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The Cherry Wine Story

Where cherry wine comes from.

Cherry orchard in bloom, Traverse City, Michigan. Photo by Todd Zawistowski.

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In 1931, country music pioneer and railroad man Jimmie Rodgers sang the words, “I’m goin’ where the water drinks like cherry wine/ Cuz the Georgia water tastes like turpentine.”

In the 80 years since Rodgers recorded that line from his classic song “T for Texas,” legends including Buddy Guy, Van Morrison, Tommy James & the Shondells, Prince, Steely Dan and the Foo Fighters, have all written “cherry wine” into song lyrics.

Artists use “cherry wine” in the most positive, poetic, romantic way, such as when Sheryl Crow sings, “I feel like cherry wine, like Valentines, like the spring is coming/ And everything is alright…” on her track “Over You.”

In the time between Rodgers’ plaintive yodeling and Crow’s power hooks, cherry wine has evolved, too, from being a Prohibition- and Depression-era “homebrew” to being crafted and sold by 50-some wineries across the country.

These winemakers lend their training, experience, and expansive resources to perfecting — and experimenting with — the recipes pioneered in woodsheds, cellars, and kitchens during Rodgers’ day.

Cherry and other fruit wines are still hard to find compared to the sheer volume of reds and whites on the market. But in a majority of states you can now order cherry wine directly from the producer with your credit card, which is a step up from 1) going without or 2) knocking on doors to find someone with a bucket, tubing, and a knack for chemistry, like back in the 1930s.

Vintners in cherry states like Michigan most often source cherries from their neighbors, or simply pick the cherries growing on their own property. (Michigan cherry farmers evolved into the state’s first winemakers in the early 1980s, and to this day it’s common to see grape vines and cherry orchards fruiting next to one another, since cherries and wine grapes share a love for the same glacial soil and moderate climate off the shore of Lake Michigan.)

Beyond its unofficial home base in Michigan, cherry wine has been made across other Midwest states, the Northwest and the Northeast. But only in the last few years have rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and state governments across the country made this famous yet hard-to-find wine available to a majority of Americans via direct shipping.

Growing Popularity

Wherever cherry wine is made — it’s tasted and talked about — and apparently in glowing terms, too, because the demand is increasing at a rate that’s unusually high for the wine business.

For example…

It’s typical that cherry wine would account for 10 to 25 percent of the sales for Michigan wineries that make it. That’s incredible when you consider that these wineries are also offering customers nationally recognized, award-winning whites and a selection of reds that are on the rise.

Yet when tasting room visitors saddle up to the winery’s bar to sample the flights of award-winning reds and whites, it’s cherry wine that visitors so often walk out of the winery with.

Why? Because even tasting them alongside Michigan’s elite Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and Pinot Grigios, visitors appreciate the flavor, color, and the toasty, romantic qualities that make cherry wine so special.

Back home, they pour the colorful bottles for friends (sometimes really, really close friends), and the word is spread down the line.

And the demand is growing. Every year, Leelanau Cellars has made and sold more cherry wine than the year before — about 25% growth annually, which is much higher than the typical growth in consumption of grape wines.

Vintners tend not to make more cherry wine than they can sell because it’s not meant to age for more than a couple of years. And Leelanau Cellars makes cherry wine six times a year to meet demand. Each batch fills 500 cases with 12 bottles each, so Leelanau Cellars makes — and sells — 36,000 bottles of gold medal-winning cherry wine per year.

If that sounds like a lot, just a few miles across Grand Traverse Bay, Chateau Grand Traverse makes six times that amount — as much as 216,000 bottles of cherry wine per year, accounting for a full 25 percent of its annual wine production.

Spreading its Wings

In December 2006, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law a bill allowing wineries in Michigan to ship their wines across state lines direct to the homes and businesses of wine drinkers like you and me.

Ramping up takes time but every year more cherry wine producers secure permits to ship to more states.

In fact, direct shipping of wine is a legal trend that is freeing up wineries from coast to coast to make their regionally popular styles available beyond the tasting room — pineapple wine from Hawaii, key lime wine from Florida, hard apple ciders from Washington, Ollallieberry wine in California can all now be shipped to curious customers in many states across the country.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is cherry wine, wine?
Does it taste like cherries?
Where does cherry wine come from?
Why is cherry wine so hard to find?
Is cherry wine sweet?
What are the variables that determine the flavor of cherry wines?
How many cherries go into a bottle of cherry wine?
Will cherry wine get me drunk?
Speaking of food, what kind of food does cherry wine go with?
Why is cherry wine less expensive than most reds and whites?
What does it cost to get cherry wine shipped to me?
Is cherry wine healthy?

Is cherry wine, wine?

