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TRAVERSE CITY, Mi. – The idea of growing wine grapes in northern Michigan was unthinkable 30 years ago. But a few brave pioneers and many producers since have shown wine drinkers, skeptics, and wine competitions around the world the area can produce classy white wines.

Riesling is by far the most planted grape and the wine has turned heads across the country. Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula have more than 30 wineries. More vineyard is being planted as production soars. Wine production has increased 65 percent in the past eight years according to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

Grape Sense LogoA mid-April visit, following a 2010 introduction to Michigan wine, yielding a surprising surge in red wine quality. The area is still hanging its hat on the Reisling, Pinot Blanc and plenty of fruit wine. But the three primary red wine grapes grown in the cool climate are starting to show enough vine age to produce really good wines. Cabernet Franc has been the best wine and best seller. But Pinot Noir has made great strides.

A tasting panel of two journalists, a sommelier and retailer sang the praises of four Leelanau 100 percent Merlots which were blind tasted for the Northern Michigan Wine Loop.

“We need red grapes here that mature a little bit earlier than varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon,” said Paul Hamelin, owner of Verterra Winery in picturesque Leland along Lake Michigan. “What fits here beautifully is Merlot. We can consistently get Merlot, as a Bordeaux wine grape, ripe here.

“We’re starting to see the expressions of it now. There are probably a half dozen wineries bottling 100 percent Merlot. You see the depth of the fruit and the character coming out in our Merlot.”

PaulHamelinLOThe beauty of numerous Merlots I tasted was the bright and fresh fruit without the muddled mid palate of California plonk. The upper-state Michigan Merlot had a nice silky mouthfeel and pleasant finish.

It’s hard to find agreement among winemakers about what the area’s red identity can become. But there is no question the Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, and the emergence of Merlot provides the area with three red wines of surprising quality.

The area has tremendous Pinot Noir possibilities. The 45th parallel runs through the area as it does through Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay demand grapes which can thrive in a cool climate resulting in lighter bodied wines.

As the vines mature and more expertise finds its way to the two Peninsulas, the wines will continue to improve and stand up to other areas’ bottles. But northern Michigan will always struggle with its growing season. In 2010 I was tasting 2008 and 2009 vintages which were terrible growing seasons. The wines were thin, not much fruit, and lacking character.

During the visit just a few weeks ago, the reds were rich and interesting.

Leelanau and Old Mission is an area to consider for a weekend trip. Traverse City offers an exciting food scene and the wines will really surprise you. Not much Northern Michigan makes it to Indiana. But a weekend trip to Michigan’s northern wine country will surprise and delight you.