If you’re searching for new wine country to visit, Michigan might just be the ticket. Less than two hours from Chicago, Michigan’s wine region offers five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), six wine trails, and one sub-wine region just waiting to be explored.
Michigan’s climate is perfect for varietals such as Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Gewürztraminer that thrive in cooler temperatures. However, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot prove popular here, too. In addition, the northernmost region of grape growing in Michigan is at the 45th parallel, the same as Bordeaux or Chianti.
The wine industry is well-established here and growing. Today, there are more than 140 wineries attracting 1.7 million tourists annually. Michigan ranks in the top 10 in the US for wine grape growing. And it ranks #6 as a wine region, just behind Texas. Because its surrounded by the Great Lakes, Michigan is not just a wine region of distinction, but also a place of natural beauty.
The Five AVAs of Michigan
Fennville, in Southwestern Michigan, was the state’s first AVA, established in 1981. And, it was only the third AVA established in the US. It’s also Michigan’s smallest AVA and benefits from Lake Michigan’s “lake effect,” which moderates winter and summer temperature extremes. The lake effect also lengthens the growing season.
Lake Michigan Shore, also in Southwestern Michigan, established two years after Fennville, now encompasses the Fennville AVA. It also benefits from the lake effect. The rolling glacial hills within the district move the flow of cool air, lowering the risk of vineyard damage caused by pockets of frost.
The Leelanau Peninsula in Northwestern Lower Michigan became the state’s second AVA in 1982. It also benefits from the lake effect from Lake Michigan, Grand Traverse Bay, and Lake Leelanau.
Established in 1987, the Old Mission Peninsula, lies across Grand Traverse Bay from the Leelanau Peninsula. Here spring arrives a little later, and fall lingers longer. The summers are not as hot and humid as other parts of Michigan. Lake Michigan’s lake effect plays a larger role in moderating temperature extremes. Karen MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible, says, “Old Mission Peninsula is one of Michigan’s most important AVAs.”
The Tip of the Mitt (the nickname for the top of the state whose shape resembles a mitten) is Michigan’s newest AVA, just approved in 2016. Its climate is less extreme than the south, benefiting from a longer frost-free growing season.
Six Wine Trails
Not to be confused with Michigan’s five AVAs, six distinct wine trails wind through the state. With so much to explore and taste, how do you know where to start? From tiny wine trails you can cover in a day to larger ones you’d need a week to travel, here’s a guide to exploring Michigan’s wines:
Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail
The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, in the Southwest part of the state, runs mostly along Lake Michigan’s shores and extends inland almost to Kalamazoo. The trail is a collection of 15 wineries, including St. Julian, Michigan’s oldest and largest winery. The trail traverses the Lake Michigan Shore AVA and the smaller Fennville AVA.
With a reputation for producing some of the best wines that Michigan has to offer, the trail also draws visitors to its beachfront towns and stunning sunsets. An easy drive from Chicago, Detroit, South Bend, and Toledo, the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail is known as “the Napa Valley of the Midwest.”
Glen Arbor Village Wine Trail
Located in Glen Arbor, the Glen Arbor Village Wine Trail consists of three wineries – Glen Arbor Wines, M22, and Cherry Republic. Visitors can taste at all three wineries located within a block of each other in this northern Michigan village. After wine tasting, consider purchasing a bottle and head to the nearby beach, steps away on Sleeping Bear Bay.
Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail
Leelanau Peninsula in the northwest part of the state near Traverse City became Michigan’s first wine trail. In the early 1980s, the peninsula was home to four wineries. Today, 26 wineries dot this trail. With lakeside access and plenty of waterfront lodging, the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail provides an ideal vacation spot.
Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail
The Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail juts north into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Twelve wineries line the 19-mile long wine trail, just one to four miles apart, with the first one only five miles from Traverse City. Here you’ll find breathtaking views of the bay along the way, including at some of the wineries like 2 Lads and Bowers Harbor Vineyards. Its wineries produce award-winning wines, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and even ice wines.
Thumbs Up Wine Trail
Located in the “thumb” region of Southeast Michigan, the Thumbs Up Wine Trail consists of 12 wineries. Romantic bed and breakfasts, local cafes, cideries, and breweries dot the trail, providing plenty to enjoy on a long, relaxing weekend getaway.
Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail
The Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail boasts five wineries in Michigan’s Irish Hills. Close to Detroit, a visit to this wine trail makes an easy day trip. And three of the wineries offer food as well as wine tasting.
Petoskey Wine Region
In addition to the named wine trails, one distinct sub-region with a collection of 14 wineries exists – the Petoskey Wine Region. The state’s most northern wine region in the Tip of the Mitt AVA, Petoskey, grows rich, robust grapes that thrive in cold temperatures. Therefore, hybrid varietals such as Marquette, Frontenac, Lemberger, Traminette, and Vignoles are popular here.
The area draws vacationers to the shores of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay dating back a hundred years. Now, with the added benefit of wine tasting in Michigan’s newest AVA, the attraction is even greater.
St. Julian, on the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, remains Michigan’s oldest and largest winery. The winery produces over 60 different wines, vodka, rum, gin, brandy, and whiskey. But the 2019 Braganini Reserve Mountain Road Riesling was my favorite.
For 50 years, Tabor Hill has played an important role in the Michigan wine industry. With three locations in Southwest Michigan’s wine country, you’ll have plenty of choices to taste Tabor Hill wines. Their main location in Buchanan, Michigan, includes a restaurant and an inviting vineyard setting.
Rove Estate, on the Leelanau Peninsula sits at the highest point in Leelanau County. Started by 5th generation farmer Creighton Gallagher, and his wife, McKenzie, Rove specializes in estate-grown vinifera (species of grapes native to Europe)
Overlooking South Lake Leelanau, the Amoritas Vineyards is worth a visit for its stunning property and wide variety of outstanding white wines. A labor of love, the Goodell family owns and operates the winery. So don’t be surprised to meet a member of the family working in the vineyard or pouring in the tasting room.
Bowers Harbor Vineyards
Bowers Harbor Vineyards, a family run business on the Old Mission Peninsula was established in 1991. At this winery you’ll find its vineyard dogs featured on many of their wine labels. And of course, the outdoor patio is dog friendly. The winery offers over 30 wines and hard ciders.
Leelanau Cellars’ tasting room, on the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, overlooks the Grand Traverse Bay. Sitting on the heated, outdoor patio, with a glass of wine in hand, it’s hard to imagine a better place to be this fall.
If You Go
If I’ve piqued your interest, there are many cities to fly into, if you don’t live within driving distance of Michigan. Kalamazoo, Detroit, South Bend, and Grand Rapids all provide easy access depending on which wine trail or region you want to visit. Even Traverse City in Northwest Michigan offers plenty of flight options.
Visit Pure Michigan for more trip-planning ideas.