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Michigan’s grape escape — Cycling through wine country

Updated: June 21, 2013 2:58PM

Editor’s note: Originally published in the Sun-Times June 15, 2009.

When most people think about taking a cycling trip through wine country, places like Tuscany, Burgundy and Napa Valley spring to mind.

Great options. But getting there requires several hours spent nose-to-knees in a giant tin can. And once you’re there, you can bet your credit card will get as good a workout as your legs.

A closer, quicker, cheaper alternative for a wine country bike trip is tucked away in Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Roughly a six-hour drive from Chicago, Old Mission Peninsula in northwest Michigan blends stellar cycling terrain with more than half a dozen wineries that could make converts out of anyone who thinks Midwestern wine is an oxymoron.

Covered with rolling vineyards and cherry orchards, this 18-mile strip of land juts into the bay north of vacation hot spot Traverse City. Only one main road -- Michigan Highway M-37 -- spans the length of the peninsula , and this asphalt ribbon has all the things that make cyclists smile: good pavement, wide shoulders, relatively light traffic and varied scenery.

The undulating road is guaranteed to get your lungs pumping. Luckily there are plenty of places to take a pit stop and, ahem, rehydrate.

Old Mission ‘s seven wineries offer free wine tastings year-round, and each one is worth a visit. They’re an eclectic bunch, from the romantic Chateau Chantal, a 65-acre, European-feeling estate, to the hip, concrete confines of 2 Lads Winery. A 19th century schoolhouse is home to Peninsula Cellars, which gets extra credit for creativity in naming its wines Detention and Homework.

Peninsula Cellars buys some of its grapes from Cindy and Jay Ruzak, who moved here a little over a decade ago to open a vineyard B&B called the Grey Hare Inn. The three-room inn — on a secluded 27 acres — looks like a farmhouse in Provence. Rows of stubby grape vines and cherry trees surround the rustic yet upscale property, which takes on a warm glow in the afternoon sun.

For breakfast, Cindy might whip up pears poached in local wine and french crepes filled with morel mushrooms plucked out back. On the off chance you forget you’re in farm country, roosters belt out an occasional cock-a-doodle-doo.

“This area has managed to stay a lovely, rural, agricultural place,” said Cindy, a native of west suburban Hinsdale. “It’s not overdeveloped. There were four wineries when we moved here 10 years ago, and there are only seven now.”

Across the West Bay in the larger Leelanau Peninsula , you’ll find nearly 20 wineries — including one owned by Madonna’s dad (Ciccone Vineyard). Both peninsulas fall along the 45th parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator — a prime climate for certain wine grapes. Even though the wines produced in Leelanau and Old Mission are similar, the regions are different enough to be designated as separate appellations.

The picturesque East and West bays that bookend Old Mission are a big reason the peninsula’s wines taste good ­— and the vistas from the bike saddle look great.

In several spots along M-37, you’re high enough to see water on the right and water on the left. You can keep pushing the pedals past fruit stands and syrup shacks — where payments are made on the honor system — until the road eventually calls it quits at a historic lighthouse and soft, sandy beach.

In the spring, the bays’ cold waters keep the grapevines from budding too early. By autumn, the waters are warm enough to protect against early frosts.

Warm days plus cool nights equals nicely balanced grapes. This “microclimate” lends itself especially well to Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and other whites.

More reds are popping up too, especially at Chateau Chantal, where the Malbec is the only wine not made from grapes grown on Old Mission .

It’s tough to top the view from Chateau Chantal, where sloping vineyards seem to spill into both bays. Locals flock here Thursday nights for the free “Jazz at Sunset” concerts. Visitors come to try the wine, take a cooking class and stay in one of the 11 guest rooms at the chateau, founded by a former Catholic priest and nun who eventually married.

If you’re biking to Chateau Chantal, be prepared to downshift into granny gear. It’s a steep climb through the trellised vineyards. But it’s well worth the effort — and a celebratory glass of Late Harvest Riesling at the top.

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