The Mission Begins…

When I set out a couple weeks ago to start seriously exploring Michigan wines, I did so with a little experience, having sampled wines at eight or so Michigan tasting rooms, and purchased the occasional bottle. I have also had my hang-ups and preconceived notions.  Chief among them is that this state still crafts too many sweet wines for today's more experienced wine drinkers.  But there seems to be something in the air that's making my mission more relevant.

Clusters at Chateau Chantal.

Michigan is having a potentially great year for grapes. Knock on wood (or old vine rootstock), if the rains hold off for another month or so, it could be one of the best in recent memory.  While the Spring may have started slow, we've had a nice hot Summer, good for European vines, or so I understand.  Larger, riper quantities of fruit allow for higher-alcohol, drier wines, which are more to my taste.  I'm looking forward to seeing what Michigan vintners do with 2010. Despite a few rocky years economically in this state, fruit production is up, the number of wineries is up, sales are up, and the ratio of familiar European varietals is up (Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Malbec, Pinot Noir, etc.) One additional item that only serves to encourage me is an article picked up by the L.A. Times (AKA the wine drinker's favorite newspaper) last Wednesday: "Midwest tries to overcome reputation for low-quality wines. The region was labeled as a sweet wine producer long ago. Winemakers in Illinois and Michigan have ventured into dry and semidry varieties but struggle to win over outsiders." Link:,0,537160,full.story The story focuses on Michigan primarily, and uses the fact that a Chicago restaurant now carries a Michigan wine on its menu as an inspiration (Domaine Berrien Cellars' 2008 Crown of Cabernet.) It's crucial to note that, while the reporter writes for the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times found this interesting enough to re-publish.  That speaks VOLUMES. I've had great fun with the few tastings I've done so far, and I plan to periodically share my notes and thoughts here.  I'll try to include the swell and the swill, the semi-dry and the semi-lousy, the good the bad and the ugly. But before we start, a brief education... Michigan, surrounded by the largest freshwater lake system in the world, rests on roughly the same range of latitudes as other prolific wine-growing regions. Think southern France, including Alsace. Think Piemonte in Italy's north.  Think Oregon, the U.S.'s fast-growing upstart. The latitude is great for many cold-season varietals, and the lake effect lengthens the season, allowing for the critical ripening period in September. It should be obvious from the parallels that white grapes probably rule.

Michigan's AVA's, click to enlarge.

There are almost 200 American Viticultural Areas in this country, regions with local climates suited to grape growing. Over half are in California, but there are four distinct areas in Michigan that are federally recognized AVA's. They are Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula. Operations are generally centered around Battle Creek (Fenville and Lake Michigan) and Traverse City (Leelanau and Old Mission). Other wineries operate throughout the state, with relatively short shipping times for grapes from the AVAs. While they may not be the top selling wineries in Michigan, there are two that tend to be represented more in the local wine shops that I frequent in southeastern Michigan: Chateau Grand Traverse, and Black Star Farms. Both are accomplished winemakers operating out of the Old Mission and Leelanau AVA's. Black Star Farms has an expanding operation that includes local artisinal cheeses and a successful inn. I know little about CGT, but plan a trip in the near future. So finally, on to a couple of bottles of interest…

Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir (click for data sheet)

Chateau Grand Traverse 2008 Gamay Noir (about $13 locally) 12.5% alcohol, fairly typical for reds in Michigan. Color: Midway between a light and medium red, slightly pink at the rim with nice legs down the glass. Nose: Chiles and peppercorns, opening to tart red apple and small berries Taste: Bright acid, a touch of bubble-gum familiar to Beaujolais drinkers, light caramel on finish, FUN. There are some serious tannins evident, making this a great barbecue match for burgers. Surprisingly, this was a great "second day wine" the unfinished bottle continued to open, with remnants of pepper, and great mouth watering acidity. Rated 8 of 11, already repurchased

Black Star Farms "Arcturos" 2007 Pinot Noir (click for 2008 notes)

