On one of those rare mornings when I am sipping coffee and see the fox trotting past the Pinot Noir on his way to a morning nap, I jump at the chance to put on my work boots and wander through the glistening dew drops to one of the varietals whispering for attention. In 11 years of vineyard ownership, my family and I have learned so much about viticulture but have barely touched the surface.
It’s not as easy as waking up one morning to your husband saying he wants to buy a vineyard — something we knew nothing about — and making your own wine the next, as we so naively assumed. Picking the name, Haven Hill Vineyard, was easy. But winemaking? It’s like chemistry class in that it’s an investigation of grape properties and the ways in which they interact, combine and change to become something that tantalizes the tastebuds.
Recently, I had the pleasure of experiencing the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, the largest in the Midwest, which grew from one winery in 1976 to 25 tasting rooms in a 30-square-mile peninsula.
“The reason for so much growth is good wine,” says Paul Verterra of Verterra Winery. “The average winery produces 10 wines. At international competition, this peninsula produced 14 best in class and 52 gold medal winners. That means one of four wines entered was judged to be in the top two-percent in the world. That’s a tremendous accomplishment for a peninsula of our size.”
My behind-the-scenes tour of five wineries’ production facilities and barrel tastings — L. Mawby, Brengman Brothers at Crain Hill Vineyards, Willow Vineyards, Black Star Farms and Forty-Five North — opened my eyes to many new dimensions beyond growing six varietals at Haven Hill.
At his bottling facility, Larry Mawby of L.Mawby taught me that pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes are the classic varieties of Champagne and have to be hand-harvested to help maintain the product’s integrity. “Cuvee is the base wine selected to make the champagne,” says Mawby. “Our cuvee close (meaning “tank fermented”) method is what produces our sparkling wines.”
So how soon after opening a bottle of wine should you drink it? “A wine’s window of drinkability is largely based on the overall age of the wine,” notes Nathaniel Rose, winemaker of Brengman Brothers. “Some wines, when decanted, even need to be left overnight before consuming.”
Mother Nature is always in control of wine country. “This year, coming off the extreme winter, we are spur pruning (the canes or cordons) to four to six buds each due to the potential threat of bud loss,” shares John Crampton, winemaker of Willow Vineyards.
You can’t control Mother Nature, but many winemakers are cautiously optimistic.
While on the tour, I witnessed Brengman Brothers’ guests participating in the Celebration of St. Vincent, a traditional European festival that features a procession through the vineyard to pray for good weather for the upcoming season.
Near harvest, vineyard growers monitor the brix, a measure of a grape varietal’s natural sugar, to help determine when to harvest the crop. “We don’t see the same grape ripeness levels each year, but the quality of the wine starts in the vineyard,” says Lee Lutes, winemaker of Black Star Farms.
Just what is a winemaker’s secret to making an award-winning wine? “One of my challenges is finding out what the fruit likes,” reveals Jay Briggs, winemaker of Forty-Five North.
Michigan wine tours and tastings are putting the Sonoma and Napa Valley experiences right in your backyard. There’s no reason to go anywhere else when you can learn something new every time you take that winding road.
To learn more, visit the websites listed below.
Michigan Wine Trails
Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail
Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula
Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country
West Michigan Wine & Beer Trail
Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail
Sunrise Side Wine & Hops Trail
Freelance writer Lisa Lucklow-Healy resides in Traverse City.