Bottoms Up! A Taste of West Michigan Makers

A creative culture. A prime location along the Great Lakes.  And sun-kissed summers filled with long, hot days. The very qualities that make this area so appealing to visitors have also made it a prime destination for crafting beverages. James Beard-nominated  Matthew Millar, a local chef at The Southerner restaurant and longtime advocate of local food  and drink, shared his thoughts on what makes this area’s offerings stand out.

How has this region shaped the character of local vineyards and craft breweries?

Millar: West Michigan has a lot of things going for it that other areas don’t. Thanks to the lake, the growing season tends to be long. We get warmer earlier and stay a little warmer longer. The soil here is also very sandy and neutral. Due to the character of the land where grapes are being grown, you’ll find that Michigan wines tend to be very fruit-forward, and not quite as expressive of the soil as wines in other regions. That gives wine makers a great vehicle to favor the flavor of the fruit and make their offerings more unique. In terms of hard cider, Cranes exclusively uses apples grown on their own family farm. They’ve closed the loop, so it’s truly about their tastes and the taste of their clients.

What are some of your favorite wines from the region, and what would you recommend pairing with them?

Millar: My favorites at Fenn Valley are their whites. If I were going, I’d be looking for a glass of sparkling white or a Riesling. They grow a lot of grapes, and they make wine that’s meant to be very approachable. That’s their bread and butter: a wine that everyone can enjoy. It lends itself to a wide variety of dining experiences. Bellying up to a big plate of smoked fish with a Riesling would be a tremendous choice, and a good touchstone to West Michigan. Their demi-secs are a great choice for a beach or a picnic, and anything with bubbles goes really well with fried chicken, too. Jim Lester, who operates the Wyncroft label served in several local restaurants, is chasing more of a French model. His property is very different. You’re not looking at loam and sand, but at very stony, rocky soil, and he’s making wines that are similar in style to those made in Burgundy, along with chardonnays, blends, and cabernets. They’re made on a smaller scale and tend to be a little more fussy—but they’re considered some of the best in the state.

Grapes aren’t the only Michigan crop being bottled. What about the local craft cider industry?

Millar: Right, there are a couple of them here, and they both make really excellent ciders. Crane’s is an old family farm that started making cider with a former winemaker from Fenn Valley, so they have the same philosophical bent—very friendly to a wide variety of drinkers, and not challenging as far as flavor profiles are concerned. Even their dry ciders tend to be on the sweet side. Their sweet ciders are delicious paired with anything that’s already sweet, like fruit-forward desserts. They’re also good with green salads and vegetables, and heading back to fried food territory, bubbles and barbeque are a natural match! Then there’s Virtue, which also uses Michigan apples but makes ciders in a more European style, with a lot of influence from Spain and France. Their focus is more on dry ciders than sweet ones, and they do a lot of barrel aging, which lends different flavor characteristics and aromas. They run a wide gamut of styles, from dry, tart, and funky to very austere and complex.  Virtue’s chef takes a literal approach, cooking country French and English fare to pair with their ciders. Their cider also lends itself to pork, particularly charcuterie, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams.

How is Michigan’s craft beer scene represented here?

Millar: At Saugatuck Brewing Company, they have a European-style wheat beer with citra hops—the super pineapple-y, citrusy floral hop variety—that’s super refreshing. An aromatic hop character like that is friendly to so many things. It would be good with spicy food, Chinese takeout, or because of the German nature of the beer, with sausage or a charcuterie plate. That bright citrus character would also balance out with something rich and fatty, like duck, oysters on the half shell, or mussels steamed with tomatoes. The other cool thing about them is that they have the original system they started brewing with out in their dining room. For a little shy of $300, you can brew a small batch with one of their brewers and come back and collect it a few weeks later.

What’s the best way for visitors to explore these local makers?

Millar: It makes a great afternoon to set aside a few hours to hit all of them. With a couple of great beaches nearby and the Fennville game area for hiking or cross-country skiing in the winter, you can make a day out of spending time outdoors and tasting wine, beer, cider, and grabbing some food.

Perfect for a rainy day, an off-season getaway, or just an afternoon out with friends, Southwest Michigan’s community of wine, beer, and cider makers has the region’s finest flavors on tap and ready to serve.

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