Austrian Varietals find a Home in Northern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula

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Bill Newman – WSET 2, American Wine Expert

Driving north on state highway M-22 from Glen Arbor, Michigan the skies are blue and the tree line on either side of the road is dotting with early color. It’s the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, before peak color hits the area known as Northern Michigan (or “Up North” to visitors from down state) and long before the “gales of November” that Gordon Lightfoot made famous in his ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Here on Leelanau Peninsula, autumn not only brings the change but also the long-awaited wine country harvest that often drifts out of the official summer months to capture the very last diurnal shifts before the days dramatically shorten and the heavy frost sets in.

Leelanau Peninsula represents the “pinkie finger of the Michigan mitten” for those who use a full right hand to communicate where they are from and where they are traveling to in the state. The area represents one of five primary American Viticultural Areas and one of two AVAs in the Greater Traverse City area known for its expansive Traverse Bay, deep blue summer waters and long winding peninsula trails where the “Mitten” of the state meets Lake Michigan as it curves along the “pinkie finger” and to the north. Here, sheltered by the November gales and heavy lake effect snow experienced downstate, cold climate grapes thrive. The area is known for its booming wine tourism, food scene and four-season recreation. And while most might equate the region wine success with the German king of cool climate varietals, Riesling is only one of many portfolios of wines that are grown here. This includes a rise in Austrian wine varietals that have become more prominent – and more mature – over the past decade.

Sibling duo Taylor and Sam Simpson manage a portfolio of wineries under the Simpson Family Estates banner that traces its roots back to the 1950s. As third-generation farmers and second-generation winemakers, the portfolio includes family held brands such as Good Harbor Vineyards, Aurora Cellars, and Harbor Hill. “We clearly feel that Austrian varietals succeed in our cool climate growing region and believe there is a long future ahead for these wines,” Taylor reflects. Leelanau Peninsula has a similar growing season and many of the growing areas in Austria, however the land is drastically different.” A cooler maritime climate due to the effects of the Great Lakes rather than the indigenous river-influenced continental climates most of Austria growing areas experience combines with soil type to create an advantage in terroir. Glacially deposited sands and highly drained soils make the area suitable for cool climate agriculture such as the nation’s self-proclaimed cherry capital and of course wine grapes.

Gruner Veltliner shines here, in my opinion one of the best expressions of the varietal in North America. Year after year, Leelanau Peninsula growers demonstrate fruit notes in this classic white varietal that are cool and crisp, with stone fruit flavors strong base acidity. The Simpson Family has crafted Gruner Veltliner in both traditional still and even a 100% sparkling varietal format that boast gold medals and 90-point scores.

White varietals might be the most familiar here of Austrian wines in the area, but the red Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch also thrive in these latitudes. Drew Perry, winemaker for Simpson Family reflects that it was a familiarity with the varietal, combined with the work at Michigan State University that afforded Zweigelt a shot across grape growers in the region. “Around this time there was a big push with varietal trails by MSU,” Perry recalls. “Zweigelt was one of the most successful in their test plot.” A similar story originates in the 1990s when Blaufrankisch (under the tag line Lemberger) also gained popularity. It was a matter of time according to Perry. “Once local wineries began to wrap their heads around how to market it, it took off.”

To the east side of the Peninsula near Sutton’s Bay and near west Grand Traverse Bay, Shady Lane Cellars has worked with Austrian varietals for years. Cabernet Franc grows well in Northern Michigan and outside of a single varietal bottling of Blaufrankisch, Executive Winemaker Kasey Wierzba also blends these two varietals into a “Frank ‘n Franc” bottling with balanced hearty tannins and a bit of fruit which I find a fantastic pairing for red wine lovers to take the heat out of chili and inspired Asian cuisine such as a weekday pad thai meal. Reflecting on their Austrian portfolio which also includes Gruner Veltliner, Wierzba finds many accolades with these cool climate varietals. “Both varietals have thicker skins which make them less susceptible to disease. And both varietals also ripen in Northern Michigan without any trouble which can be difficult (particularly) for red varieties in certain years. This is why we have championed Blaufrankisch as our flagship red wine.”

Consumers make the final decision on any new varietal or bottling offer and consistently Austrian blends have shown success for nearly two decades according Wierzba. “Both Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch are very aromatic in their expressions, and this is a characteristic of their acidity and prominent aromatics. Our consumers love the fresh citrus, stone fruits and pome fruit that Gruener brings, with our Blaufrankisch presenting rustic blue and black fruits, like blackberries and mulberries.” For Perry consumer value also plays into the Austrian varietal success in Northern Michigan. “These varieties fit within the message we are constantly preaching, which is our strength as a cool climate wine growing region. We put our best foot forward when we focus on aromatic varieties that have well structured acidity. Growers and winemakers can create something that is a true expression of a time and place in Northern Michigan.”

Bill Newman is a car, tech and wine guy who has lived and worked in some of the world’s best wine regions for over 40 years. A candidate for the WSET level 3 in wine and holder of many regional wine credentials, Bill has lived in Michigan for over 25 years. You may follow his wine blog @billwine5 and under his concierge and influence label @stonewoodwine.

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