Why Michigan wine makers are crafting bigger reds

It’s only natural that historically, Michigan wine makers have focused on, and succeeded at, creating sweet, fruity wines. Fruits like peaches, cherries, apples and berries, all of which are native to our state, are perfect bases for sweet, fruity wines. Even the grapes that do grow well in Michigan are often turned into sweeter, more fruit-forward wines. Thanks to a combination of consumer preference and convenience, these wines have dominated the Michigan wine market in the past, but times are changing. Today’s consumer wants everything local, but still the flavors of “big” red wines typically found in California or abroad. Wine makers are either forced to respond or fall behind.

The Pioneer Wine Trail, stretching from East Lansing to Adrian, is comprised of nine wineries, a few of which are experimenting with more full-bodied, “big” reds. Flying Otter Vineyard & Winery, a member of the trail, doing just that. Bob Utter, Flying Otter’s winemaker, said that the types of grapes that Michigan’s climate can grow was a large part of why Michigan’s reds weren’t quite so bold in the past.

“I think most red wine drinkers prefer a more full-bodied, richer, darker wine,” said Utter.

He believes that consumers are beginning to want more options, including bigger, bolder reds. Innovations have resulted in hybrid grape varieties, rather than traditional Vitis vinifera varieties like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, syrah, etc. Hybrids are made to withstand the harsher climate that Michigan is accustomed to, while still creating good wine.

“We grow cold-hardy hybrid varieties that thrive in our climate. We are able to fully ripen the grapes, giving us rich, dark color with good sugar accumulation and flavor development,” said Utter.

Some winemakers, like Lorenzo Lizarralde from Chateau Aeronautique Winery in Jackson, Michigan, insist that vinifera grapes are superior and that they can grow in Michigan.

“The top wine varieties in the world have been discovered and the French have been at it for 400 to 500 years.”

His favorite wines are French, and he has spent a lot of his time doing research for his own winery. Because he enjoys French wine so much, he has chosen to make a lot of his wines in the French style.

“Overall, the French style produces a more elegant wine. What I’m looking for is balance. That’s a big thing that the French always talk about: balance and terroir.”

While Lizarralde and Utter don’t agree on what grapes are best to use, the idea of the wine being an expression of the “terroir” – the French word for “earth” or “soil,” is where they do.

“I’m a firm believer in terroir,” said Utter. “The grapes and the resulting wine are an expression of the total environment that produced those grapes.”

The two wine makers are leading the pack in south Michigan wineries in creating more full-bodied reds, regardless if it’s due to preference, consumer demand, or just what the terroir has to offer.