How Soil Shapes the Flavor of Michigan Wines

A northern Michigan winemaker has begun unraveling the mysteries of his vineyard's 'terroir.'


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Do the soil its grown in and location of a grapevine have an impact and make a difference in how wine tastes in the bottle?

Oh, yes.

Winemakers “taste” specific wines grown in certain plots on their vineyard land all the time. And there is a great difference in what comes from one corner to another. The science of the soil is as important to growing good grapes as measuring what sun and rain will do to the grapes.

Location and soil are called “terroir” in the wine business, a mysterious term we might hear in discussion, or mostly in passing. 

In France, the best-known wines have come from Old World vines planted in plots that for centuries have been jealously guarded for their Burgundy or Bordeaux character. These are small pieces of land, sometimes as tiny as a quarter-acre, where decades of experience tell the winemaker precisely where vines are going to produce better fruit.

There are several Burgundies with hefty price tags that are driven as much to what’s in the bottle as they are by how little of it is made each year. A few of those wines come from supreme quality soil that is one-of-a-kind half-acre plots.

A few years ago, winemaker Bryan Ulbrich discovered a classic example of this kind of soil-driven flavor variation in a riesling vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula. The topography of his plot was typical of Old Mission: Most of it was flat with a gentle rise near what might be called the front or entrance of the property. But along one side, the land dipped down a few feet. Not substantially but just enough that there was a visible difference. 

He planted it all, including the dip. But out of curiosity, when it came to harvest time, he decided to separate the grapes grown in that dipped area of land and crush them and vinify them separately from the riesling in the rest of the vineyard.

What was remarkable was that the wine from the “dip” didn’t even taste like riesling. In a blind tasting against the non-dip wine and others from regular vineyards, most people said the wine from the dip wasn’t riesling but sauvignon blanc. That’s how far apart the soil in those two areas were. 

I was lucky enough to be get to taste the two wines side by side, and it was truly enlightening. That day, I stopped being a doubter about the importance of terroir, or the lack of it, and truly learned the importance of land and location to wine. 

Since then, I’ve been poured many wines labeled one thing but that tasted largely like something else, all of which is fun and educational, but a headache for wineries trying to determine how they should identify certain wines. How do you sell a riesling that tastes like a sauvignon blanc?

The answer is that you can’t. The best you can do is to either to bottle that wine as a novelty (which means you won’t sell much of it) or blend it in with the riesling from the same vineyard, which is what they did at the Old Mission winery.

Here are three wines that reflect Michigan’s unique soil and terroir:

  • 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Ship of Fools ($15): Dominated by pinot blanc and backed by pinot gris and pinot noir, this reflects Michigan “terroir” in a crisp, racy, exotic white wine. 
  • 2013 Shady Lane Cellars Grüner Veltliner ($20): This Austrian grape has bright cool-climate citrus and pear characteristics and sharp mineral notes.
  • 2013 Wyncroft Avonlea Pinot Noir ($45): This very Burgundy-style wine will please and confuse a Francophile for its succinct French-ness. Cranberry, red cherry, and raspberry notes dominate.
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