Yes. In the United States, Canada, Asia and, well, basically everywhere except those countries in the European Union, wine is legally defined as any beverage made from fermented fruit (including grapes) with an alcohol content of at least 8% and no more than 14%.

Since making wine from whatever fruit is available and in season is just as ancient as making wine with grapes, the European Union’s definition that limits “wine” is simply a contrivance of politics that has nothing to do with reality.

Does it taste like cherries?

Absolutely. But also like “wine.” That is, the difference between Welch’s grape juice and wine is similar to the difference between cherry juice and cherry wine.

Of course any particular wine gets a lot of its flavor from the fruit being used to make it, but the wine that results is much more complex — in any number of ways — as a result of the winemaking process.

Where does cherry wine come from?

Fifteen states produce cherry wine, led by Michigan. Probably 85% of Michigan’s 70 wineries make it right alongside their Rieslings, Gewürztraminer and Pinots. Michigan is one of the world’s largest producers of tart cherries. And cherry wine has a long history in the state. Fruit growers and orchard owners started many of Michigan’s wineries. And the Lake Michigan coastal climate that makes cherry orchards thrive is also perfect for wine grapes. Many of the state’s most prestigious vineyards are found fruiting in the summer amid glorious raised landscapes of white cherry blossoms.

Rounding out the top-five cherry wine producing states are: Wisconsin, Indiana, Oregon and Ohio.

Why is cherry wine so hard to find?

Commercial cherry wine is only decades old in this country. Cherry wine in the 1920s was, by and large, a homebrew that someone made and shared with others or didn’t. As Michigan’s cherry wine industry took off with the growth of its commercial wine industry in the 1980s, it was still a “local” drink, due to restrictive shipping laws.

Only since 2006 were Michigan wineries (and wineries in several other cherry-producing states) granted permission to ship their products out of state. Michigan wineries still have very limited wholesale distribution outside of the state, so that’s why you probably haven’t seen any on store shelves.

Is cherry wine sweet?

Some of it is sweet and some of it is more on the dry side. Just like grape wine, cherry wine is made dry, semi-dry and sweet.

Sweet cherry wines are more full-fruit flavored and bold, sometimes even fortified with extra alcohol to make a port or liqueur style of wine.

Dry cherry wines are like autumn leaves; putting the underlying notes, flavors and character of the fruit on display for the nose and palette.

Probably because homebrewers from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s made it that way, cherry and other fruit wine has an outdated reputation for being sweet.

Cherry wine that’s sold by award-winning winemakers today is made on creative terms, and each style, approach and recipe is unique from the next.

What are the variables that determine the flavor of cherry wines?

There are five main variables.

1) First off, the fruit. There are numerous varieties of cherries, ranging from sweet to tart in taste and from white to black in color that winemakers use — Bing, Rainier, Ulster (all sweet cherries); Montmorency, Balaton (both “tart,” “sour” or “pie” cherries). Sometimes cherry wine is varietal — all or predominately made from a single kind of cherry, and other cherry wines are blends of different cherries.

Beyond that, cherry wines can also be blends of cherry wine, or cherry juice, with crisp, clean whites like Riesling. To a lesser extent cherry wines or cherry juice is sometimes blended with reds like Cabernet.

Regardless which cherry or cherries are used, each variety, whether “tart” or “sweet,” offers its own flavor, acidity, color, and sugar content.

2) Secondly, the kind of sugar added, and how much. When winemakers make fruit wine they add some sugar to the mash so the yeast has enough to convert to alcohol to get the wine in the 8%-14% alcohol range. There are many different kinds of sweeteners winemakers have at their disposal, ranging from granulated sugar, invert sugar, neutral grape concentrate to honey.

3) Thirdly, is the wine made dry or sweet? As a generalization, sweeter wines are bolder, while dryer wines are more complex and subtle. But, depending on the acidity of the mash, a sweet wine could still be very complex and a semi-dry could still pack the wallop of a “fruit bomb.”

4) Fourthly, a winemaker’s decision of what type of enzyme or yeast strain to use will have a tremendous effect on the flavor and aroma. These are the “secret” skills and tricks that often differentiate between a home brew and a winemaker’s wine.

5) The last major variable for flavor is casking. Most cherry wines are not casked in anything but stainless steel (which imparts no added flavor), but a minority of winemakers like to experiment with casking their cherry wines in oak or some more exotic wood for a short period of time, adding to the complexity on the palette.

How many cherries go into a bottle of cherry wine?

Every winemaker has their own approach, their own secret recipes. However, it might be a fair estimate to say that the juice of 1 ½ to 2 lbs fresh-picked cherries would be needed to make a normal-sized (750ml) bottle of the average dry style of cherry wine.

