Exploring Michigan’s Finest Rieslings: Must-Taste Bottles

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Michigan boasts the most extensive cultivation of Riesling, a versatile vinifera grape presenting an array of styles that perfectly complement various cuisines. Delving into the Rieslings originating from the heart of America’s Midwest, Decanter uncovers the diverse flavors of the Great Lakes state.

Lake Michigan, the world’s fifth largest lake, is vital in cultivating superior grapes within the state. 

Michigan’s extensive coastline, with its anciently formed peninsulas shaped by glacial activity millennia ago, owes its existence to the southward movement of Arctic glaciers during the ice ages, creating the expansive Great Lakes basin. 

The lake’s capacity to gather and retain heat during the growing season, holding onto it through autumn’s temperature drop, significantly extends the time for cultivation. This phenomenon, known as the ‘lake effect,’ is instrumental in producing high-quality wine.

“Embracing our vineyards along the shores of one of the planet’s largest freshwater inland seas, in a landscape sculpted by ancient glaciers, brings a unique terroir that works its enchantment into every bottle of Michigan wine,” explains Patrick Brys, president & CEO of Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery.”

Michigan’s Marvelous Riesling: The Pride of the State

Recent statistics reveal that Riesling stands as Michigan’s foremost vinifera grape, covering 29% of plantings, totaling over 930 hectares of vinifera vineyards, with 270 hectares dedicated to Riesling alone.

Renowned globally as one of the supreme white grape varieties, Riesling garners praise from experts for its exceptional purity and incredible adaptability. However, a common misconception among consumers persists, assuming all Rieslings are sweet. 

Contrary to this belief, Riesling showcases a spectrum from bone-dry to luxuriously sweet, including botrytised styles. Its hallmark features include striking aromatics and elevated acidity. 

While its natural acidity can be harmonized with residual sugar, often achieved by stopping fermentation, Riesling typically maintains lower alcohol levels, at times even resting in the single digits.”

Optimal Areas for Riesling Cultivation in Michigan

In Michigan, the prime grape-growing regions spotlight Traverse Wine Coast and Lake Michigan Shore, situated in the northwest and southwest corners of the state, respectively. 

Michigan’s unique shape resembles a mitten and boasts the nation’s longest freshwater coastlines, spanning 5,200 kilometers. 

Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, notes, ‘Michigan offers a diverse range of Riesling styles, from well-known late harvest or sweeter variations to dry styles akin to the finest Trocken and Alsatian producers.’

Traverse Wine Coast, home to nearly 40 wineries, encompasses two peninsulas shaped by Lake Michigan’s vast waters. 

The Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula wine trails exemplify exceptional winemaking, showcasing fruit-forward wines influenced by the lake. These peninsulas, flanking Traverse City, collectively contribute 55% of the state’s wine production.

In the southwest, the Lake Michigan Shore AVA boasts a 130-kilometer coastline and hosts 15 wineries, accounting for around 40% of the state’s wine output. 

Notably, it houses St. Julian, the state’s oldest winery, which was established in 1921. This region benefits from a slightly warmer climate, extending the growing season by two to three weeks.

Adam McBride, president of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail and owner/winemaker at Hickory Creek Winery, observes, ‘While Michigan Rieslings consistently offer refreshing acidity, those from the Lake Michigan Shore exhibit enhanced texture and deeper fruit profiles. 

Here, we experience pronounced peach, pear, apple, and orange notes, distinct from the lighter citrus tones like lemon and lime found in the northern AVAs.’

The Flavor Profile of Michigan’s Riesling

Michigan’s cool-climate wines, notably Riesling, boast a vibrant acidity and an abundance of fruit-forward aromas and flavors. 

Riesling, in particular, showcases a spectrum from dry to sweet, including botrytis and ice wine styles. 

McBride emphasizes, ‘Consistently, Michigan Rieslings feature bright acidity, lower alcohol content, and aromatic hints of stone fruit and citrus. They’re refreshing, approachable, and perfect companions for diverse culinary pairings.

Matching Riesling with Cuisine

With the proximity of Lake Michigan, local freshwater fish is a plentiful and natural pairing with Michigan Riesling. Simple grilled fish from the lake, including salmon and trout, works well with a dry Riesling with a slight hint of residual sugar. 

An off-dry Riesling gives a nice interplay of sweetness and acidity to cut through the sauce’s sweetness for a more flavor-packed fish dish such as honey garlic salmon.

The most common pairing with Riesling is any mention of ‘spicy Asian food’. More specifically, the high acidity and slight residual sugar in a Michigan Riesling can counteract and balance the spice from dishes such as gochujang noodles, Thai coconut curry, or a spicier curry vindaloo.

Cherries, as an agricultural crop, reign in Michigan. It is the number one state for cherry production in the country. Spiced cherry chutney over roasted pork tenderloin pairs well with a dry Michigan Riesling. 

On the sweeter side, a sweet Riesling or ice wine paired with a fresh-baked cherry cobbler shows how the tartness in the cherries and the acidity in the Riesling can match each other.

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