Black Star Farms "Arcturos" 2007 Pinot Noir (about $24 locally) 13% alcohol. 50% Leelanau Co., 50% Grand Traverse Co. I have to disclaim my tasting with the fact that my bottle may have been oxidized slightly due to the hot weather, and poor storage on my part. Color: A very pale ruby, light with low legs. Nose: Bright cherry, but with candied figs, and very faint florals. Dry, almost dusty. This wine opens VERY slowly, and will likely benefit from cellaring in proper conditions. Taste: It comes on hot and tart, with medium body and an slight mocha flavor on the finish. Something's amiss, but I suspect that I drank it young and slightly oxidized. I believe it's worth putting another bottle away for a few years. Rated 7 of 11, will buy again More whites and smaller producers are already in the tasting notebook, including some dreck, and some award winners.  I plan to share those notes shortly. I'm learning a lot, so please feel free to ask me questions in the comments and I'll do my best to research and learn even more.  In the meantime seek out the closest vineyard to where you live, and buy a couple bottles. Drink local!

5 Comments  to  The Mission Begins…

  1. Kelly says:

    Dear TRE:
    Loved seeing this. You too are a Locawino! We started our distributorship this year to bring quality local wines to Illinois and we are excited about the positive and supportive reactions we’ve been getting about Michigan wines. These are indeed local artisan wines and they are quickly gaining the respect of restaurants and retailers in the Chicago area.

    This Wednesday, 8/25, Aria at the Fairmont is hosting a local farm/wine dinner featuring 4 wineries from Michigan: Chateau Chantal, Domaine Berrien, Brys Estate and Black Star Farms.

    This is just the start…you’ll be seeing Michigan wines at more restaurants before the end of the year!

    In Locavino,


  2. Coryn Briggs says:

    Thank you for your visit to Northern Michigan Wine Country and for your interest in our dry style wines. We do encourage you to try another bottle of the Pinot reviewed above as perhaps it was “off” due to the factors you mention. We also make a lovely pinot noir under a different label called A Capella, this is also a 2007 wine. Please let us know if we can answer any other questions regarding our wines.
    Regards – Coryn Briggs, Winery Promotions Coordinator/Black Star Farms

  3. Ian says:

    @Kelly, great news. I hope your distributorship continues to find strong values and venues. I have family in the Chicago Metro area and visit a few times a year. I’d love to stay on top of any events you have arranged. Thanks for the link.

    @Coryn, you people do good wine. I’ll have to search for the A Capella, but will probably put another Arcturos in my basement as I mentioned. If you don’t mind me saying so, I’m excited for BSF to get more competition across the state on drier styles. I think it will benefit all of us. BTW your employer should recognize you for being so on top of blogs/social. I’m impressed.

  4. Sean O'Keefe says:

    We’ve been making dry wines since our winery’s inception in the mid 70’s.
    I consider our Dry Riesling as our “house” wine.
    However, the Midwest has a notorious sweet tooth, so we try our best to strike a balance between what the public demands and what we would like to see our region produce . Fortunately, our wines typically have a relatively high natural acidity that lends itself to some residual sugar. Late Harvest Riesling will always sell well, but I encourage you to seek out our Dry, Semi-Dry and Whole Cluster Rieslings as well to understand the wide range of what we produce. Strangely, we are one of the few producers of a true Gamay Noir in the United States. Even stranger is that our top market for this wine is in New York City. In any case, we are working hard in establishing ourselves in Chicago (a notoriously difficult city to market wine in, by the way). Trendsetters like Blackbird have already embraced our wines (along with Shady Lane and Domaine Berrien), and we hope other great restaurants and shops will soon follow.

    Please let me know the next time you are in our neck of the woods,

    Sean O’Keefe
    Chateau Grand Traverse

  5. Ian says:

    Hi Sean. I’ve already tried the Late Harvest Riesling and will publish my notes in a later post. I’d love to try more CGT wines in a drier style, and will continue to seek them out.

    I guess the real marketing question is: can Michigan vintners expand their geographic appeal with drier styles, or are we limited to an aging sweet-wine-loving Midwest? I love a good Gewürztraminer with the right meal or weather, but it’s not a common choice for me.

    Hope your harvest goes well. After this Summer I’m anxious to see what 2010 Michigan reds can do.

    Thanks for reading Rogue Estate!

    – Ian

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