My recent visit to the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas in northwest Michigan led to me Lansing, where I helped judge the 37th annual Michigan wine competition. Michigan’s emergence into our wine consciousness seems too recent for the state to have had a competition for 37 years, but maybe I just don’t want to admit that would be about when I graduated high school.
The competition results are on www.michiganwines.com, I don’t have the code list to match the wines that particularly impressed me with their names, but I of course have extensive notes from my winery visits and discussions with winemakers.
Rather than present a complete list of all those wines, I thought I’d list wineries by grape variety. So here are my favorites from a three-day immersion into northwestern Michigan wines.
Riesling: With the cool climate and a topographical resemblance to the Finger Lakes, it’s no surprise that Riesling excels on the OMP and the LP. It comes across the sweetness spectrum; some winemakers I spoke to thought Michigan could fill a market gap left by Germany’s move to a bone dry style. Look for Rieslings from Left Foot Charley, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Blustone (Best of Category Winner), Chateau Grand Traverse, Brengman Bros., Verterra.
Pinot Blanc: I was surprised at how much I loved the Pinot Blancs I tasted in Michigan. This grape can make a nondescript crisp white, or it can be intensely fruity with bracing acidity. Alois Lageder from northern Italy is my personal benchmark for Pinot Blanc, but now I have several to add from Michigan, where the wine seems a bit riper, fuller and fruitier. Recommended Producers: Left Foot Charley, Brys Estate, Blustone, Verterra, Chateau Grand Traverse (Ship of Fools, a blend with Pinot Gris).
Pinot Gris/Grigio: Several wineries are producing Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, and the winemakers I queried were generally honest enough to acknowledge that the choice of name was more a marketing decision than an indication of the style of wine. Generally, I wasn’t thrilled with this category. The best I tasted was the Pinot Grigio 2013 from Ciccone Vineyards on Leelanau, where Tony Ciccone plays the Italian-American patron presiding over the good life. (There was a large and raucous wedding party when I visited.) This was the first time I tasted his wines, and by accounts they have improved since his daughter Paula joined the team. (Yes, you’ve heard of his other daughter.) “She’s an enologist,” he explained, shaking his head, “always going through the vineyard plucking leaves off the vines.” Well, I replied, “giving her a title is easier than arguing with her.”
Gewurztraminer: Gewurz is a no-brainer for this cool-climate area. Most are done dry, and they tend toward the lychee flavor rather than the rose petal, soapy character. Recommended Producers: Brengman Bros., Bel Lago, Verterra, Black Star Farms (Arcturos).
Grüner Veltliner: The Austrian variety is coming on strong in northwest Michigan, as is its sister red, Blaüfrankisch. I’ve tasted delicious GV from California, Oregon, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, but the ones from Michigan come closest to capturing that lemongrass, talc-like character that make Grüner one of my favorite white wines. Recommended Producers: Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Chateau Fontaine, Chateau Grand Traverse, Water Fire.
Chardonnay: This is not such a big variety here, as the growers seem to have resisted the “People expect it, so I have to grow it” logic. However, the Chardonnays I tasted from the Leelanau Peninsula showed an impressive intensity of flavor, especially in their unoaked versions. Unoaked chardonnay, according to Paul Hamelin of Verterra and Jay Briggs of 45 North, are especially popular with younger drinkers, another example of Millennials driving the market. Recommended Producers: Verterra, Chateau Fontaine, 45 North, Brengman Bros.
Auxerrois: With the emphasis on Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc), it’s not a stretch to think Auxerrois would do here. There isn’t a whole lot planted. Charlie Edson at Bel Lago has staked a claim to it as his signature wine, and it is excellent. I also tasted a very nice Auxerrois from Chateau Fontaine. Both are on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir does well here, mostly in a light style both in color and intensity. Some wineries have moved toward Dijon clones, which give deeper color and more familiar Burgundian flavors instead of the stewed tomato notes from older clones. Results were uneven, ranging from spectacular to “Stick with whites .. ” Recommended Producers: 2 Lads, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Brys Estate, Blustone, Chateau Fontaine.
Blaüfrankisch: I only tasted BF from two wineries: A tank sample of the 2013 from Left Foot Charley and two from Shady Lane. All three were excellent, and I hope they inspire more vintners to plant this variety. Despite its name — or the alternate, Lemberger — this is a deep-colored red wine that emphasizes fruit and spice and handles a moderate oak treatment with ease. These were by far the best BF’s I’ve tasted from the United States. The LFC, especially, transported me mentally to Austria’s Burgenland region with a single sniff.
Sparkling: Not a grape variety of course, but a style worth mentioning as Michigan does it well. There’s primarily one man to thank for that: Larry Mawby, who was one of Leelanau’s pioneers back in the 1970s, first with hybrids, later with vinifera and then sparkling. Mawby makes several Champagne-method sparklers under his L. Mawby label. My favorite was an explosively fruity blanc de noirs. He is also producing a wine called “TALISMØN,” using a solera begun more than two decades ago. “There’s probably a molecuie of 1992 in there,” Mawby quipped. He also makes a line of wines called M. Lawrence using the cuve closed or tank fermentation method. The most famous of these is called “Sex,” and you can imagine the
Other grapes: Michigan is still in an experimental phase, trying different grape varieties to see what will thrive in the cold climate and occasional harsh winters (such as the most recent one). Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc make cameo appearances. Chateau Grand Traverse, which planted the first commercial vinifera vineyards in 1974, makes a delicious Gamay, and I’m surprised others haven’t followed suit. CGT also has small plantings of Nebbiolo on the Old Mission Peninsula. Ciccone, true to its Italian heritage, makes a nice Dolcetto, though I didn’t hear of anyone else growing that grape. There are still some hybrids, though the ones I saw were mostly used in dessert wines. Interestingly, hybrids survived the winter better than vinifera did, so they may be more prominent on the 2014 vintage.
There’s plenty of potential vineyard land for expansion, especially on the Leelanau Peninsula. After my visit last week, I hope we will see many more wines from northwest Michigan on the national stage in years to come.