Michigan Wine: Harbor Country and New Buffalo

Southwestern Michigan — World Class Wine Bounty

Even now, southwestern Michigan is only about 90 minutes by car from greater Chicago. Interstate 94 takes a gentle north by northeast turn near the Indiana-Michigan state line, tracing the route of historic U.S. 12. Back in the 1930s, this area established its link to Michigan tourism. The first town greeting you upon entering Michigan is friendly and walkable New Buffalo.

With its harbor and compact business district, New Buffalo has long attracted boaters and those seeking a weekend escape. Of the eight communities comprising Harbor Country, New Buffalo feels most like a true town and a defined destination. Waterfront development has been carefully planned and monitored, ensuring the charm of this community for generations to come.

We recommend a lunch or dinner time visit to New Buffalo, with at least an hour built in before or after to explore the unique shopping opportunities. A personal favorite for lunch is the venerable Redamak’s, a haven for families seeking a legendary burger and related casual fare at rock-bottom prices.

Other New Buffalo shops and dining options are noteworthy. For local products, be sure to stop at Michigan Thyme, in the heart of town. For a drink or dinner, stroll across the street to Casey’s Bar and Grill, where a handsome bar and creative menu awaits. Or, for a view of the harbor, spend some time at the rooftop patio of the Stray Dog Bar and Grill.

Wineries and Wine Tasting Diversions

Just outside of New Buffalo’s business district is the famous Red Arrow Highway. This is the heartbeat of Harbor Country and southwestern Michigan. From the Indiana border north 25 miles to the waterfront community of St. Joseph, Red Arrow Highway invites you to stop and explore. You’ll find antique stores, farm stands, art galleries, homespun stores, and most of all, winery tasting rooms. For over two decades, these tasting rooms have introduced visitors to this area’s pride and joy — Michigan wines.

Just a short distance from Red Arrow Highway, majestic dunes and woodlands give way to rolling hills and valleys planted with lush grapevines. Local viticulturists credit a good part of their success to the area’s sandy, well-drained fertile soil, hilly terrain and Lake Michigan’s help in creating a variety of unique micro-climates.

This area is part of a certified American Viticultural Area (AVA), also known as an appelation. There are more than 200 AVAs in the U.S., and four in Michigan. The six wineries here represent part of the appropriately named Lake Michigan Shore appelation. And since this area is so well suited for growing grapes, you’ll find most wines are proudly labeled with the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. A wine labeled with an AVA logo means at least 85% of the grapes used in the wine originate from the stated AVA (i.e. the wine is true to the region).

The Six Wineries

While there are literally dozens of wineries in the area loosely defined as southwestern Michigan, we’ll focus on Harbor Country and the area between New Buffalo and St. Joseph. This is an exceptionally convenient tour, as the six wineries are in very close proximity to one another.

Let’s start our wine tasting at perhaps the most well known winery in this area, Tabor Hill Winery. This is a beautiful, tranquil setting, with the tasting room and adjoining dining room overlooking the vineyards. Nearly 40 years ago, Tabor Hill artisans discovered the premium grapes typically grown in France, Germany, and Napa Valley thrive equally well in Michigan.

We’ve always been partial to Tabor Hill’s white wine selections. We were especially pleased with the Lake Michigan Shore Dry Traminette, with its fruity, floral bouquet. And don’t miss the approachable Tabor Hill White Heritage, an award-winner that has been frequently served to White House guests by several administrations.

Less than a half-mile down the road is the fascinating and ever-evolving Round Barn Winery and Distillery. As the name implies, part of the facility is housed in an Amish-built round barn, which is frequently used for weddings and special events. Not only can you sample wine at Round Barn, but distilled spirits and microbrews as well.

The wines here are as interesting and unique as the setting. If you’re a Chardonnay fan, don’t pass up Round Barn’s creamy and buttery Chardonnay Estate, aged in French Oak. Or, opt for the Gewurztraminer with hints of allspice and vanilla. Moving to reds, we recommend the Vineyard Red. This wine is a great every day choice, quite similar to a Chianti. Enjoy a glass or two with traditional Italian cuisine.

