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Michigan wines make their mark in national publication

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

It would be no surprise if bottles of bubbly are being popped at wineries across Michigan this month -- there is good reason to celebrate: An unprecedented number of Michigan wines were reviewed in a national wine publication this month.

The July issue of Wine Enthusiast includes the largest collection of ratings of Michigan wines published in a national magazine. Nearly 100 wines, predominantly from producers in the Traverse City region, were rated by the magazine, one of the nation’s premier wine publications.

Nearly 100 state wines were rated in the July issue of Wine Enthusiast.

The reviews, mostly published online, accompany a print article, “Michigan’s Wine Scene is Full of Potential,” about the state’s burgeoning wine industry and winemakers’ success in growing cool-climate, aromatic whites, despite sometimes challenging weather conditions. “The Wolverine State is sailing toward world-class wine production,” the story begins.

Sixty-five wines received ratings and scores between 87-91 points. Scores in that range are noteworthy because they place the wines from Michigan on par with those produced in acclaimed wine-growing regions, including New Zealand, Washington, Oregon and Spain.

And that’s what winemakers from the Traverse City area were hoping for when the submitted wines en masse to the publication. Looking to bolster the region’s reputation, the wineries banded together last year to create a single wine region, the Traverse Wine Coast. The region’s peninsulas -- Old Mission and Leelanau -- remain distinct American Viticultural Areas, but collectively, wineries are marketing themselves as world-class wine producers.

Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery's 2016 Pinot Noir was awarded 90 points and was also highlighted in a separate story, “30 All-American Pinot Noirs,” the only Michigan one included.

“It’s pretty impressive and it’s really nice to see so many wineries included,” says Charlie Edson, winemaker at Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, whose 2016 Pinot Noir was awarded 90 points and was also highlighted in a separate story, “30 All-American Pinot Noirs,” the only Michigan one included. “It sort of tells me that the industry is coming of age when we get that kind of recognition. It also sets the bar a little higher. We all better pay attention to what we’re doing here ...

“My hope is the next time there’s a review like this, we have 65 wines that score 89 or above,” he adds.

Earning accolades were varietals most consumers are familiar with: chardonnay, riesling, pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet franc. There were surprises, too, with lesser known varieties, auxerrois, pinot blanc, blaufrankisch and gewurztraminer, getting attention, too.

Along with Bel Lago’s pinot noir, other wines scoring in the 90s were rieslings or sparkling wines produced by Verterra Winery, Left Foot Charley, Mawby, Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery, and Shady Lane Cellars, all located on the Traverse Wine Coast. Verterra’s 2017 Dry Riesling and Left Foot Charley’s 2016 Seventh Hill Farm Riesling were the highest scoring wines, each given 91 points and selected as Editors' Choice.

In all, 23 wineries scored 87 points or above. The only winery on the list outside the Traverse Wine Coast is Dablon Winery and Vineyard in the Lake Michigan Shore appellation in southwest Michigan. Dablon won accolades for its 2017 Riesling and its 2016 Cabernet Franc, among others. A few Traverse Wine Coast vintners scored high with wine grapes grown outside their appellation, including the Leelanau Peninsula’s Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery, which received 87 points for its 2017 Lemberger (another name for blaufrankisch). The grapes came from the Lake Michigan Shore AVA.

Madeline Triffon, a master sommelier and a long-time advocate of Michigan wines, says that kind of national press from Wine Enthusiast is “spectacular” for the state’s best wines and its growing industry. Michigan is home to 148 wineries and the state ranks high in the country in wine production, behind states like California, Washington, Oregon and New York.

“Customers should not cheat themselves out of dry riesling from northern Michigan and the level of pinot noirs is as good as it’s ever been,” says Triffon, the country’s first female master sommelier. “Be on the lookout for the auxerrois grape, a European aromatic white varietal that does beautiful things in northern Michigan.”

That grape got some love from Wine Enthusiast judges. Bel Lago’s 2017 Brut Auxerrois, a sparkling wine, scored a 90, and its 2016 Auxerrois, a still wine, earned 88 points. An Old Mission Peninsula winery, Hawthorne Vineyards was awarded an 88 for its 2016 Region Vineyard Barrel Reserve Auxerrois.

Triffon, who is director of wine events for Farmington Hills-based Plum Market, also urges wine enthusiasts to consider other varietals being produced in Michigan, including aromatic sauvignon blancs and cool climate varietals like pinot blanc and blaufrankisch, an Austrian grape being cultivated by a handful of winemakers around the state.

“They deserve attention and customer support,” she says.

Another winery that fared well was Mawby, believed to be the state’s largest producer of sparkling wines. Its Mawby NV Talismon, a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and vignoles,  garnered 90 points. “This robust sparkling has tickling, fine bubbles, well-placed acidity and a firm structure. The palate is rich and ripe in flavors of pear and apple …” the judge wrote in a review.

“That wine is a vineyard blend and five years aged in a bottle,” says Michael Laing, who calls himself director of Mawbiness at the Leelanau Peninsula winery. “With the Talismon, we draw off reserve wines and blend together. It really speaks to our place. It captures our property and who we are as producers.”

Big Little Wines, which sits adjacent to Mawby and is owned and  run by Laing and his brother, Peter, also made the cut with its 2017 Anton Vineyard Dune Climb Sauvignon Blanc achieving 88 points.

“I’m not really surprised,” Laing says. “I think we as producers know how we compete and compare. We drink a lot of wine and we’re familiar with how wines are compared. It’s nice to have the recognition. It’s reassuring and a confidence builder, for sure.”

The recognition, he adds, is good for everyone.

“We’re happy to support all the sparkling wine being made here,” he adds, noting other producers of bubblies were recognized as well. “We don’t view them as competition to worry about. We’re all in this together. A rising tide helps everyone.

“The whole region had a great showing,” he adds. “We’re on a mission to spread the news about northwest Michigan as a premier wine region.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer who writes frequently about Michigan's wine industry.  He also works part-time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula. Reach him at gregetasker@gmail.com.