Palate: Juicy on entry. Medium bodied. Cherry, red currant, blueberry, pink peppercorn, strawberry.
Finish: Juicy with growing oak.
Parting words: Bel Lago winery lives up to its name, Italian for “beautiful lake”, with one of the most beautiful views on the Leelanau Peninsula. It overlooks Lake Leelanau, which is named after the peninsula & county which was itself named by Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft in honor of his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft who wrote under the name Leelinau, a neologism created by her or Henry. Henry used the name for Native American women in some of the stories he wrote. Henry created several other pseudo-indigenous place names in Michigan, including Lenawee, Alpena, Kalkaska and Oscoda, combining native words with Latin or Arabic elements.
Pinot Noir was one of the varieties hardest hit during the disasterous 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex vintages. I recently spoke to a Northern Michigan winemaker who told me that he was burnt out on the grape. This winemaker said that Pinot Noir is not worth growing in Michigan because it’s a pain in the ass to grow and it’s rarely any good (my paraphrase).
Bel Lago’s Moreno Vineyard Pinot Noir is a brilliant counterpoint to that view. Oak and spice provide the right amount of contrast to highlight the fruit that drives this wine. This wine is an excellent example of how good Pinot can be in Northern Michigan, at least in a long, hot year like 2012. $45 puts it at the top end of Michigan reds, but I think it’s worth the money. It’s as good as Pinto gets in Michigan. Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is highly recommended.
Maker: Laurentide Winery, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA
Grape: Pinot Gris/Grigio
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Semi-dry Gris.
Purchased for $20
Thanks to the Laurentide and the retailer who helped me get a replacement for my original tainted bottle.
Appearance: Pale gold with tiny stationary bubbles.
Nose: Mozzarella cheese, toasted pizza crust.
Palate: Medium dry, full bodied. Underripe peach, minerals, oregano, candied lemon peel.
Finish: Clean, slightly tart, then dry
Parting words: After meeting Laurentide co-owner Bill Braymer and his charming daughter Calla at the opening of Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills, I got excited about opening the one bottle of Laurentide wine I had in my cellar, a bottle of the 2013 Pinot Gris. The moment I uncorked it, I realized there was something wrong. One sip confirmed it. Taint. Luckily I was able to get a replacement from the winery along with an assurance that future vintages will use screw caps.
This one was flawless. No, I wasn’t eating pizza when I took these notes, but I felt like I could have been. Mozzarella, pizza crust and oregano sound weird in a wine, I know, but they were all delicate and delicious in this one. There’s enough sweetness and acid to balance those slightly funky pizza notes and create a harmonious beverage.
Nothing not to love about this wine or the Braymers for that matter. Bill impressed me at that tasting room opening. I remember him taking a sip of another winemaker’s product after a few glasses and saying something like, “Something not right about this one. Picked too soon, maybe? No excuse for that in 2012!” A winemaker who can’t shut the critical winemaking part of his brain off even at an event like that is somebody whose wine I want to drink. 2013 Laurentide Pinot Gris is recommended.
Maker: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA
Grape: Riesling (100%)
Style: Medium dry sparkling white wine (secondary fermentation was using the cuve close, aka “tank” method)
Place of origin: Shady Lane estate (Blocks M, I & N), Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)
For more information, scroll down to this wine’s entry here on Shady Lane’s website.
Appearance: Very pale straw with steady, delicate bubbles.
Nose: Whiff of yeast then classic Riesling profile. Big peach, plum, jackfruit, fresh squeezed blood orange juice.
Palate: Light bodied and medium sweet with moderate acidity. Mineral water, grapefruit, lemon peel, vanilla bean.
Finish: Clean & crisp. Minerals, acid.
Parting words: Shady Lane, one of Leelanau’s best wineries, is named after the founder’s favorite Pavement song (ok, probably not but I like to pretend that it is). Almost all their wines are made from estate grown grapes. That sets them apart from most of their peers. It also makes their wines harder to find and a little more expensive, but it’s worth it.
Sparkling Riesling is relatively rare in the US or anywhere else for that matter. The last one I had was this one but it doesn’t really count since it was the result of an accident. I enjoyed Shady Lane’s intentional version quite a bit, as did a friend I served some to. My wife didn’t like it as much. She found it to be lacking in flavor and aroma. I will say that it is a little bland right out of the refrigerator. Letting the glass or bottle warm for a couple minutes before drinking brings out all the deliciousness described above. It is balanced enough that it pairs very well with spicy Thai or Middle Eastern food.
Sparkling Riesling is rare and a wine this well made at $25 is even more rare. It’s like that easy going but never boring friend with a bubbly but never unbalanced personality you always want to have around at a party (once she comes out of the cold, anyway). Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling is recommended.
Maker: Chateau de Leelanau, Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA.
Price: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)
Appearance: Pale gold with tiny bubbles.
Nose: Cut apple, lemon thyme, sage.
Palate: Semi-dry and medium bodied. Peach, green apple.
Finish: Soft and apple-y fading to bit of herbal bitterness.
