I spent a few days in southwest Michigan this week in the town of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. St. Joseph is at the edge of a deepwater port on Lake Michigan, at the southern end of what is described as the “Midwestern Riviera”. The town, with its rectangle street grid and globe street lights, feels (and, with the local radio stations, sounds) like a prototypical Midwestern town circa 1970, including a thriving business in ice cream parlors and candy stores.

The Silver Beach park features a restored 1910 carousel, and fine white-grained sand beaches, without the scale of the crowds (and brew-throughs) of the Outer Banks.

I did some writing, but had another agenda: to visit at least a few tasting rooms of the wineries in the local Lake Michigan Shore AVA. There are about 20 such wineries from the Indiana state line to Saugatuck on the lake some 70 miles north. The AVA (American Viticultural Area), much like the Finger Lakes, is a function of the lake effect, in this case the eastward winds that pick up the warmth of the deep southern Lake Michigan, and distribute that warmer temperature even through the winter in an arc over the southwest corner of the state as far east as Kalamazoo. This makes growing the classic vinifera grapes like charonnay, riesling, pinot gris, cabernet franc, and merlot possible, although hybrids like traminette and chambourcin are making some of the most exciting wines now available. Lake Michigan Shore AVA also grows about 90% of the winegrapes in Michigan as a whole.

White Pine Winery was the first local winery to apply for a tasting room permit in the town of St. Joseph, and now there are a couple more plus a brewpub. The winery also has a second tasting room at Red Cedar Spirits in East Lansing.

Dr. Dave Miller, White Pine’s owner and winemaker, is well-known in the Eastern wine industry. He enrolled in Michigan State University to earn an M.S. under viticulturist Stanley Howell (who just passed away two weeks ago). After working in the MSU department of viticulture for 13 years and receving his PhD, Dave accepted a position at St. Julian Wine Company as Associate Winemaker. He was promoted to Winemaker then Vice President of Winemaking. Dave’s work at St. Julian involved working with growers to improve their vineyards grape quality in addition to improving processing and the overall quality of wines. Wine sales more than doubled during Dave’s tenure at St. Julian.

In 2010 he struck out on his own with White Pine Winery. All the grapes used come from within the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. I’m pleased to say that the quality was both high and consistent, and also skillfully showed the terroir of the region, which is much like the Finger Lakes of NY without the intensity of the latter’s vivid fruit and acidity. Clean, bright, fresh, cool climate but not “edgy”, rather easy to drink, is how I’d describe the wines of the Lake Michigan Shore.

Tasting Highlights: (all Lake Michigan Shore AVA)

  • Pinot Grigio ’17: This grape is very well suited to this region. Melon and pear on the nose, then classic varietal viscosity on mid-palate, with bright lemon flavors, then crisp finish. Fine varietal character.
  • Traminette ’16: Bright aromas of tangerine, apricot, and orange zest. Palate: juicy, but bright orange tropical fruits plus muscat flavors, great fruit/acid balance.
  • Effervescense (sparkling) 100% chardonnay, 0.5% R.S. 7-8 months en tirage in neutral oak before bottling. Elegant flavors of pear and apple, with lemon toasted biscuit, dry, smooth and elegant.
  • Reserve Riesling ’16: Stop-fermented at 10% alcohol in the German style with about 2% residual sugar. Nose: Rheinpfalz-like pineapple and apricot notes. Palate: juice, German style, fine fruit/acid balance, a good sipping wine but with bracing acidity.
  • Dune Shadow Red: Mostly chambourcin with cabernet franc and merlot. Nose: lovely black cherry and blackberry. Palate: dry and fruity, a lot like a blaufrankish/lemberger would be. Attractive, food-friendly and represents this region well. Also, not overoaked.
  • Serendipity ’16: White Pine’s meritage-style wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Aged one year in oak. Nose: lovely Finger Lakes-like fresh berries and cassis. Palate: lovely fresh briar fruit and cassis, fruit driven with supporting acidity, any oak in the background, a lovely example of Lake Michigan Shore red wine.

I visited another nearby tasting room whose wines were not worth reporting on. Heading north from St. Joseph some 40-odd miles, I next stopped at Fenn Valley‘s remote tasting room in the bustling summer tourist town of Saugatuck close to the lake shore on 310  Butler St.

Fenn Valley has been making Michigan wine since 1973, and also lobbied for and established the Fennville AVA, a smaller subset of the Lake Michigan Shore AVA in the northern part of that larger region. Their original winery address is 6130 122nd Ave. in Fennville.  They now farm 40 acres of grapes, and as their website says, “Unlike farmers who already own farm land and then begin to grow grapes, the Welsch family migrated from the Chicago area and were therefore free to select the most desirable site for viticulture based on the available data.”

Fenn Valley is on the same high plateau of quality, combined with ability to showcase the local terroir in the best light, as is White Pine Winery. Tasting Highlights:

  • Blanc de Noirs 100% pinot noir, methode champenoise, 24 months en tirage before bottling. Nose: hints of smoky red cherry. Palate: fresh, crisp, classic style, bright cherry flavors with fresh lemon citrus finish.
  • Edelzwicker: named after the Alsatian name for a wine blended of local grapes, this is a brilliant blend of traminette and riesling (which more wineries should consider). Lovely nose of orange citrus from the traminette, then bright riesling peach/apple notes. Palate: juicy and fruity but bright, with fine fruit/acid balance, some spice and a little residual sugar on the finish.
  • *Traminette ’17: A spicy aromatic nose, very much like its gewurztraminer parent. Palate: huge concentration of orange citrus; kumquat and tangerine, fine fruit/acid balance.
  • *Cabernet Franc ’16: (just released) Light ruby color, healthy hue. Nose: smoky  black cherry and strawberry, some black pepper. Palate: pure red cherry and strawberry flavors! Bright fruit, oak in the background, some pepper and spice, ripe tannins, long finish. A classic cool climate cabernet franc!
  • Meritage ’16: a blend of the two cabernets and merlot. Nose: lovely and elegant fresh red cherries and strawberry. Palate: cherry/berry flavors, finely integrated with oak, smooth texture, good regional style.
  • Classic Port NV: (note: Fenn Valley is one of the American wineries that qualifies for having “grandfathered” the right to use the technical and geographic-protected term “port”, which is no longer allowed). This is a blend of the red hybrids chancellor and chambourcin, in a “solera” style (a blend of older and newer vintages). Nose: rich and spicy with clean black cherry. Palate: spicy black cherry, then finishes warm with a hint of lifted acidity, elegant and well-balanced, clean but in a classic solera style.

Hang gliders over Lake Michigan just west of St. Joseph in the late afternoon