Southwest Michigan and its wine country are very much coming of age in the last couple of decades. This area, now known as the Southwest Michigan Wine Trail, isn’t only producing your grandfather’s wine—wine which were mainly fruity styles from French-American hybrids with high residual sugar. Many are shocked to find full bodied reds and lovely dry style acid driven whites that make one reminisce about wines of the old world. There is a wind of change in the Southwest Michigan which gives one much to get excited about.
There have been many firsts that we have experienced over the last 45 plus years. There are two very important American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Southwest Michigan. Fennville The Fennville AVA was founded with the establishment of the Fenn Valley Winery and the Welsch family being the driving force in this area. The Lake Michigan Shore AVA followed in 1983 anchored over the years by producers such as Tabor Hill and St. Julian. These viticultural areas still stand, but continue to grow and evolve with many new vineyards and wineries dotting the landscape.
The wine produced in Southwest Michigan ranges from estate-bottled and single-vineyard wines made on the premises by producers who grow their own grapes, to negociant wine made from purchased grapes or juice sourced from local farmers. Both produce wine with a taste characteristic of the region and its vinifera or wine grapes. Many thousands of agritourists are discovering the new Southwest Michigan Wine Trail each and every day as they pass through the vineyards that stretch from Buchannan to Baroda, Paw to Pullman, and of course Fennville.
Fenn Valley Vineyards, nurtured and matured under the leadership of Doug Welsch over the last four decades is now operated by third generation owners Gwen, his daughter, and her husband Brian Lesperance. Brian Lesperance states, “Many people who visit our vineyards are sometimes shocked to find that we produce high quality productions that are also from the traditional French-American hybrids such as seyval, chancellor, foch, and vignole. We have made some rather deliberate changes over the years focusing on the more recognized varietals of the vinifera family, which originate from Europe, such as pinot grigio, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, riesling, and gewurztraminer.”
This process started very early in the life of this family owned estate that now counts over 55 acres under vine. Founded in 1971, the first of these European varieties were planted in 1973. As the Welsch family continually looked for ways to improve on what they are doing, they formed relationships with Michigan State University’s Agricultural Department and have continued to expand and innovate with both the vinifera and hybrid varietals. They have also been a center which has nurtured growth and innovation amongst their neighbors.
James Lester and Daun Page of Wyncroft Winery are also creating waves in today’s wine world. The winery crafts small batch estate and artisanal negociant wines out of Buchanan and Pullman. James made his first wines in 1986 at Madron Lake Hills which produced estate bottled wines exclusively from vinifera. The first 1987 vintage became known as being Michigan’s first artisan production of stellar pinot noir and barrel fermented chardonnay. Wyncroft’s exclusively estate grown, single vineyard wines have been produced since 1998. They have long have been heralded as pinnacle productions from Southwest Michigan. This eight-acre vineyard yields 300 cases between chardonnay, dry riesling, pinot noir and red bordeaux varietals.
Marland Wines by Wyncroft are small batch productions which come from selected vineyards exclusively in Southwest Michigan. James and Daun oversee all vineyard management and harvests before the grapes get to their brand-new gravity-fed winery in Pullman. “The wines of Marland, which means ‘land near the lake’ in Old English, represent a Michigan twist on the classical styles from the old world,” says Lester. “One might also say that the Marland wines are more approachable in their youth, which makes them a favorite of chefs and restaurateurs alike.”
Dablon Vineyards owned by William Schopf is one of West Michigan’s newest estate bottled wineries and has really embraced the potential for growing top notch productions entirely focused on European vinifera grapes. The vineyard is named after Father Claude Dablon, a Jesuit missionary who was recorded to have been the first to make wine from indigenous grapes in Michigan back in 1655. He was the also the direct superior and mentor of Pere Jacques Marquette, who founded the first European settlement in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
William says, “The entire focus of our estate is driven by noble European varietals. It is all about the grapes. We plant and grow all that is made into wine at Dablon Vineyards. Great grapes makes great wine. We currently have planted 16 varietals throughout the estate including carmenere, tannant, petit verdot, nebbiolo and tempranillo.” Dablon currently counts 37 acres to their estate and red grapes represent over 70 percent of total yield, with the original sites being planted in 2009.
“We really could not have been more excited to acquire the location of the vineyards in Baroda when it became available in 2008.” says William. “The property was exactly what we were looking for. It is planted on glacial moraines, located at one of the highest points in proximity to Lake Michigan.” This provides for cooling winds off the lake and offers over 10 rich soil types, enabling Dablon to grow a vast variety of grapes with wonderful structure and complexity.
Fenn Valley Vineyards, Wyncroft Winery, and Dablon Vineyards are just a few of the treasures worth visiting if you take a trek the Southwest Michigan Wine Trail. Whether you are an agritourist, connoisseur, or enthusiast, there is a vineyard waiting to be savored out your back door.
Bradford Hammerschmidt is Partner and Wine Specialist at Imperial Beverage, a long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984, Imperial has grown from a one-county beer distributor to a top 10 statewide beer, wine and spirits wholesaler. With 330 employees and three locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan County, every week, all year long.