An Introduction to Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula AVA

As a wine lover living in California, where the shelves are filled with local wines, it might be easy to overlook the fact that 49 other states in the US also make wine — not to mention the rest of the world. But we are inclusive and curious with regard to wine region and grape variety and recently welcomed the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with wine from Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula AVA. We received a collection of wine as tasting samples from the Wineries of the Old Mission Peninsula®, which promotes this small AVA in northwestern Michigan and ten wineries located there.

We tasted these wines without doing any prior reading about the region or the wineries intending to have an objective tasting of these wines. As I prepared to write this post I dove into the details of the region, the grape varieties grown there and then the individual wineries and their wine. I discovered a beautiful wine region dotted with small wineries, many of which have people connections to other wineries in the Old Mission Peninsula. Their histories are most interesting and the wines well worth exploring.

Hello, Old Mission Peninsula AVA

The Old Mission Peninsula AVA lies north of Traverse City and follows the geographical boundaries of Peninsula Township, with the exclusion of Marion and Basset Islands, plus a bit of Traverse City Township.

Old Mission Peninsula winery map courtesy of Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula

The Old Mission Peninsula AVA is a narrow finger that reaches into Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan. The peninsula takes its name from the village of Old Mission, which was established in 1839 making it the oldest permanent settlement in the area. Old Mission Point is the terminus of the peninsula and the region is approximately 19 miles long and three miles wide.

Deep waters that surround the peninsula help moderate very cold temperatures in winter. In addition to 24 inches of rain per year the area receives 80 inches of snow in winter. Cool temperatures extend longer into spring, thereby delaying bud break, which helps mitigate potential damage from late spring frost. In summer the surrounding water keeps temperatures warm longer, extending harvest into November.

Growing conditions can vary significantly year-to-year in Michigan’s northwest. Extreme cold and windy conditions (polar vortex) in winter can fatally damage grape vines, spring frost can cause damage as can cool weather and rain during fruit set. Rain post-verasion can be a challenge as well. But, through it all, grape growers and winemakers in the Old Mission Peninsula AVA do their best to deal with what Mother Natures hands them. 

Old Mission Peninsula AVA is planted primarily to vinifera grapes: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Still and sparkling wine are made here along with ice wine. The AVA is Michigan’s smallest at 19,200 acres and was established on June 8, 1987. The verdant, hilly region is home to apple and cherry orchards as well as vineyards so you will find fruit wine here as well.

Chateau Grand Traverse

It is only fitting that we begin this tasting of Old Mission Peninsula AVA wine at the beginning…the beginning of the Old Mission Peninsula AVA. It is Edward O’Keefe, Jr., whose Chateau Grand Traverse winery was the only commercial winery in the region at the time, who successfully petitioned for the Old Mission Peninsula AVA and received approval from the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 1987. 

In 1975 he had been the first to plant large-acreage vinifera vineyards is the area against the advice of local experts who thought they were not hearty enough to survive the harsh winters. With the assistance of German viticulturists and winemakers, Chateau Grand Traverse became known for quality wines and Riesling in particular.

What started with 45 acres of Riesling, Chardonnay and Merlot, has become 122 acres planted to 12 European grape varieties. An additional 80 acres are under contract from local growers. 

Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Riesling, Old Mission Peninsula

2017 Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Riesling, Old Mission Peninsulapale yellow in the glass with generous petrol and grilled pineapple aromas. Flavors of ripe pears, stone fruit and petrol are backed by generous acidity and stony minerality. The wine has nice weight in the mouth and a very long finish. 12% abv. 1100 cases produced. SRP $13

One quick sniff leaves you with only one conclusion: Riesling. This is a lovely, expressive Riesling that is a pleasure to sip. The flavors are complex and nicely balance with bright acidity. And who can argue with a SRP of $13?

Chateau Grand Traverse IRF Scale

Chateau Grand Traverse is a founding member of the International Riesling Foundation, which was established to promote Riesling worldwide. The organization also developed the Riesling Taste Profile — a scale that indicates where a wine fits into the dry-to-sweet scale. Look for it on the back label of Rieslings as well as other wines.

Peninsula Cellars

Every glass of Peninsula Cellars wine comes with a bit of history and can be enjoyed in a former one-room schoolhouse. The Kroupa family farming roots run deep on the Old Mission Peninsula. The family farm was recognized as a Centennial Farm by the Historical Society of Michigan in 2015. The honor recognizes 100 years of Kroupa family ownership. John Kroupa is the sixth generation of his family to farm on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Dave and Joan Kroupa planted their first vineyards in May 1991, beginning with Riesling and Chardonnay, as a way to diversify from cherries and apples. They released their first wine in 1994 and built a new winery in 2002. Peninsula Cellars’ first tasting room was located in the Old Mission General store, before being relocated to the historic Maple Grove schoolhouse in 1998. What a perfect place to learn about wine!

