riesling
For quality grape-growing regions in Michigan, we look to Traverse Wine Coast and Lake Michigan Shore, located in the northwest and southwest corners of the state, respectively. Michigan, shaped like a mitten (or mitt) has 5,200 kilometres of the nation’s largest freshwater coastlines. ‘We have a range of Riesling styles in Michigan. Including more commonly recognised late harvest or sweeter Rieslings, but also dry in style and similar to the highest class Trocken and Alsatian producers,’ says Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative.
Home to nearly 40 wineries, the Traverse Wine Coast in the north includes two peninsulas moderated by the massive waters of Lake Michigan. The Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula wine trails both provide optimal expressions of winemaking. They showcase the influence of the lake with very fruit-forward wines. These two peninsulas, north on either side of Traverse City, are responsible for 55% of the state’s production.
In the southwest corner of the state, with 130km of coastline is the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. With 15 winery members, it accounts for approximately 40% of the state’s production. This region is home to the oldest and longest-running winery in the state, St. Julian, founded in 1921. The area is slightly warmer than in the north, giving it an extra two to three weeks for the growing season.
Says Adam McBride, president of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail and owner/winemaker at Hickory Creek Winery: ‘While refreshing acidity is constant across Michigan Rieslings, the wines in the Lake Michigan Shore seem to have a bit more texture and deeper fruit notes. We’re getting more peach, pear, apple and orange phenolics here compared to lighter citrus like lemon and lime in the northern AVAs.’
How Michigan Riesling tastes
The cool-climate wines wines of Michigan have a strong backbone of acidity and fruit-forward aromas and flavours, specifically with Riesling. As is common with the variety, it is vinified from dry to sweet, including botrytised and ice wine styles. McBride says: ‘The constant characteristics across Michigan Rieslings are bright acidity, lower alcohol and aromatic stone fruit and citrus notes. Michigan Rieslings are refreshing, easy to drink and meant to be paired with food.’
Pairing Riesling with food
With the proximity of Lake Michigan, local freshwater fish is a plentiful and a natural pairing with Michigan Riesling. Simple grilled fish from the lake, including salmon and trout, works well with a dry Riesling with a small hint of residual sugar. For a more flavour-packed fish dish such as honey garlic salmon, an off-dry Riesling gives a nice interplay of sweetness and acidity to cut through the sweetness of the sauce.
The most common pairing with Riesling is any mention of ‘spicy Asian food’. More specifically, the high acidity and slight residual sugar in a Michigan Riesling can counteract and balance the spice from dishes such as gochujang noodles, Thai coconut curry, or a spicier curry vindaloo.
Cherries, as an agricultural crop, reign in Michigan. It is the number one state for cherry production in the country. Spiced cherry chutney over roasted pork tenderloin pairs well with a dry Michigan Riesling. On the sweeter side of things, a sweet Riesling or ice wine paired with a fresh-baked cherry cobbler shows how the tartness in the cherries plus the acidity in the Riesling can match each other.
Best Michigan Rieslings to try
This selection of bottles covers the styles and regions mentioned above. In general, the Rieslings from Michigan are affordable and approachable.