If your wine cravings seem to shift seasonally, you’re not alone. Cooler temperatures seem to awaken an innate desire to reach for heavier reds, displacing the crisp, refreshing whites of summer.
But this fall, before you reach for the usual suspects (looking at you, cabernet sauvignon), allow me to make the case for a red that may not even be on your radar: lemberger.
Produced from a dark-skinned grape of Austrian heritage, lemberger typically is spicy and peppery, with flavors of ripe cherry and ripe plum, says Jan VanMaanen, tasting room manager at Hawthorne Vineyards, one of several Michigan wineries with a lemberger on its menu.
“The black pepper aroma is the hallmark of the grape,” she says. “If you like freshly ground black pepper, then this is your wine. It’s a very well-rounded wine, and very food friendly. It pairs well with red meats, firm cheese, and pork dishes.”
While the grape is still relatively rare in Michigan, an increasing number of wineries seem to be turning to lemberger to bulk up their dry red repertoires. Besides Hawthorne, Michigan wineries producing a lemberger include Shady Lane Cellars, Left Foot Charley, Domaine Berrien Cellars, Peninsula Cellars, Three Fires Wine, Gravity, and Tabor Hill. Jay Briggs, winemaker at Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery, says he has one in the works for next year, and lemberger also plays a supporting role in some wineries’ red blends, such as Gill’s Pier Vineyard & Winery’s Just Unleashed.
According to Karel Bush, promotion specialist with the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, winemaker Wally Maurer of Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs was the first to produce a varietally labeled lemberger, back in 2004.
Just how much ground lemberger has gained here since isn’t quite clear. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps statistics for grapes like riesling, pinot noir, and chardonnay going back years, Bush says lemberger was first singled out in the USDA’s Michigan data in 2011. At that time, the USDA tallied 18 acres in the state, and “since we had no separate data prior to that, it’s safe to say it had increased,” she says.
A self-described “lemberger lover,” Bush says another impending USDA survey should shed more light on the strides lemberger has made here since 2011. The results are expected by next spring.
Bill MacDonald and his wife, Margaret, own a vineyard on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula that supplies lemberger to winemaker Bryan Ulbrich of nearby Left Foot Charley (who labels his version as blaufränkisch, the Austrian name for the same grape). When the MacDonalds first purchased the property, planting 50/50 lemberger and pinot gris, they were far more enthusiastic about the well-known white grape than the lesser-known red.
“I was really excited about the pinot gris, but not so excited about this lemberger grape that I never heard of,” he says. “Well, now it is the opposite. I — and Bryan — now wish I had all blaufränkisch.”
Last year, MacDonald’s half-acre yielded nearly 4,800 pounds of the grape, his biggest crop to date.
“I think it’s well-suited for Michigan, because it’s fairly winter hardy,” he says. “Also, bud break is relatively early and it ripens later, so assuming no spring frost, it has a long season to ripen.”
MacDonald calls lemberger “Michigan’s best red wine,” praising its food-friendly and versatile character, distinctive spice notes, and dominant blueberry and blackberry flavors.
With a medium-body, “nice” acidity and soft tannins, “it should appeal to anyone that likes a dry red wine which is not too soft or too heavy,” he says. And it works well both as a straight varietal wine or blended with a bit of cabernet franc or merlot, he adds.
Michelle Bazin-Johnson of Grand Beach shares MacDonald’s enthusiasm for the grape, dubbing lemberger her family’s “go-to” for most grilled meats.
“We like to do spicy rubs with pork or chicken, and it complements the spiciness of the food quite nicely,” says Bazin-Johnson, who suggested Domaine Berrien’s and Gravity’s lembergers. “We even had it with brats a few weekends ago, and it was wonderful.”
Jennifer Wheeler of Birmingham dubbed Domaine Berrien’s her favorite.
“It’s a fun, medium-bodied wine with a bit of spice,” she says, “and pairs well with so many dishes, especially lamb.”
Domaine Berrien’s Maurer called his 2012 Lemberger “the finest vintage” he’s ever made, with vanilla, spice, and molasses on the nose and black and red currant, spicy black cherry, and blue fruit on the palate. He recommends pairing it with portobello mushrooms or pork tenderloin.
I fear lemberger is often overlooked on wine lists due to its name (no, it has nothing in common with the stinky cheese — that’s limburger). That’s a shame, considering how well it’s vitified and vinified in Michigan.
While less reminiscent of a polarizing dairy product, the primary alternate name, blaufränkisch, could prove mystifying to wine newbies. And depending on wineries’ marketing decisions, you may also see lemberger hiding in plain sight — under a proprietary name.
Case in point: Shady Lane Cellars, which christened its lemberger “Blue Franc.” California winemaker Jed Steele trademarked the moniker, but he’s permitted his nephew, Shady Lane winemaker Adam Satchwell, to use it as well. (You’ll also find a nod to the Blue Franc name in Shady Lane’s cabernet franc and lemberger blend, known as Franc ’n’ Franc.)
Regardless of what it’s called, MacDonald urges consumers to step outside their comfort zones and give the grape a chance.
“Like any other wine, I would say forget the name and try it!” he says. “You might just like it.”
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, a joint offsite tasting room in partnership with six Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township. Contact her at email@example.com.