The Grapes That Could Change Everything
A new legion of super-hardy grapes redefining the future of northern Michigan wine.
By Ross Boissoneau | May 25, 2019
Years ago, people thought it was too cold to grow grapes in this region. Then in 1964, Bernie Rink planted some grapes — and soon, an industry was born. Today, with more than three dozen wineries and three wine trails — Leelanau, Old Mission, and Petoskey — it’d be easy to assume northern Michigan has proven the naysayers wrong.
But that’s not exactly true. The harsh winters here can and do damage some of the more tender grape varieties. Complex, robust locally grown reds, which are notoriously difficult to bring forth amid not-so-long-and-hot summers, can be few and far between. And without close proximity to frost-easing coastlines, killer cold pockets are plenty.
Enter Marquette — the grape, not the city. It’s one of more than 20 super-hardy grapes that are quietly revolutionizing the industry, a list that also includes Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, and La Crescent grapes, all proving perfect for our northern climate — even inland and far north of the 45th parallel.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these toughs have been cultivated at the University of Minnesota. “Marquette, released by University of Minnesota in 2006, is able to resist very harsh winters, up to -30 degrees,” said Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor of Viticulture at Michigan State University and an expert on grape varieties. Bonus: This red wine grape variety also has excellent disease resistance. As for the taste? Excellent, Sabbatini said: “Marquette wines are very complex, with attractive ruby color, pronounced tannins, and notes of cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice.”
A STURDY & SUPERB WHITE
La Crescent, a super hardy white variety, was released in 2002 by University of Minnesota, thanks to what Sabbatini called the school’s “excellent breeding program of very hardy vines.”
La Crescent grapes have high acidity, and they’re used by winemakers to produce off-dry to sweet wines, characterized by notes of apricot, peach, and citrus. As such, Sabbatini said La Crescent is also often used for dessert and late harvest wines.
At Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery in Alanson, owner Geoff Frey has used both Marquette and La Crescent. He compares the former to Pinot Noir or Cabernet, and the latter to Riesling. “La Crescent makes a gorgeous white wine,” said Frey.
Dustin Stabile of Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey said he just planted nine acres of La Crescent and Itasca, another hardy variety. He’s bullish on the hardy grapes in general.
“I think Marquette is going to be pretty big here, and especially east of the Mississippi,” he said. “Probably 10 or 11 of us [of the dozen wineries in the Petoskey Wine Region] have a Marquette.”
Even on Old Mission Peninsula, a more temperate growing area hugged by Grand Traverse Bay waters on either side, Chateau Chantal is dipping its proverbial toe into the cold-hardy grapes.
“We grow a little bit of Marquette,” CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese said. “We planted Merlot originally in a low area, but it never really produced,” she said. “It’s not a hardy vinifera.” So they turned to Marquette in that low-lying area and have had much better results.
But it’s not just in northern Michigan where the grape thrives. Frey said it does well in other parts of the state, as well as places like Maine or Washington, even Ohio. Deb Burgdorf of Burgdorf’s Winery in Haslett was a member of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, before that group’s focus was altered, and it became the Michigan Craft Beverage Council. She is owner and head winemaker at the winery and uses Marquette grapes from her own small vineyard and others nearby.
The first year she used the grapes, her effort yielded a state gold medal winner. “We were the first one in the state to win a gold (for Marquette),” she said.
Jennelle Jagmin is an economic/community development analyst with theMichigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. She was previously a promotion specialist with the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. She said the increasing climate swings make hardy grapes even more important.
“The polar vortex the last five years has taken a toll. Cold hardy grapes are more important with climate change,” she said.
Their popularity with growers is seeing more of the wines entered in competitions. Jagmin said in 2017, two La Crescents and five Marquettes were entered into the state wine competition. (One of the La Crescents was from a vineyard in the Upper Peninsula!)
In 2018, three La Crescents and eight Marquettes were entered, with four of the latter receiving gold medals. “One was a reserve, and one was a rosé. That tells you the grape is versatile and getting its footing,” she said.
Frey is certainly a believer in the hardy varieties. “Our first sparkling wine won a silver in the Michigan competition,” he said. It was made primarily from estate grown La Crescent grapes and other locally grown varieties.
Sabbatini said the use of cold hardy grapes will be a key to continuing and expanding the industry in the state, which already contributes more than $5 billion in total economic impact. “The expansion of those cold regions will be based on those cultivars and they will play an important role because they will overcome the harsh winters and they will have a key role in the sustainability of the region,” he said. “It always is facing two issues: Cost of production very high due to climate damage, and their natural disease resistance and tolerance against major grapevine fungi diseases will help to produce and market more locally grown sustainable wines.”