Peninsula Cellars makes a range of varietal wines, which includes Riesling in dry and sweet styles, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Red wines include a range of red blends with catchy names like Detention and Old School Red made using cool-climate varieties that include Lemberger and Baco Noir along with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

The Kroupas maintain valued vineyard partnerships with growers and source grapes from throughout the Old Mission Peninsula. 

Dave and Joan’s son, John, is the managing partner and cidermaker, so their production includes hard cider in addition to fruit wine and the wine mentioned above.

Peninsula Cellars Late Harvest Riesling, Old Mission Peninsula

2015 Peninsula Cellars Late Harvest Riesling, Old Mission Peninsulalight yellow in the glass with generous and concentrated aromas of petrol, ripe apricots and pineapples. The flavors follow the aromas with sweet pineapples and apricots along with stony minerality and juicy acidity. The wine is a bit viscous and the sweetness of the wine is nicely balanced by acidity for a clean finish. 8.5% abv. 1026 cases produced. SRP $18.99

This late-harvest Riesling demonstrates a bright balance of flavor, sweetness and that critical acidity to keep the wine crisp and not cloyingly sweet. It is easy to sip on its own and would make a delightful pairing with spicy Asian dishes.

Check the back of the bottle label for the IRF scale, which indicates this is classified as a sweet Riesling.

Chateau Chantal

Chateau Chantal represents a dramatic change in direction for Robert and Nadine Begin. Robert was a Catholic priest in Detroit before leaving the priesthood to begin again in the construction business. Nadine also chose a religious path, and joined the Felician Sisters, but over time chose to leave the religious order. Robert and Nadine were married in 1974 and set out on a path together.

That path led them to the Old Mission Peninsula where they purchased a cherry orchard in 1983. They soon set about clearing the cherries to make way for vineyards, which they began planting in 1984. The couple purchased additional land and by 1991 Begin Orchards had become Chateau Chantal.

Chateau Chantal, named for their daughter Marie-Chantal, now includes a French-style Bed & Breakfast and winery that sits on 65 acres with sweeping views of Traverse Bays and Power Island.

The list of libations made by Chateau Chantal is long and includes varietal wines, cider, cherry wine, sparkling wine and brandy. Malbec from Chateau Chantal’s vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina makes its way into some of the wines.

Chateau Chantal Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Gris, Old Mission Peninsula

2016 Chateau Chantal Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Gris, Old Mission Peninsula golden yellow in the glass with generous aromas of bruised apples and honey. Honeyed flavors of ripe yellow apples are joined by  cedar, toasted almonds and intense minerality. Juicy acidity keeps this wine on its toes. 14.3% abv. 333 cases produced.

Not your usual stainless steel-fermented Pinot Gris; it is a wine with character and nuance. This wine is crafted from 100% estate Pinot Gris from a warm vintage, which means ripe fruit flavors. It was barrel fermented, with monthly battonage, and went through malolactic fermentation and 9 months of aging in neutral oak.

This wine will pair nicely with chicken or sausage, as the winery suggests. We sipped it with Bratwurst and sauerkraut with bacon and apples and it was a dynamite pairing. 

Hawthorne Vineyards

Bruce and Cathleen Hawthorne were drawn to the winery business through their passion for wine and desire to share that enjoyment. Cathleen has family ties in nearby Benzie County that date back to the 1800s.

Hawthorne Vineyards encompasses an 80-acre property that is only partially planted to vineyards, cherries and plums. About 26 acres are planted to grapes with plans for more acreage in the future. 

In spite of its close proximity to Traverse City the property is secluded. Two sides of the property are protected by woods and the other two by land protected from development. The tasting room sits on a bluff overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay. Sounds like an idyllic location. 

Hawthorne Vineyards Rose, Old Mission Peninsula
Hawthorne Vineyards Rose, Old Mission Peninsula

2016 Hawthorne Vineyards Rose, Old Mission Peninsulatranslucent garnet in the glass with aromas of dried strawberries and dusty earth. Flavors of strawberries and blackberries along with peppery spice and cedar are supported by light tannins and nice acidity. This is a dry, substantial rosé that is nearly a light, red wine in character. 13.2% abv. 712 cases produced. SRP $12

This interesting rosé is comprised of Cabernet Franc along with Pinot Meunier, Gamay, Merlot and Pinot Noir sourced from estate vineyards. This is a rosé for a meal. Pair it with grilled chicken, pork chops or chicken tacos.

