Michigan wines deserve a spot at the holiday table
My first Thanksgiving dinner with wine came sometime after college when I showed up at my parents home with a bottle of red to accompany our traditional meal of roasted turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and cranberries.
All these years later, I don’t remember the wine, only that it was red, probably a pinot noir or Beaujolais, and picked up from a grocery or liquor store in St. Joseph, where I was living at the time, and highly recommended by someone on the staff.
Any memory of that holiday might have long been erased except for two things: The reaction of relatives, startled and skeptical of serving wine with our meal. We had never had a bottle of wine on the dinner table before. And that fall was my introduction to wines from around the world, a new-found passion inspired, in part, by the vineyards growing around me in southwestern Michigan and the state’s then-nascent wine industry.
The number of Michigan wineries has grown exponentially since then, the quality has improved tremendously, and there are more varietal choices than ever.
Michigan pinot noir and light-bodied reds are staples on my holiday table, and I’m always on the hunt for something new and interesting. This Thanksgiving I’m showing up with a dry Gewurztraminer, an easy-to-drink white wine with hints of citrus and grapefruit, from one of the northern Michigan wineries, and a 2017 Blaufrankisch, an elegant, slightly jammy red made from a grape native to Austria. My bottle is coming from Left Foot Charley, an urban winery and one of my favorite places to hang out in Traverse City.
There’s no better time than Thanksgiving, after the grapes have been harvested, pressed and are fermenting in stainless steel and barrels, to celebrate Michigan wines and offer gratitude for the bounty and variety being produced on both peninsulas.
Making the match
‘To me, the whole thing with Thanksgiving is you’ve got a wide range of guests with different palettes, likes and dislikes, and expectations,” says Madeline Triffon, director of wine events for Michigan-based Plum Markets. “There are a lot of different foods for Thanksgiving and there are wines that co-exist with a broad range of food and perform well at the family table.”
Triffon recommends both white and red wines for dinner. Whites should be gently off dry, not sweet. Think dry Rieslings, unoaked chardonnays and viognier, varietals that can be found in Michigan. And reds should not be overly tannic. Think pinot noir and gamay.
“There are plenty of good Michigan wines out there. You don’t have to fight to find them,” Triffon says, noting the state is still battling misconceptions about the quality of wines being made here. “Many wineries here are producing premium wines. If you were to say, find 36 good wines from Michigan, it would not be tough to do.”
Triffon, the first American woman and second worldwide to earn Master Sommelier, is a big fan of Chateau Fontaine’s Woodland White, made from auxerrois, a little-known grape variety from France. Chateau Fontaine is a boutique winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
“It’s a white wine that is easy drinking and bears examination. It’s not bone dry or sweet, and it’s got a lot of fruit. It’s smooth and I love it,” says Triffon, who is a judge in the Michigan Wine Competition held in East Lansing each year.
Vintners throughout the state grow pinot noir, cabernet franc, merlot and many are producing beautiful wines.
“My go to pinot noir year end and year out is from Bel Lago,” she says, referring to a small winery on Lake Leelanau outside Traverse City. “Charlie Edson and his team continue to make very good pinot noirs. People would be surprised.”
Don't forget Rieslings
Joe Borello, president of Tasters Guild International, a Grand Rapids-based wine and food appreciation society, always has a Michigan Riesling ready for guests on Thanksgiving.
“There’s so much variety on the dinner table. I would definitely try any of the dry Rieslings from Up North. They’re excellent,” he says. “There are a few wineries that make traminette, a varietal like Gewurztraminer, that is real good with turkey as well.”
Borello, who has judged the Michigan Wine Competition since its inception more than 40 years ago, also recommends a dry rose, available from wineries from all over the state. Riesling and a dry rose, he says, are “two wines that will please just about everybody and pair well with food on the table.”
If someone is looking for a red wine, Borello suggests cabernet franc, a varietal that grows well in the state’s cooler climate. “It’s the best red wine Michigan puts out,” he says.
Borello prefers to recommend Michigan wines by varietals, and not producers.
“The other thing I usually tell people for the holidays is to look at the fruit wines,” he says, noting many wineries offer them. “They are on the sweeter side, but they’re great for basting ham, chicken, and turkey and for making sauces. You can add a little cranberry wine to your cranberry sauce. The fruit wines are real nice.”
Keep your bases covered
With so many foods coming into play for Thanksgiving, Cortney Casey, co-founder of Michigan By The Bottle, a retail shop and tasting room that sells only Michigan wines, always has at least one red and one white ready for the holiday dinner.
“Dry Riesling is almost always our go to Thanksgiving white; it's extremely food friendly, and it’s easy to find fantastic versions in Michigan,” says Casey, who founded Michigan By The Bottle with her husband, Shannon. Both are sommeliers.
Pinot Blanc is another great high acid white option that’s very versatile with food, she says, recommending releases by Left Foot Charley and Verterra Winery.
Their red choices vary. Some years they’ve opted for pinot noir; other years, bolder reds, to complement the sausage stuffing and heavier fare. Her suggestions include St. Ambrose Cellars’ Crescendo, Chateau Aeronautique’s Aviatrix Crimson, 2896 Langley from Bowers Harbor Vineyards and Leorie Vineyard Cab Franc/Merlot from Black Star Farms.
The Caseys often serve a sparkling wine as an aperitif and to welcome guests.
“It’s a great way to liven the mood and signal the start of the party. You can never go wrong with bubbly from L. Mawby — Larry Mawby is the king of sparkling wine in Michigan — but many more Michigan wineries are adding bubblies to their portfolios,” she says.
It’s also the perfect way to toast the season and the bounty of Michigan wines.
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
You can’t go wrong with any of these selections, earning Best of Class Awards in the most recent Michigan Wine Competition, held in the summer:
Ice Wine: Chateau Grand Traverse 2016 Riesling Ice Wine
Dessert: St. Julian Winery Solera Cream Sherry
Sparkling: MAWBY Sandpainting
Dry White: Verterra Winery 2017 Dry Riesling
Dry Red: Mari Vineyards 2016 Bel Tramonto
Semi-dry White: Aurora Cellars 2017 Medium Sweet Riesling
Semi-dry Red: Lawton Ridge Winery 2017 AZO Red
Fruit: St. Julian Winery Sweet Nancie Peach
Rose: Left Foot Charley 2017 Blaufrankisch Rose