Will cherry wine get me drunk?

It’s wine! Cherry wine usually has an alcohol content around 10 percent, and is therefore deserving of your respect. Cherry wines might have three or four percent less alcohol by volume than a thick, meaty Shiraz and about two percent less than a typical Cabernet, but they still have just as much kick as a lot of grape wines you’ve had.

So watch out. Because it’s so fruity and delicious and relatively “light” on alcohol, cherry wine can go down easy. If you’ve ever drunk a cool, sweet white wine too fast on a hot summer day, you’ve learned that lesson the hard way. Some cherry wine might remind you, vaguely, of fruit juice, but don’t let your taste buds fool your brain into gulping it down. Don’t forget, cherry wines go great with food. Yum. And perfecto.

Speaking of food, what kind of food does cherry wine go with?

This is not the right question, we think. Pairing cherry wine with food is nice, but secondary to pairing it with the right person, the right setting, the right mood.

Cherry wine is a deeply romantic beverage that’s perfect for spending intimate time with someone special.

For the curious foodie, though, here’s an answer to your question: if you’re entertaining or planning a romantic picnic, cherry wine pairs great with cheese — try a blue cheese, a cheddar or Gruyère. The flavors of cherry wine work nicely with a range of cheeses.

Dryer cherry wine complements grilled chicken and Asian cuisine. Sweeter cherry wine, cherry ports and liquors are an excellent accompaniment to chocolate desserts. Bringing cherry wine’s romantic nature to the decadence of chocolate is almost not fair — and highly recommended.

Why is cherry wine less expensive than most reds and whites?

Priced generally somewhere between $6-$13, bottles of cherry wine, like other fruit wines, run about four or five dollars less than mid-range reds and whites. But this is no indication of reduced quality.

The reason cherry wine is not $15 or $20 a bottle — and with its limited supply, that price could be justified — is simply because grapes are much more expensive for wineries to acquire/grow than cherries. Additionally, most cherry wine is not aged, so it’s less time-intensive to make. And winemakers pass the savings on to their customers.

The same technical expertise, love, patience, care and creative energy goes into cherry wine, it’s just that the “art supplies” cost less for cherry-based projects.

However, in many areas such as in Canada, cherry wines can be just as expensive, if not more, than regular quality grape wine. (So, get drinking and enjoy the savings while prices are still so reasonable.)

What does it cost to get cherry wine shipped to me?

In the end, having cherry wine shipped to your home or office will cost you about the same per bottle as a typical red or white on the shelves at your corner wine shop: about $9-$16 per bottle.

“Ground” delivery via Fed Ex or UPS takes about a week to reach its destination and adds just two or three dollars per bottle to the “already under priced” cherry wine.

If you only order two bottles, it might add four or five dollars to the cost of each bottle, but your total bill will be low: around $30. But if you order more bottles, say four, the price comes back down to two or three dollars extra per bottle, which is very reasonable.

The rule of thumb is: “The more wine you order, the more the “per-bottle” price goes down.” And! If you buy a case (12 bottles), wineries almost universally will give you a 10% discount on the price of the wine: twelve bottles x say, $11 each = $132. Ten percent of that = an additional savings of $13.20.

Buying “a case” will put your bill over $100, but it will make the cost of the shipping almost negligible, especially when you add in the 10% case discount.

If you order a case, or even a half-case, consider rounding out your order with other kinds of wine from the winery. Pick another fruit wine or a grape wine or two that you’ve never tried before. It’s like getting an awesome present in the mail when the delivery truck pulls up.

Buying four, six or twelve bottles at once is a gift to yourself that keeps on giving, too. Save a bottle or two for special occasions or holidays, or for adding a romantic touch to an intimate dinner. Or go ahead and enjoy it with dinner the day it arrives. You’ve got more!

And taking extra bottles of cherry or some other style of wine from some small, far-away winery to a party or social gathering is really fun: you can see people’s reactions to what surely will be the most interesting pour of the night.

Is cherry wine healthy?

Well, there’s never been any research on the health benefits of cherry wine. There has, though, been a lot of recent research on the health benefits of cherries, and cherries turn out to have real, fantastic health benefits: from reducing cholesterol to reducing swelling (anti-inflammatory) to being packed with antioxidants.

According to research initiated by the Cherry Marketing Institute, “Tart cherries contain among the highest level of antioxidants compared to other fruits and are a natural source of vitamin A (beta carotene) and fiber.”

Cherries also have iron, calcium and Vitamin C.

However, at this time there’s no scientific proof one way or another that the winemaking process keeps (or even perhaps enhances) the nutritional and medicinal qualities of the cherries that comprise it.