Mari Vineyards

By Marty Lagina’s account on the winery website, his family’s first effort to plant their vineyards in Old Mission Peninsula took place, “over a hot and frantic weekend in 1999.” Assembled family members and friends enthusiastically planted the first seven rows…but with what varieties? Who knows? In their haste to get the vines planted a random mix of varieties went into those first seven rows. Never mind. Those rows remain and are source of Marni Vineyards Row 7 wine.

In other ways Marty Lagina’s approach to winemaking in Old Mission Peninsula has also been unusual. True to his Italian heritage he planted Friulano, Glera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese (to name a few) along with Cabernet Franc and Merlot, varieties more usual for the region. 

He also has the only wine caves in the area and uses a system of temporary greenhouses over the grapes to create warmer growing conditions during the day thereby extending the growing season. Lagina calls his system Nellaserra and estimates the process, which is expensive and only used on a portion of his vineyards, nets four weeks of addition ripening.

Mari Vineyards Gamay Noir, Old Mission Peninsula

2017 Mari Vineyards Gamay Noir, Old Mission Peninsulatranslucent ruby in the glass with intense aromas of cracked black pepper and red berries. The flavors follow the aromas with black pepper, dried cranberries, ripe raspberries and hints of earthiness. Tannins are ample without overwhelming the flavors or dominating the relatively light body. Juicy acidity rounds out the perfect combination of aromas, flavors and textures. 13% abv.

Can I just say that this wine knocked my socks off? The combination of peppery spice and red fruit in a relatively light body with nice tannins and acid is absolutely delicious. It reminds me of a Pineau d’Aunis from the Loire Valley that is a favorite.

This wine was crafted from the first crop of Gamay from a vineyard that was only four years old. It is 100% Gamay and winemaking began with destemming and leaving the berries whole. They were placed in a red wine fermenter with the weight of the berries left to crush themselves. Juice in the bottom of the fermenter came into contact with yeast on the berries and started fermentation. After 2 to 3 days commercial yeast was added and fermentation proceeded with daily pump-overs for three weeks.

Pressing and transfer to 300L hogshead barrels for malolactic fermentation and aging for 10 months followed. The wine only underwent minimal filtration before bottling in an effort to “maintain the soul and integrity of the wine.” 

Marni Vineyards gives credit to winemaker Sean O’Keefe (yes, a member of the Chateau Grand Traverse family) for spearheading their Gamay Noir efforts built on the knowledge that resulted from Ed O’Keefe’s experience with the variety. O’Keefe was the first to plant Gamay in Michigan and Sean considers it one of the best-suited varieties for the Old Mission Peninsula. Based on this effort I have to agree.

 Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery

Blame it on Napa Valley. A visit Walt and Eileen Brys (rhymes with eyes) made to Napa Valley years ago planted the seed that grew into Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery. In the intervening years Walt and Eileen raised a family and then retired. Retirement didn’t quite do the trick, so the couple decided to pursue their dream of owning a winery.

After a lengthy search for the right spot Walt and Eileen discovered a former cherry and apple orchard on the Old Mission Peninsula. The homestead dates back to the 1890s but had not been an active farm since the 1970s when the orchards were removed. The farm came with a farmhouse and several farm buildings, all in serious need of repair.

That old farmhouse has since been remodeled. Vineyard plantings began in 2001 and in 2004 construction began on their winery and tasting room. The first harvest of estate vineyards took place in 2004 as well.

Vineyards now cover 91 acres planted to cool-climate red and white varieties including Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer.

Brys Estate Pinot Noir, Old Mission Peninsula

2016 Brys Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, Old Mission Peninsulatranslucent garnet in the glass with generous aromas of celery salt, berry bamble and dried blackberries. Flavors of dried cranberries, cedar and forest floor are supported by smooth tannins in a relatively light body. 13.7% abv. 624 cases produced. 1650 cases $32

To my palate this is a lighter style of Pinot Noir that sips well on its own and will pair nicely with roasted chicken, pork and fish. The 100% estate-grown Pinot Noir spent 12 to 14 months aging in French oak barrels.

The Brys Estate Pinot Noir vineyard consists of a variety of clones planted on several rootstocks. The soil is heavier here than most and bud break comes about one week earlier than in other vineyards in the region.

2 Lads Winery

To say the brightly colored, modern design of the 2 Lads wine bottle label catches the eye is a bit of an understatement. It is beautifully designed, as is every label on every bottle of 2 Lads wine. There is an energetic feel to these labels. Just click through the list of wines on the winery website to see for yourself.

