Whenever Michigan wine comes up in conversation, there is a natural tendency to think of that space between the index and middle finger, where Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas are located on the famed Michigan mitten.
But the mushrooming growth of the state’s industry — at last count, 117 fully bonded wineries — has produced several other growing areas, one far closer to Detroit than most people realize.
The Pioneer Wine Trail has eight wineries, plus a couple of tasting rooms, to make 10 stops. They’re fairly close to each other south of I-94 around Jackson and Tecumseh and along M-12 — the scenic route of the old 1800s stagecoach road between Detroit and Chicago. It can be a fun weekend distraction, either as a day trip or an overnight getaway.
The trail includes wineries that have been around for 20 or more years, as well as fairly recent newcomers. What is evident is the maturity that Michigan wines have reached in recent years in both winemaking as well as what is done in the vineyard. The wines have achieved genuine distinction around the country.
The wineries grow both vinifera varietals that we know most of all — chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet franc, pinot grigio, and others — but also the lesser-known French hybrid grapes that actually did the pioneering work here long before vinifera was introduced because of their cold-climate hardiness. Seyval blanc, baco noir, and vignoles also produce interesting dry and off-dry wines.
The trail’s wineries:
Burgdorf’s Winery, 5635 Shoeman Rd., Haslett, 517-655-2883. // The Burgdorf name has been around the Michigan wine industry for a long time, associated mostly with fruit wines. Five years ago, the family went full bore, also making also dry whites and reds from both hybrid and European varietals.
Chateau Aeronautique, 1849 Rives-Eaton Rd., Jackson, 517-569-2132. // This airplane-motif winery begins to make more sense when you know that its founder-owner is a commercial airline pilot. The wines are impressive coming from such a new winery. The syrahs stood out in recent tastings.
Cherry Creek Cellars, 11000 Silver Lake Hwy., Brooklyn, 517-592-4663. // The Burtka family story is one of those great examples of a transition from fruit farmers into winemakers that we have seen around Michigan. They make a big, powerful limited edition Bordeaux-like Cabernet Sauvignon, and an array of fruit wines and aromatic whites, all of which are very impressive.
Flying Otter Winery, 3402 Chase Rd., Adrian, 877-876-5580. // This winery that opened in 2011 is owned and run by father and son Bob and Jeff Utter. They make wines from French native American grapes and French hybrid grapes.
J. Trees Cellars, 703 E. Chicago Blvd., Tecumseh, 877-304-3254. // This 2014 addition is a combination winery/cidery, located in the historic Hayden-Ford Mill Building. Owner and winemaker Jon Treloar’s place has a rustic hand-hewn look courtesy of recycled rafters.
Lone Oak Vineyard Estate,8400 Ann Arbor Rd., Grass Lake, 517-522-8167. // Owners Dennise and Kip Barber, a former flight attendant and woodworker, gave up their careers in 1997 and began clearing the land and planting grapes a few acres at a time. They now have 12 wines.
Pentamere Winery, 131 E. Chicago Blvd., Tecumseh, 517-423-9000. // This is one of the more senior wineries on the Pioneer trail. Pentamere has been around for more than a decade producing wines mostly under proprietary names, some made from standard European grapes and fruits (peach, plum, and apple.)
Sandhill Crane Vineyard, 4724 Walz Rd., Jackson, 517-764-0679. // One of the longtimers that helped establish winemaking in this area, Sandhill Crane is a family operation. Winemaker Holly Balansag is best known for her aromatic whites — traminette, vignoles, and riesling — that are a precise, true expression of the grapes. The winery also makes dry red wines and fruit wines