Monday, October 3, 2011

[HOT LIST] Wineries of Southern Michigan

Covert cell phone ops at Round Barn's Union Pier tasting room.

Chicago is a four-hour straight shot down I-94, an easy enough road trip for metro Detroit's weekend warriors looking for a quick getaway. The majority of that drive is through farmland and there's whole stretches in the middle of the state where even the strongest phone signals blink out. But just as the you start to see the first billboards announcing Firekeepers Casino and places with names like "Tokyo Spa," you'll also start to see signs leading you to the southern Michigan wine trails.

The I-94 route will take you right past all of the Pioneer Wine Trail and through most of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country. While these aren't necessarily destination wine trails (they're surrounded by a whole lot of not much and Chicago is, after all, just a couple of hours away), and most of these wineries simply do not operate on the same level as their northern Michigan counterparts, they're a great way to make the journey itself part of the fun - stretch the legs and lube the brain cells a bit. Crank through four or five of these places on your way out and still be in downtown Chicago in time for dinner, or make it a leisurely drive home in an effort to prolong the inevitable: Monday morning. (There's definitely a few wines worth taking home, too.)

#1 Round Barn Winery Baroda, Union Pier, Saugatuck
Visit the Union Pier tasting room (located right off I-94) and find yourself smack dab in the middle of a mini wine country. Wines from Round Barn Winery and Free Run Cellars are both available in the tasting room; the Round Barn Brewery is located behind the tasting room where you can sample a beer flight; and right across the parking lot is one of St. Julian's many tasting rooms. Since you're here, might as well hit all three! Round Barn is also a distillery, making fruit brandies and sweet fruit cordials as well as vodka, bourbon and rum under their DiVine label.

#2 Free Run Cellars Union Pier, Saugatuck
The sons of the Round Barn family started Free Run Cellars as a way to evolve the family's grape growing and winemaking legacy. Brothers Matthew and Christian Moersch diverge from the traditions of Round Barn by making wines that suit more of a connoisseur's palate rather than being easy crowd-pleasers. The Dry Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc are their proudest wines, but be sure to also try the fruity Pinot Meunier and the Alsatian-style, highly drinkable white blend Mezzo.

St. Julian's Braganini Reserve Blanc de Noir.
#3 St. Julian Winery Dundee, Paw Paw, Union Pier, more
One of Michigan's oldest wineries currently celebrating its 90th anniversary, St. Julian is also the most readily available along I-94 (with three tasting rooms on this route alone). Skip the standards, pay the $5 for 5 and go straight to the Braganini Reserve list. It's easy to make assumptions about the quality of St. Julian's wines based on what trickles down to places like Meijer, but reserves like the Pinot Gris and Blanc de Noir will completely change your perception.

#4 Sleeping Bear Winery Albion
It's a cute brand with a cute tasting room and a cute Taste of Michigan store that sells other Michigan-made food products. If you're headed outbound for Chicago this will be the first winery you stumble across and it's a fun way to kick off an impromptu wine tour. This weekend they're celebrating the grand opening of Bad Bear Brewery, a brand-new microbrewery on their property, with Winetoberfest on October 8 from 1-10 p.m. 

#5 Hickory Creek Winery
A small and fairly new winery, Hickory Creek produces wines from grapes grown exclusively in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. They carry a few different dry whites (like Riesling, Gewurztraminer and an unoaked Chardonnay), a sweet apple wine, a luscious ice wine, and only one red: the red fruit-driven Melange with notes of cherries, dark berries, cocoa and pepper.

Bubbling under
Founders Wine Cellar (Baroda), Cherry Creek Cellars (Albion), Karma Vista Vineyards (Coloma), Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant (Buchanan), Lemon Creek Winery (Berrien Springs), Lone Oak Vineyard Estate (Grass Lake), Sandhill Crane Vineyards (Jackson)