Can Pinot Blanc Be Michigan’s Signature Grape?
In Northern Michigan, a small number of producers are working with a grape that could have great potential for the region’s growing wine business. Although Pinot Blanc has been around for many years, it has only recently made its way to Michigan. Pinot Blanc is a medium to high vigor grape, usually grown on a VSP trellis system, and grafted to rootstock such as 3309.
A genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, the majority of the world’s Pinot Blanc production is in France, Italy, and Germany, but it has demonstrated an ability to produce quality wine around the 45th parallel in Michigan. While it’s hardly a “new” varietal, no wine producing region is currently closely associated with Pinot Blanc. Some Michigan wine observers think that Pinot Blanc could be the wine that provides Northern Michigan with an opportunity to create a global brand name.
Paul Hamelin, owner of Verterra Winery in the Leelanau Peninsula, states that his Pinot Blanc grapes mature in a similar pattern as Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. He says that Verterra not only makes a single varietal Pinot Blanc, but they also use it as a blender. Their wine is dry, with residual sugars less than 1% on average after fermentation.
Hamelin reports that their Pinot Blanc wine appeals to all ages of wine drinkers. Michigan Pinot Blanc tends to be more fruit forward than most cold climate wines, with tropical fruit aromas and flavors.
Hamelin adds that “fresh and crisp” are two qualities that appeal to his customers and Pinot Blanc has both in abundance. ‘It sells very well in the tasting room as it is a very unique, enjoyable wine,” he said.
Across Grand Traverse Bay, on neighboring Old Mission Peninsula, three other wineries in northern Michigan are also making wine from Pinot Blanc.
Kristy McClellan, director of operations at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, describes their Pinot Blanc as crisp, clean, fruit forward with mango, banana, and citrus aromas. She says that what appeals to drinkers is that it is dry, but very fruity and refreshing. ‘Sweet wine drinkers transition well into drier styles similar to this type of wine because of the bright fruit flavors,” she said.
She adds that there doesn’t seem to be any one demographic that favors Pinot Blanc, it’s one of those wines that appeals to both serious and casual wine drinkers. ‘Older vintage wine drinkers associate Pinot Blanc with other quality varietals from Alsace. New vintage wine drinkers love the trendy/cult-like style of Pinot Blanc and enjoy diverging from the mass-produced white wine varietals,” McClennan said.
She says that Pinot Blanc sells well. Bowers Harbor started with 200 cases of Pinot Blanc during February and has less than 50 cases left now. McClellan recommends drinking this wine young. Consuming Pinot Blanc before its second birthday keeps the effervescence and acidity alive, she says.
Bowers Harbor starts with grapes that usually ripen at around 23 brix, with a pH around 3.3 and TA content at 6.5-7. The residual sugar is about .45% after fermentation. There is no lees contact and oak is not used in the process.
Their Twyris Vineyard, named after the winemaker’s daughters Twyla and Iris, overlooks Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which according to McClellan, allows the plants to receive maximum sun exposure. ‘They receive special treatment. They are grown with meticulous attention to detail and care.”
Hawthorne Vineyards, located four miles north of Traverse City on the Old Mission Peninsula, makes a dry, stainless fermented Pinot Blanc wine. Marie Dalese of Hawthorne Vineyards says that the lightness of the wine and its versatility are what seems to appeal to drinkers. ‘The crisp and clean aspect from the stainless steel is also appealing.” She adds that there is no particular age group for their Pinot Blanc, and that it sells moderately well.
Hawthorne’s wine, which is made by Brian Hosmer, starts with grapes harvested at around 20 brix. The pH is usually around 3.2, and the TA 7-9. Dalese says that Pinot Blanc ferments relatively easy and usually does best with a straightforward fermentation. The residual sugar is for Hawthorne’s Pinot Blanc is around .2 to .4%.
Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery, also located on the Old Mission Peninsula, makes an award-winning Pinot Blanc wine. The 2012 vintage took gold medals in the 2013 Pacific Rim, 2013 Riverside International, and 2013 Tasters Guild International competitions.
According to Coenraad Stassen, winemaker at Brys Estate, their grapes are picked at around 21 brix, with a pH of about 3.10 and a TA content of 7.5-8. Stassen says that he will ferment his Pinot Blanc dry in most years, but in cooler years he increases residual sugar to .5-1% to balance acidity. ‘My approach on Pinot Blanc is to treat it like a Sauvignon Blanc, we want clean crisp flavors with good balance,” Stassen says.
Pinot Blanc sells well in the tasting room at Brys Estate. Stassen says that people seem to like it as a summer wine. ‘What appeals to the consumer is the pear and golden apple flavors you get.”
There are relatively few producers of Pinot Blanc in Michigan. Pinot Blanc does not even appear on the 2011 USDA Michigan Grape Survey, and from this omission it can be concluded that less than 17 acres of Pinot Blanc were growing in Michigan as recently as a few years ago. However, the Niagara region of Ontario has been growing Pinot Blanc with success for some time.
The ability of this grape to survive and succeed in cool climate AVA’s, such as the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula, came a surprise to some. However, there were reports of Pinot clones growing as far north as Belgium before phylloxera. Verterra Winery and Brys Estate have both reported that the susceptibility to winter damage is similar to other types of vinifera, such as Merlot or Chardonnay. Bowers Harbor and Hawthorne Vineyards report that it is more cold hardy when compared to other varieties, including Pinot Noir, of which it is a genetic clone. In all cases, the Michigan producers and their customers seem pleased with the results they have achieved from Pinot Blanc.
Whether Pinot Blanc will be a major player in the Michigan wine business, or makes an appearance elsewhere in the Midwest remains to be seen. For now, the limited amount is attracting attention from wine lovers. In a region where Riesling reigns supreme, it will be interesting to see how Pinot Blanc measures up.