Michigan Wine Grape Varieties

Michigan grows a wide variety of wine grapes to suit every wine lover's taste. Beginning more than a century ago with only a few native American varieties, today Michigan grows more than 50 different grape varieties, offering consumers a broad range of quality wines. There are three general categories of wine grapes in the United States: European varieties, native American varieties, and French/American hybrids.

European varieties

These are all varieties of the single species of grapes native to Europe - vitis vinifera. Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling and Pinot Grigio are well-known names, but there are thousand of others. As Roman culture pushed north into Europe, the vines they brought adapted themselves to progressively cooler growing areas. Some of the greatest growing regions in Europe, such as Champagne, Germany and Alsace, are not unlike Michigan; the northernmost region of grape growing in Michigan is at the 45th parallel - the same as Bordeaux and Chianti. These European varieties grow best along the shores of Lake Michigan, where the "lake effect" moderates the temperatures.

Riesling

This is an excellent cool climate grape that is best known in Germany and Alsace but also does well in Michigan. Many wineries produce excellent dry versions as well as the better known semi-dry and sweeter styles. There are also Sparkling Riesling and extradordinary Ice Wines. Many serious wine lovers regard Riesling as the world's most famous white wine grape.

Chardonnay

A cool climate is important to keep the balance in this grape. Many wineries have invested in French oak cooperage for those special flavors so frequently sought after. But several Michigan wineries also make traditional versions that are not aged in oak at all.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

This grape, from the cooler parts of Northern Italy and Alsace, is also at home here in Michigan. In Europe, grapes are referred to as noir (black), blanc (white), and the mid-range that we call pink is "grey" - gris in French, grigio in Italian. Many people think that this is one of our best white varieties, and much more is being planted.

Cabernet Franc

Known as one of the sources of great Bordeaux, its wine is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but lighter and less astringent. This is the second most widely planted red vinifera in Michigan.

Merlot

This exceedingly popular grape can be grown in Michigan, if planted in the right areas, tended correctly and not over cropped. Michigan's version is usually not as soft as those from California.

Pinot Noir

This is a great red grape of Burgundy. Commonly used in sparkling wine production, this is the most widely planted red vinifera. When grown on good vineyard sites and cropped at levels appropriate for our climate, the Pinot Noir also makes complex and elegant wines.

Gewurztraminer

This superb variety has an exotic aroma and flavor - reminiscent of lichee nuts, rose petals and orange peel. It is a difficult grape to grow, but delicious examples from several wineries prove it can be successful in Michigan.

Pinot Blanc

A variety that makes very appealing light white wines.

Native American Varieties

In contrast to Europe, there are many different species of grapes native to America. The best known is vitis labrusca. The well-known varieties Concord, Niagara and Catawba are close relatives of these native vines. When the Ohio River region, near Cincinnati, was the biggest wine growing region in the country, Catawba was its most important grape variety. Today, it is relatively unknown, and the largest use for Concord and Niagara is in juice. You can, however, sample wines made from these three varieties at any St. Julian tasting room.

French/American Hybrids

These are hybrid crosses between European and native American varieties. Such hybrids are resistant to disease and cold. They are popular with growers in the eastern United States because they adapt well to the climate and growing conditions, and contribute unique and intriguing flavors to the wines.

Vignoles

A remarkable white-skinned grape that plays a strong role in Michigan is viticulture. It rivals Riesling as the world's most versatile grape-producing quality sparkling wines, dry barrel-fermented wines, and most importantly, intense and balanced semi-dry and late-harvest wines.

Chambourcin

Perhaps the finest of the black-skinned hybrid grapes. Because it is a relatively late ripener, it grows best in the southwest portion of the state where the growing season is about 20 days longer. It can produce dark, concentrated wines with excellent structure as well as light, pleasant wines.

Seyval Blanc

In many respects, this is the workhouse white hybrid grape. It blends well, its slight neutrality adding elegance to more assertive grapes like Vidal and Vignoles. In Michigan it is not usually seen as a varietal wine.

Vidal Blanc

This is another workhorse white hrybrid. Semi-dry versions have pleasant aromas. It is often blended with other varieties to make some of Michigan's most important proprietary wines including Trillium from Good Harbor Vineyards and Tabor Hill Classic Demi-Sec.

Chancellor

This is a well-regarded red hybrid that grows successfully in the southwest portion of Michigan. It can be dark and mouth filling without astringency.

Marechal Foch

Named for the famous French general, this grape is widely planted in Michigan. It can produce an exotic red wine, but is also a good blush wine grape.

Chardonel

This relatively new Chardonnay/Seyval hybrid, ales a lighter, attractive wine not unlike Chardonnay.

Traminette

A new hybrid relative of Gewurztraminer with an attractive spiciness.