Seeing red: Michigan’s lesser-known varietal wines praised
After all the sniffing, swirling and sipping in the annual Michigan Wine Competition, the esteemed judges from across the country awarded vintners more than gold, silver and bronze medals — they heaped praise on the state’s lesser-known red varietals.
Yes, red. While Michigan wine makers regularly win accolades in national wine competitions for their Rieslings, chardonnays and other whites — varietals also well-known and well-received by the public — their reds often get less attention.
But that was not the case at this year’s competition, in which “quality” reds were among the 352 wines entered by 51 wineries, and critiqued by a panel of 25 judges, including in-state and out-of-state professionals from all levels of the wine industry — retail, restaurant, winery management, journalism, distribution and education. Tastings were done blind — that is, bottles were covered and presented to panels of judges in various categories.
“The range of reds was really broad and deep and surprising,” said Madeline Triffon, a master sommelier and one of the judges for the annual competition in Lansing. “That was unusual from past years of judging. Red wines are not usually Michigan’s strong suit, but I think the reaction was uniform among the judges. We were all taken aback by the quality and the number of reds that got gold medals.”
“Bordeaux varietals especially are not easily grown in our micro-climates and the quality was eyebrow-raising,” added Triffon, who is director of events for Michigan-based Plum Market.
Gold medals were awarded to a wide variety of wines, from bone-dry reds to sweet and fruity dessert wines. The top wines in eight categories were awarded Best of Class honors from a group of 71 gold medal winners, including 14 double gold. The number of entries was lower than in recent years, which industry officials attributed to a drop in production due to the previous two harsh winters and multiple freezes at inopportune times.
Despite far-from-ideal growing conditions in recent years, Michigan whites also fared well in quality.
“In general, the judges commented on a couple of things — the quality of white wines after two very difficult growing seasons, and the second, they were surprised by the quality of red wines coming out of Michigan,” said Paul Hamelin, owner of Verterra Winery in Leland and who was a guest judge in the competition (his votes didn’t count, but he was able to share and discuss his comments with judges).
Verterra Winery’s Rose of Cabernet Franc won Best of Class in the Rose category.
“Once again the quality of Michigan wines continues to amaze,” said Gordon Wenk, chair of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council and chief deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “It is a testament to our grape growers and winemakers to receive high praise from a distinguished corps of judges from across the country.”
Black Star Farms, which has vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula, won gold medals for two of its reds, 2013 Arcturos Merlot and 2013 Arcturos Pinot Noir. The winery also won Best of Class for dessert wines for its Sirius Raspberry.
“It’s always an honor to gain this kind of recognition for any of the wines we produce,” said Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms. “People have more and more interest in what’s going on in Michigan. We’ve kind of have been on the fringe, but the growing interest in the Michigan wine industry is a confirmation of what we do as winemakers.”
The reception of Michigan red wines doesn’t surprise Michael Schafer, a wine sommelier who promotes a “humorous and fun” approach to education as the Wine Counselor.
Michigan is producing high-quality red wines that, as Rodney Dangerfield said, “get no respect,” said Schafer. “Michigan is thought of in the same breath as New York and Ontario — it’s all about the whites. The comment I often get is ‘That tastes good for a Michigan red. That drives me nuts. What I want to hear is ‘That tastes good.’ ”
Looking at the Gold Medal winners across the board, Schafer said the winners are spread across the state, among different micro climates, and include industry stalwarts, as well as newcomers.
“One of the reds were getting better with is cabernet franc,” he said. “It’s taking time. Most people don’t know what it is — the parent of cabernet sauvignon. It’s easier to grow and produce here in a climate like ours, which is cooler, than cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet franc is making some good juice.”
Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
Michigan’s Best of Class
The Best of Class awards were bestowed upon eight wines selected from a group of 71 gold medal winners (for all categories). They are:
Sparkling: L. Mawby Grace
Dry White: Chateau Fontaine 2015 Woodland White
Dry Red: Chateau Grand Traverse 2012 Merlot Reserve
Semi-dry White: Fenn Valley Vineyards 2015 Traminette Semi-Dry
Semi-dry Red: St. Julian Winery Red Heron
Dessert: Black Star Farms Sirius Raspberry
Fruit: St. Julian Winery Sweet Nancie Peach Sparkling
Rose: Verterra Winery 2015 Rose of Cabernet Franc