Floating a Dryer Idea at Michigan’s Hickory Creek Winery
Homepage picture: Jayne and Eric Wagner and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Toddy
The 200 miles of shoreline that separates Southwest Michigan and the Traverse City area is not a long distance by boat or car, yet the perceptions of wine produced in Northern and Southern Michigan are very different. As wine drinkers work their way up the Lake Michigan coast, conventional wisdom says that the wines will grow progressively dryer.
Yet this historical bias in no longer accurate. Many Southwest Michigan wineries are now making wines with lower residual sugars and more subtle aromas and flavors. Leading the way towards dryer wines that are more in line with urban palates is Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan Michigan, which changed ownership in 2012.
According to Jayne Wagner, who bought the winery in May of 2012 with her husband Eric, “Hickory Creek Winery remains committed to using Lake Michigan Shore AVA grapes to create wines that are faithful to old world taste and techniques.” One of the first actions the Wagner’s took as new owners was to tear out the original vineyard and plant new varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Riesling in the works.
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Hickory Creek had long been the Wagner’s favorite regional winery, so they didn’t hesitate when the opportunity to buy presented itself. Retaining winemaker Mike de Schaaf was a major factor in the Wagner’s decision to purchase the winery. De Schaff was one of the original owners of Hickory Creek when the winery opened in 2006. He also manages 40 acres of local vineyards and works as a regional viticulture consultant.
While the Traverse City area is better known for vinifera wines than Southwest Michigan, de Schaaf believes the later region actually has better growing conditions for many traditional grapes such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘It is warmer here in Southwest Michigan, so we have the ability to ripen a more diverse variety of grapes than they do up North,” de Schaaf said.
“Norther Michigan is also becoming focused on Riesling, while Riesling is not going to be our best game down here,” he said
Hickory Creek recently introduced a Lake Michigan Shore GrÃ¼ner Veltliner. GrÃ¼ner is an Austrian grape which only now covers about 18 acres in Michigan according to a recent state survey. de Schaaf said his first Michigan GrÃ¼ner ripened to 24 brix and is cold hardy enough for the region, although 60% of ’12 GrÃ¼ner production was from secondary buds.
“But the secondaries on GrÃ¼ner are still very productive,” de Schaff said. “We still got 3.5 tons per acre.”
Cabernet Franc also is gaining popularity in Southwest Michigan, de Schaaf said. For his Cab Franc, he employs a three-week slow fermentation which requires a lot of cap management. Hickory Creek Cab Franc also undergoes a three-day cold soak. The result is a lot of tannin extraction and a richness that is partially a result of careful yeast selection.
In the greater Lake Michigan Shore AVA, the landscape fluctuates from sand dunes to flatlands. Hickory Creek sits on top of two to three feet of clay, but beneath is a well-drained, sandy soil. De Schaaf now is in the process of restarting a vineyard that will fare better in these conditions.
Originally, the vineyard rows were 10 feet apart with six-foot vine spacing. Now the rows will be 8.5 feet apart with vines planted every four feet. The number of vines per acre will increase from 850 to 1,200 but De Schaaf says the new vineyard will yield the same tonnage but with less fruit per plant.
With the new configuration, the vines will compete for nutrients which will keep the vigor down, de Schaaf said. He will be using a VSP trellis system, cane pruned to approximately 30 buds per plant. To help eradicate weeds, de Schaaf intends to plant a temporary patch of winter wheat to choke off extraneous root systems.
Hickory Creek continues to rely on several local vineyards for grapes, 75 percent of which are managed by de Schaaf. The remaining 25% are supplied by farmers that he knows personally. ‘Even though I am not the one driving the tractor, I know exactly what is going on with all our grapes,” he says.
De Schaaf pays a lot of attention to the amount of sun on his grapes, especially white wine grapes. For example, he starts leaf pulling when the basal leaves stop producing chlorophyll in order to increase sun exposure. This helps boost glycerol levels to promote a desired richness for GrÃ¼ner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc. ‘Even though our wines are bone dry, there still is a sweetness so you almost can’t believe that you are tasting a dry wine,” he said. Some Hickory Creek wines are lightly oaked, but most spend their entire lives in stainless steel and glass.
Hickory Creek’s 2012 production was about 3,000 gallons with plans to increase production to around 3,500 gallons this year. The production area was expanded during 2012 which increased capacity.
Growing the business will be achieved partially through increased distribution. The Wagners are now self distributing in Illinois. In Michigan, Paw Paw Wine Distributors of Kalamazoo distributes for Hickory Creek.
They also are pursing better contacts with stores and restaurants. Already, they are on the wine lists at a few high-end Chicago restaurants including Everest and the Green Dolphin. Their GrÃ¼ner was served at the NATO summit luncheon last summer at Terzo Piano in the Art Institute. The winery also participated in the Michigan Farm to Table Festival produced by the Chicago based television show “Check Please!”
Other new marketing efforts include a redesign of the website, the creation of a wine club and a new newsletter featuring chefs’ recipes to pair with Hickory Creek’s wines. The winery will also debut an educational series including winemaking classes and vertical tastings
Reaching out to a more urban audience (downtown Chicago is 90 miles away) should help the Wagner’s lure more sophisticated palettes to the area and help change perceptions of Southwest Michigan’s wine culture. ‘Michigan wines have always had a rap for sweet wines and lower quality. We are trying slowly but surely changing that perception,” said Eric Wagner. ‘The market is there.”
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