The energy behind 2 Lads Winery comes from Chris Baldyga and Cornel Olivier. The two met in 1999 when they worked in the wine cellar at Chateau Grand Traverse. Olivier is from South Africa where he learned winemaking on the family farm before studying winemaking formally. He went on from Chateau Grand Traverse to become the first winemaker at Brys Estate where he established a reputation for quality cool-climate red wines.

2 Lads opened in May 2008 and operates out of a modern gravity-flow winery and tasting room located on 58 acres at the northern end of Old Mission Peninsula. Their specialty is cool-climate red wines and sparkling wine.

2 Lads Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsula

2016 2 Lads Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsulamedium ruby in the glass with translucence near the edge. Muted red fruit aromas evolved over time to include black pepper, pencil shavings and cedar. Red fruit flavors of raspberries and cranberries combine with blackberries, cedar and earth for a complex flavor profile. Tannins are a bit grippy, but well integrated with the flavors in this juicy, just barely medium-bodied Cab Franc. 13.5% abv. 1650 cases produced. SRP $35

The combination of red fruit flavors, cedar and substantial tannins in a relatively light body are irresistible. Decant this wine or be patient once it’s in your glass. It needs a bit of time to uncurl its legs. This wine has as much energy as the label that adorns the bottle.

This varietal Cabernet Franc has 18% Merlot blended in as well. Oak aging took place 40% in neutral oak barrels, 15% large French oak tank and 45% deconstructed French oak barrels for nine months.

Black Star Farms

The Black Star Farms was established in 1998 on Leelanau Peninsula, a peninsula that is larger than and lies to the west of Old Mission Peninsula. In addition to the winery and wine tasting, the original 160-acre site includes an inn, cafe, equestrian facilities and event center. 

A second tasting room in the area is located on the Old Mission Peninsula just north of Traverse City. The rural location is surrounded by vineyards and orchards and was formerly the site of a farm market and cider mill. 

The winery, which focuses of white wine production, is located in a former fruit-processing plant. A Balaton® cherry orchard remains on the property and is the source for cherry wine. European-style brandies are distilled here as well.

Old Mission Peninsula AVA Wine
Black Star Farms Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc, Leelanau Peninsula

2016 Black Star Farms Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc, Leelanau Peninsulapale yellow in the glass with generous aromas of stone fruit and cut grass. Stone fruit flavors continue into the flavor profile along with guava and pineapple and a hint of green herbs. Bright acidity provides a juicy, citrus pith finish in this medium-bodied wine. 13% abv. 763 cases produced. SRP $17.50

This Sauvignon Blanc provides a delicious balance between tropical fruit flavors and grassy, herbaceous flavors. It has nice acidity and a bit of body. This will sip nicely on its own or pair with fish, chicken, vegetables or salads.

This Sauvignon Blanc carries the Leelanau Peninsula AVA designation. Black Star Farms sources Sauvignon Blanc from estate as well as grower vineyards in both Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula AVAs in order to assure consistency from vintage-to-vintage.

Bowers Harbor Vineyards

Bowers Harbor Vineyards is situated on the site of a former horse farm. The transformation to vineyards began in 1991 when the Stegenga family began planting grapevines. Themselves. Literally. 20 acres are now planted to: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The family makes a range of sweet to dry still wines, sparkling wines, fruit wines and cider. They were the first to make an unwooded Chardonnay in the state of Michigan. Happily, we had the opportunity to taste the current release.

Old Mission Peninsula AVA Wine
Bowers Harbor Vineyards Unwooded Chardonnay, Michigan

2017 Bowers Harbor Vineyards Unwooded Chardonnay, Michiganmedium yellow in the glass with generous aromas of stone fruit and grapefruit blossoms. Flavors of white peach and pear are supported by citrusy acidity and flavors. This wine also has a bit of roundness to it and a lingering finish. 12% abv. 2750 cases produced. SRP $16

As advertised, this Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel, but did go through malolactic fermentation. It is easy sipping and should appeal to a wide variety of wine drinkers. And at $16 it’s a bargain. This Chardonnay is labeled with the Michigan AVA designation, not Old Mission Peninsula, which indicates to me that Chardonnay was sourced from several Michigan AVAs.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of wine from Old Mission Peninsula as much as we did. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality and thoroughly enjoyed the broad offering of varietal wines.

Michigan is home to five AVAs. I’ve read that Old Mission Peninsula is the prettiest. It is located very close to Traverse City and is a relatively compact region to visit making it an ideal place to begin your exploration of Michigan wines.

Michigan AVA map courtesy of Michigan Wines

Thanks to the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula for the delicious introduction to your wines.

Cheers!

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