Wine Enthusiast gives Michigan wineries high marks

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

    Nine sparkling wines from the Traverse Wine Coast have garnered high ratings in the latest edition of Wine Enthusiast, one of the nation’s top wine magazines.

    Listed in the publication’s extensive Buying Guide, the highlighted sparkling wines were produced by Aurora Cellars, Good Harbor Vineyards, Soul Squeeze Cellars, Mawby Vineyards and Winery and Verterra Winery. All of the wineries are located on the Leelanau Peninsula, near Traverse City. The grapes used for Soul Squeeze’s high scorer -- 2017 The Pearl Sparkling Rosé -- were grown on Old Mission Peninsula.

Aurora Cellars Brut Rose

    That bubbly, along with the Aurora NV Brut Rosé (Leelanau Peninsula), earned a 91 rating. A 100 is the highest rating. Scores between 90 and 93 are considered excellent. The other sparklers won ratings of 88 and above; scores between 87 and 89 are “often good value; well recommended.” Wines receiving ratings below 80 are not reviewed by the publication.

    “Juicy and bright, this is really easy and enjoyable, ending on a pithy lemon note,” Wine Enthusiast wrote in its review of Soul Squeeze’s sparkler. Aurora’s review was equally glowing: “Utterly charming and delicious, its vibrancy and energy are contagious.” 

Good Harbor Vineyards Blanc de Noirs

    The ratings mark only the second time a group of Michigan wines with such scores have been published in a prestigious national magazine. In the summer of 2019, Wine Enthusiast rated nearly 100 wines from Michigan, primarily from producers around Traverse City. The reviews, mostly published online, accompanied a print article, “Michigan’s Wine Scene is Full of Potential.”  Sixty-five wines received ratings between 87-91 points. 

    Industry officials have noted these ratings are noteworthy because they place Michigan wines on par with those produced in other acclaimed wine-growing regions, including Washington, Oregon and Spain. 

    “Those of us in the state’s wine industry have long known about the quality of Michigan bubblies, but hopefully the attention of a well-respected publication like Wine Enthusiast will also pique the interest of consumers -- both local and non-local -- who had no idea what they’re missing,” said Cortney Casey, who, along with her husband, Shannon, owns Michigan By The Bottle, a retail shop and tasting room that sells only Michigan wines.

    While Casey, who is a sommelier, said she is always cautious about putting too much stock in ratings, she is excited about anything that helps solidify Michigan’s public perception as “the world-class wine region it truly is.”

“With the cooler climate in our region, Michigan wineries are able to grow grapes with higher acidity, which is critical for making the best sparkling wine,” said Casey, whose retail shops are located in Royal Oak, Shelby Township and Auburn Hills. “Mawby certainly paved the way for ultra-high quality sparklers in the state, and so many other Michigan wineries are coming on board with their own amazing bubblies. For a sparkling wine fanatic like myself, Michigan is a damn good place to live right now.”

    Four of the bubblies were produced by Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards, both of which are part of Simpson Family Estates. Located on the Leelanau Peninsula, Simpson Family Estates is run by the third-generation of the Simpson family. They also own and operate Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which offers custom crushing, vineyard services and mobile bottling. 

    “I would like to believe these ratings are going to make people pay more attention to this region,” said Taylor Simpson, who is sales, marketing and distribution manager for both Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars. “This helps us get the word out about what we’re doing here in Michigan.”

    Simpson said she has encountered others in the industry, especially on the West Coast, who are often skeptical of Michigan as a wine region.

    “When you tell them you’re from Michigan, they scoff a little bit. They don’t take you seriously,” she said. “What we are doing here is serious. We know we are making high quality wine and can compete on the national and international level.”

Luke Pickelman, owner of Soul Squeeze Cellars, was thrilled to receive a 91 score for his sparkling rosé. It marked the first time the winery, which opened a tasting room in Lake Leelanau just two years ago, had submitted a wine for review. 

“I think it gives a lot of legitimacy and visibility to our region,” said Pickelman, who began making wine in 2016 and has vineyards on both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. “Many wineries in this region are doing well in competitions. Michigan wine is for real. The rest of the nation and the world are going to start to realize that.”

Six of the nine noteworthy wines were produced under the hands of a single winemaker -- Drew Perry -- and his cellar crew. He and his team oversee the wines for Aurora Cellars, Good Harbor Vineyards, Soul Squeeze Cellars and Verterra Winery.

Perry, who graduated from Michigan State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program, said the recommended sparkling wines reflect an ever-evolving wine program.

“We are still shaping our style and every wine we make gets us closer to finding what we want to express and how we want to accomplish it,” said Perry, who cut his wine-making skills in Napa Valley and has been working at wineries in the Traverse City area since 2007.  “Sparkling wine can be as much about the process as it is the fruit. Our goal is to make sure we don’t make it about one or the other. I personally am trying to drive us toward wines that don’t shun varietal expression, but instead showcase vintage, variety, and production techniques.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that is what is being appreciated,” he added.

The magazine’s recognition of the Traverse Wine Coast, he said, comes not because wineries are “reinventing the wheel” but because they are refining skills in a region that has already accomplished a great deal. 

    “The area has stayed true to itself. It seems as if what we create is naturally becoming more appreciated on a larger scale,” Perry said. “As this industry grows we will be able to get our wines onto more dinner tables across more regions, nationally and internationally and that's another opportunity to showcase what's possible in our little corner of the world.”

Sparkling Winners

Aurora NV Brut Rosé, 91

Soul Squeeze 2017 The Pearl Sparkling Rosé (Old Mission Peninsula), 91

Bel Lago 2019 Brut Auxerrois (Leelanau Peninsula), 90

Good Harbor NV Benjamin’s Vineyard Blanc de Noirs (Leelanau Peninsula), 90

Mawby NV Talis Brut (Leelanau Peninsula), 90

Mawby NV Gold Brut (Leelanau Peninsula), 89

Verterra 2019 Sparkling Rosé (Leelanau Peninsula), 89

Good Harbor NV David’s Vineyard Blanc de Blanc (Leelanau Peninsula), 88

Good Harbor NV Norah’s Vineyard Brut (Leelanau Peninsula), 88