My First Taste of Michigan Wine: 2019 Braganini Reserve Mountain Road Estate Riesling from St. Julian Winery

Have you tried wine from Michigan? Surely you’ve heard about it, though: over the past year there’s been so much buzz on social media that any wine lover feels compelled to dig deeper and learn more. Lucky for me, the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association sponsored a Zoom chat with members of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, and I had my first chance to taste wine from the area.

Before I give you the juicy details, let me give you some background on Michigan wine in general, as well as specifics on the different growing regions.

Michigan’s AVAs: map courtesy of Michigan Wine Collaborative

As you can see from the map, there are five distinct growing areas in Michigan wine country:

  • Lake Michigan Shore AVA
  • Fenville AVA
  • Leelanau Peninsula AVA
  • Old Mission Peninsula AVA
  • Tip of the Mitt AVA

Lake Michigan Shore AVA

Encompassing the vineyard area in southwest Michigan, Lake Michigan Shore AVA comprises 90% of the state’s plantings. The region extends from the shores of Lake Michigan eastward, to a distance of 45 miles inland. Even this far from the lake, its modifying effects contribute to a warmer climate and longer growing season than is usual this far north.

Soils are relatively uniform for such a large area, with most vineyards planted on glacial moraines created millennia ago. Rolling hills offer better exposure to sunlight and allow frost to settle below the vineyard lines, further protecting the grapes and encouraging them to ripen.

Historically, this region has been a source of table grapes intended for use in jellies and grape juice, but plantings of vinifera varieties are on the rise. That said, the Lake Michigan Shore AVA is responsible for nearly half of the state’s total wine grape production.

Vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA (photo: St. Julian Winery)

Fenville AVA

Now incorporated into the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Fenville sits between the Kalamazoo and Black Rivers. It was the first Michigan region to be awarded AVA status, back in 1981. Most of production here relies on vinifera grape varieties, which thrive on the infertile, sandy soils; this results in wines with concentrated flavors and notable structure.

Leelanau Peninsula AVA

Located on the 45th parallel, like the wine regions of Bordeaux and Piemonte, Leelanau Peninsula is home to 26 wineries planting 800 acres of wine grapes. As with much of Michigan wine country, the modifying effects of Lake Michigan temper the cold winter temperatures, allowing grapes to ripen over a long growing season. The specialty here is cool-climate white wine, based on grapes like Riesling that tend toward the aromatic and show pure varietal character. Leelanau Peninsula is one of the few regions that produces Ice Wine, a highly concentrated sweet wine made from grapes that are frozen on the vine.

Old Mission Peninsula AVA

Jutting into Lake Michigan near Traverse City, the Old Mission Peninsula AVA experiences a similar climate as the regions previously mentioned; it benefits from the warming effects of the lake and enjoys a long growing season. Producers make everything from sparkling wine to small-quantity ice wines, with everything in between: there are still white wines from Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer, as well as lighter-bodied reds from Pinot Noir and Merlot.

Tip of the Mitt AVA

The shape of Michigan resembles a baseball mitt, giving this unique region its name. Located at the northern edge of the state’s lower peninsula, the Tip of the Mitt AVA includes just under 100 acres of vines planted predominantly to hybrids like Frontenac, Marquette, and La Crescent.

A brief history of Michigan wine (chart courtesy of Michigan Wine Collaborative)

For more information on Michigan wine, please contact Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Michigan wines around the world.

The family behind St. Julian Winery (winery photo)

About St. Julian Winery

Owned and operated by the same family for four generations, St. Julian is both Michigan’s oldest and largest winery. Making everything from wine and cider to craft spirits from locally sourced fruit and grain, they’ve been an important economic driver in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA for nearly 100 years.

St. Julian founder, Mariano Meconi (winery photo)

The story began in 1921, when Mariano Meconi founded his eponymous company in Ontario. When the USA repealed Prohibition, he moved his operations to Detroit, creating the St. Julian Wine Company. The company relies on local growers for all raw ingredients, sourcing everything from farms in the Lake Michigan Shore appellation.

The winemaking team: Nancie Oxley and Kyle Totzke (winery photo)

During our Zoom chat, we heard VP of Sales Apollo Braganini describe the importance of St, Julian’s relationship with its 20 grower-partners. Together they represent 1,000 acres of grapes under contract, incorporationg more than 50 varieties.

Most of their sales are direct-to-consumer, either via winery visits or through the St. Julian wine club, which engages 11,000 people. In 2020, they expect to process approximately 4,500 tons of grapes, totaling 250,000 cases of wine.

2019 Braganini Reserve Lake Michigan Shore Mountain Road Estate Riesling (12% abv; $21.99 at the winery)

Note: this wine was provided to me at no charge, as part of a promotional program. All opinions expressed in this post are mine, and I received no compensation for writing it.

The Mountain Road vineyard lies five miles from Lake Michigan, on what used to be a peach farm. It’s the only vineyard owned by St. Julian, its 30 acres full of gravel soils that retain the sun’s heat and help the grapes ripen. According to assistant winemaker Kyle Totzke, proximity to the lake extends the growing season by an additional two weeks, allowing the grapes plenty of time to ripen while maintaining all-important acidity.

The Riesling (just 3 acres of the 30) is hand-harvested and fermented in whole clusters (without destemming). I asked him why this was: he indicated that it “was all about delicacy,” helping protect the must from oxygen and maintaining varietal aromatics.

After tasting this wine, I get it.

Color: Pale lemon-green, with a few tiny bubbles.

Nose: Pronounced aromas of ripe peach, nectarine, lime, and orange; some ripe yellow apple, white flowers, and a hint of minerally wet rocks. I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity of the nose – it really invited me to take a sip!

Palate: Off-dry, with high acidity, medium alcohol, medium body; lovely flavors reflect the nose, although the fruit is less ripe and speaks more of orchard fruit than stone fruit. There is a bit of petillance which I found refreshing. In fact, I’d be happy to sip this Riesling any day, especially as I live in Miami, where a crisp, light wine is always a treat.

Verdict: After tasting this wine, I see what all the buzz was about. I can’t wait to explore Michigan wines in more depth, learning the stories behind the folks who make them. I wholeheartedly encourage you to try them, too. And, if you do, please share notes on your favorites!

Thanks again to Emily Dockery of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, St. Julian Winery, and the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association for inviting me to experience Michigan wine. It was a great virtual trip, one I hope to make in person one day!

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