Mighty Marquette

This cold-hardy hybrid makes its mark on Michigan wine
Marquette Grapes on the vine // Photograph courtesy of Mackinaw Trail Winery

Ask the average Michigander about Marquette, and he’ll likely reference a city in the Upper Peninsula. Ask a wine-loving Michigander, and the answer may be very different.

Marquette — a cold-hardy hybrid grape developed at the University of Minnesota and introduced in 2006 — is on the rise in Michigan, thanks to its tolerance for the state’s often fickle weather.

“Michigan has been looking for its signature red for years,” says Dustin Stabile, head winemaker at Petoskey-based Mackinaw Trail Winery. “I have heard Cabernet Franc and Lemberger thrown around, but I feel Marquette is going to become our state’s red. It can grow in every part of Michigan, it ripens every year, you can get good crop size, and it makes a great wine. It’s a very versatile grape.”

Marquette is particularly prevalent along the Bay View Wine Trail and in the Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area, home to Mackinaw Trail and dozens of other wineries. There, the climate can pose challenges for ripening vinifera grapes and necessitates planting of the hardier hybrids. Besides its temperature tolerance, Marquette also is naturally resistant to various pests and fungi to which vinifera are susceptible, such as powdery mildew, says Matt Killman, consulting winemaker at Walloon Lake Winery in Petoskey.

Marquette Grapes // Photograph courtesy of Joshua Morgan, Petoskey Farms

Wine aficionados often debate passionately about whether hybrids are capable of producing as high-quality wines as internationally known and beloved vinifera grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. But the winemakers who grow and vinify Marquette are convinced of its power and appeal.

“When it comes to Marquette, I think it comes down to building an identity,” says Joshua Morgan, winemaker at Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery, which has planted 650 vines of the grape that yield about 3.5 tons a year. “Especially in the Tip of the Mitt AVA, [consumers] see it at multiple wineries and get to experience each winemaker’s different approach to this variety.

“I truly think that Marquette will be the hybrid grape that breaks the glass ceiling for hybrid grapes, and that’s what I love most about it — the look on people’s faces when they try it and say, ‘Oh wow, that’s really good!’ ”

According to Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Craft Beverage Council (formerly the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council), Marquette plantings are steadily increasing in Michigan. A U.S. Department of Agriculture grape survey showed 64 acres planted in 2016, up from 27 in 2014 and 12 in 2011 — the first year Marquette showed up on the survey, she says.

The way the grape is used also is changing. “Marquette was used originally for blending — and it still is — but we have definitely seen an increase in the number of Marquette varietal wines made from it,” Bush says. Not surprisingly, the number of Marquette varietal wines submitted to the Michigan Wine Competition also is on the rise. Bush reports that 10 Marquette wines — nine reds and one rosé — were entered for the 2018 competition, with four taking gold medals. Prior to this year, only two or three Marquettes were submitted since 2012, the first year it appeared in the judging, she adds.

Walloon Lake Winery’s North Arm Noir, an oaked Marquette, claimed the Best of Class Dry Red award in the 2017 Michigan Wine Competition. The winery also produces a dry rosé, semi-sweet rosé blend, and sweet unoaked red from Marquette grapes, which they have planted on 2 acres. They also source it from other growers for vineyard diversity.

Marquette Grapes post-harvest // Photograph courtesy of Mackinaw Trail Winery

Burgdorf’s Winery was the first to win a gold medal for Marquette at the Michigan Wine Competition back in 2012, according to Bush. Located in Haslett, the winery sources its Marquette from local vineyards and uses it for both a varietal wine and in blends.

“I love working with the grape, since it’s generally in good form — no rot — and the color, sugar, and acids are perfect for production of a wonderful dry red wine,” says Deb Burgdorf, owner and vintner. “Very little manipulation is needed.”

At Mackinaw Trail, Stabile has fashioned their 8.5 acres of Marquette into oaked, unoaked, dry, sweet, and rosé styles over the years. This year, he plans to create a barrel reserve version under his Unrestricted label. The only real challenge, says Stabile, is Marquette’s struggle to maintain tannins.

Killman describes Marquette’s basic character as “acidic, lightly tannic, and nearly always there is an element of cherry.” Burgdorf says hers is fruit forward and medium-bodied, with notes of cherry, raspberry, black currant, and detectable spice. “ ‘Jam’ is the word that comes to mind always when I drink it — plum, dark cherries,” Morgan says. “It’s a wine that leaves your mouth longing for another because of how juicy it is.”

Killman insists Marquette will be “essential” to the future of Michigan wine. “It’s extremely versatile, and impresses all the way from rosé to barrel-aged and everywhere in between,” he says. “It has structure and supporting acidity, but is approachable to those who may shy away from big-bodied reds. It holds on to sugar well as a sweet wine and has a gorgeous color. “With the growing habits, hardiness, and this myriad of winemaking opportunities, I see no reason why every winery in Michigan shouldn’t have a Marquette on its list.”

Morgan says visitors are often interested in why Petoskey Farms planted Marquette grapes, and they become invested as they learn about it from the winery’s staff. “Often a customer will walk in and say, ‘What do you have that’s like a Cab Sauv?’ and it opens up the door to tell our story — and not just our story, but Michigan’s wine story,” he says. “I think once a consumer gives these cold-climate wines a shot, they will go home with a bottle, because they want to be a part of that story.”

Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier, co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, and co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room with locations in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at cort@michiganbythebottle.com.

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