New to the Harbor Country scene is Round Barn’s sister winery, Free Run Cellars. Operated by second-generation family members, Free Run Cellars is independent, yet an extension of the Round Barn operation. Founded to give family winemakers a creative outlet, Free Run is a vibrant addition to the Michigan wine scene. We were most impressed by their Syrah, with subtle flavors of fresh raspberries. We saw a small sign describing this wine in their retail area with the tagline “Hide this from the neighbors” –and we have!

Taking a Break

While it’s quite possible to conveniently visit Harbor Country wineries in one day, you’ll find you’ll want an overnight stay to enjoy the area. Our sentimental favorite is the Fire Fly Resort in Union Pier, just 5 minutes north of New Buffalo.

Fire Fly Resort is actually a series of renovated cottages, just across the road from their private access Lake Michigan beach. Fire Fly is a welcome change from hotel rooms, and really gives you the feeling of being on vacation and in your own personal space. It’s dog-friendly, and offers screened porches, modern kitchens and baths, and it’s convenient to everything that’s in Harbor Country.

Wine, Family Fun and Worldwide Perspectives

On the second half of our winery excursion, we’ll visit Hickory Creek Winery, Domaine Berrien Cellars and Lemon Creek Winery. Remember, all of these wineries are quite close to one another. Visiting any three make for a perfect afternoon of wine tasting.

We started at Hickory Creek Winery, a joint effort of three owners — each with very distinct geographical perspectives. Representing the premier wine-growing regions of America, Australia and Germany, each owner shares a passion for wine and wine-making. You’ll want to try, and buy, their Riesling. It’s perfectly balanced and medium bodied. On the other end of the taste spectrum, you’ll find Hickory Creek’s wonderfully complex Pinot Noir, with its dark, fruit tones and light oak finish.

Our next two wineries are literally across the road from one another, making them a perfect touring pair. The first is our longtime favorite, Lemon Creek Winery.

Lemon Creek, located on the aptly named Lemon Creek Road just a few miles west of I-94, is a 150-year-old, family owned fruit farm. If you’ve got antsy youngsters, this is a perfect place to let them burn off some energy. Here you’ll find about 200 acres, divided between wine grapes and a variety of fruits. It doesn’t get much fresher than Lemon Creek!

We were delighted to see and linger in Lemon Creek’s remodeled tasting room, complete with all their wine varieties and ample selections of pre-picked fruits. We’ve always been impressed with the smoothness of Lemon Creek wines. Just about every selection we’ve ever tried is well balanced, pleasantly fruity and fun to drink. New to our palate was the almost tropical tasting Sesquicentennial White, made with vignole grapes. And we can’t forget our old Lemon Creek favorite, Lighthouse White, a real value at $8. Also, we recommend the Pheasant Run Red, an off-dry choice that’s perfect for sitting, sipping and sunsets.

As mentioned, just across Lemon Creek Road is Domaine Berrien Cellars and Winery. This highly respected winery produces a full range of well-made selections that are often snapped up by “in-the-know” wine lovers. We anxiously await their new releases every spring! Of particular interest at Domaine Berrien is their ice wine. Traditional ice wines are made by leaving the grapes on the vine until they’re frozen. When the grapes are finally picked and crushed, the liquid inside the grape remains frozen and only the sweetest most concentrated juice is used in the wine-making process. Domaine Berrien offers a perfect example of the style — be sure to ask about it.

For more information on Lake Michigan wine excursions, check out Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country. It has a map and directions to wineries covered in this travelogue.

Up the Lake Michigan Shoreline

We’d also be remiss not to mention the popular harbor town of St. Joseph, a short 20 miles up the Lake Michigan shoreline from the cluster of wineries. St. Joseph was named by the Fine Living Channel as one of the top 10 summer getaways in the country.

St. Joseph has a wonderful natural quality that makes it special for visitors — from the brick lined streets to the spectacular beachfront area. The downtown shopping area and ample dining choices make it a perfect place to spend a night or two. Head to Schu’s Grill for waterfront dining and Michigan wines. Bistro On The Boulevard offers urban-savvy dining with local flavor and al fresco dining with views of Lake Michigan. Clementine’s, located on the St. Joseph River is very picturesque. Their house beer, Ruppert’s Dark Ale is tasty and it’s the best place we know for lake perch! Stop by Kilwin’s for homemade fudge, chocolates and other decadent treats. And, pick up something for your four-legged friends at FuzzyButz Pet Bakery.


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