A Wine Grape for the Time

Geoff Frey’s palette was wowed when he sipped his first glass of Marquette, a red hybrid grape, during a wine event in St. Paul, Minnesota, nearly a decade ago.
Marquette Grapes - Photography by Kim Schneider
Marquette Grapes - Photography by Kim Schneider

Geoff Frey’s palette was wowed when he sipped his first glass of Marquette, a red hybrid grape, during a wine event in St. Paul, Minnesota, nearly a decade ago. The varietal, one Frey was unfamiliar with, had been aged two years in American oak by a Minnesota winery.

Oh, my God, I thought, ‘This is a really nice red wine.’ It blew me away,” said Frey, adding the wine reminded him of his favorites, Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. “I thought the Marquette grape in the right hands could be the best dry red wine in Michigan and elsewhere. It was balanced, had strong tannin flavors, all the fruit and hints of leather — everything you would desire in a wine.

Fast-forward several years, and Frey is the owner of a boutique winery in northwestern Michigan, Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery, outside Petoskey, and among the growing number of Michigan producers of Marquette. The hybrid is taking root at vineyards in Michigan and cold-weather states along the Canadian border.

Sometimes called the grandchild of pinot noir, Marquette was developed from an indigenous American grape and European vinifera by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The university has been breeding cold climate grapes since the 1940s; Marquette’s journey began in the 1970s and was unveiled to the world in 2006. It’s named after Pere Marquette, the Jesuit explorer who spent considerable time in Michigan.

There’s no denying that Marquette shares some characteristics with pinot noir, not only when you look at it but, more importantly, when you make wine,” said Andrew Horton, enology specialist at the University of Minnesota. “Depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made, Marquette can take on various red fruits in flavor and aroma. It has some peppery notes, as well.

In Michigan, wineries from the Upper Peninsula to the southeastern corner of the state are producing Marquette wines, everything from rosés and bubbles to barrel-aged and ice wines. The largest concentration of Marquette growers is in the Tip of the Mitt, an American Viticultural Area that stretches from south of Charlevoix to the Straits of Mackinac and east to Alpena. Like other appellations in Michigan, the Tip of the Mitt is a distinctive wine region.

It’s quickly becoming the signature red wine grape of our region,” said Dustin Stabile, head of production at his family’s winery, Mackinaw Trail Winery, outside Petoskey. “It makes such a great wine and is so versatile. Lots of cold-hardy grapes can grow up here, but that one grows the best for us.

Stabile said the winery initially began working with Marquette in 2010 and planted its first vines in the Petoskey area in 2013. The winery now has 6 acres of Marquette and plans to plant more vines. Last year, the winery produced about 600 cases of a dry Marquette wine.

Michigan winemakers like Stabile are part of the first generation working with the grape. One of the issues with Marquette and other hybrids is tannin structure. Stabile said Mackinaw Trail has been adding tannins during fermentation to give the wine more structure.

Among the vintners growing Marquette in southeastern Michigan is Youngblood Vineyard in Macomb County, outside Detroit.

The only way to have a vineyard in Metro Detroit is to grow a cold-hardy grape,” said Jessica Youngblood, who owns the winery with her husband Dave. “The Marquette is super cold hardy and makes amazing wine.

The family has planted about 26 acres of vines on their 50-acre farm; not only Marquette but other winter-tolerant hybrids like Frontenac, Petite Pearl and Prairie Star. The winery produces several hundred cases of wine per year.

I think Marquette has a good future,” Youngblood said. “There are so many things you can do with Marquette. You can make a dry wine, sweet wine, semi-sweet, sparkling, rosé … a port. It’s just so versatile.

Despite its youth, Marquette already has had an impact on the Michigan wine industry. In two of the past three years of the Michigan Wine Competition, a Marquette wine was chosen as the Best of Class in the dry red category by a prestigious panel of judges. Youngblood Vineyard’s 2018 Marquette was the most recent winner; Walloon Lake Winery near Petoskey previously took the honor.

The grape also is helping put the Petoskey region on the Michigan wine map.

Before Marquette came out, there weren’t a lot of wineries opening in Petoskey,” said Stabile, whose winery was among the first to start growing grapes in the region. “You look back to the 1990s and early 2000s, and there were zero wineries in the Petoskey region. Now, there are 17.

Stabile predicts an even bigger future for the grape. “In the past, people have said it should be cabernet franc, and now they’re saying it’s blaufränkisch. If you’re going to choose a red grape for Michigan, it needs to grow and ripen anywhere in Michigan, and that’s Marquette.

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer. He writes frequently about Michigan’s growing wine industry.

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