Parting words: When I tasted this wine, I thought it was a blend. I thought I tasted a lot of Riesling in the mix, but I couldn’t put my finger on what else might be in there. Turns out, this is not a blend but a varietal! Bianca is a hybrid with parents from the Villard and Pinot families. It was developed in Hungary and is primarily grown there.
I’m glad some made it to Leelanau because this is delicious. More Michigan vineyards should be growing it! No trace of foxiness, just crisp fruity with a pinch of herbs. Chateau de Leelanau also makes a Bianca Select in a sweeter style. I think I’m going to try to find a bottle of that too! $18 is the right price for this wine. Chateau de Leelanau Bianca 2013 is recommended.
Lots of interesting things are going on in the Michigan wine scene right now. The latest big news is that as of 2017 Michigan will have a new AVA.
What’s an AVA, you ask? AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The program was begun in the early 1980s as an answer to the French AOC appellation system and other European systems. The first AVAs were awarded in 1982, and they continued to roll in at a good clip through 1991. There are 238 total, with 138 (58%) of them in California. In addition to AVAs, a number of counties and all fifty states are allowed to put their names on a bottle as a legally defined place of origin. At least 85% of the grapes going into the wine have to be from the place in question. If the wine is bottled as a varietal (Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, for example), at least 75% of the grapes of that variety must come from the place on the bottle. Currently Michigan has four AVAs. By way of comparison, New York has nine and Virginia has seven. Indiana has one entirely to itself and shares another with Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula and Fennville were established in 1982, Lake Michigan Shore in 1983 and Old Mission Peninsula in 1987. The fifth, dubbed “Tip of the Mitt” will become official in 2017.
So this is a good thing, right? It’s certainly getting a lot of publicity, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity. I believe that the Tip of the Mitt AVA is unnecessary and may even end up hurting the reputation of Michigan wine overall. It’s too large to be meaningful and its inability to produce vinifera does not warrant the spotlight of AVA recognition. Recognition for a marginal (at best) area occupied by marginal winemakers drags down the reputation of Michigan wine as a whole.
AVAs don’t just fall from the sky, they’re the result of a long process that starts with a petition from winemakers in that particular area. In this case the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) petitioned the federal government for this designation. SAGGA is made up of wineries in the area included in Tip of the Mitt. All those wineries are also members of Michigan’s newest wine Trail, Bay View, named for the Chautauqua resort community near Petoskey, Michigan. Ironically, the Bay View community does not allow the consumption of alcohol in public spaces within its borders.
Granting an AVA to an area is a federal recognition of a geologically distinct region where wine grapes are grown. It gives the marketing advantage of having a name on the bottle that consumers can recognize and seek out. It comes with the added bonus of being able to use the “estate bottled” (the American equivalent of the French mise en bouteille au chateau) designation on the label if all the grapes that went into the wine were grown in vineyards owned by the winery.
All this is supposed to give a marketing advantage to wines produced within an AVA, but the marketing for TotM has been confused from the outset. The wine trail is Bay View, the AVA is Tip of the Mitt and the trade association is Straights Area. Three completely different names are being used for the same region. The name of the wine trail itself is confusing since its wineries are not only in Bay View but stretch across the region. Tip of the Mitt sounds silly and is only readily understood by Michiganders who are used to referring to the lower peninsula as “the mitten” because of its mitten-like shape. Michigan Straights or Mackinac Straits might have been a better name. In the short term, changing the name of the trail and the growers association might be a good fix, but that’s not the only problem TotM has.
Tip of the Mitt is huge, the largest AVA in the state by far. It stretches from Charlevoix to Alpena and north to Cheboygan, encompassing six counties and over 2,700 square miles. It is a little larger than the state of Delaware. Lake Michigan Shore is about 2,000 square miles, Leelanau is around 117, and Old Mission about 30. Fennville (which is entirely inside LMS) is tiny, but I can’t get a good number for its actual area. Online sources say 117 square miles, same as Leelanau, but that can’t be right. At any rate, there are many larger AVAs around the country, but they are either umbrella AVAs with many smaller ones within them (e.g. Central Coast in California or Finger Lakes in New York) or they are like the 6,000 square mile Mississippi Delta AVA which barely produces wine except a little from the Muscadine grapes, a pungent native species.
Like other far north areas (the 30,000 square mile Upper Mississippi Valley AVA for example) Tip of the Mitt is too cold to grow anything other than hybrid grape vines. Not even relatively cold hardy varieties like Riesling or Chardonnay will grow. As Cortney Casey writes in her excellent article on TotM in Hour Detroit Magazine:
In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, [Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards’ Brendan] Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.
Note how Prewitt avoids the H-word: “hybrid” and instead calls them “new grape varieties”. This is probably because hybrids have a bad reputation among wine enthusiasts.
Hybrids are crosses between two different species of grape, usually the European one (vitis vinifera or vinifera for short) and a North American species. The best known varieties of wine like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot et al are all different varieties of the vinifera species. Think of the differences between breeds of dogs. They’re all the same species, but they can vary a lot from each other.
Hybrid grapevines are grown because they are generally more disease resistant and are more reliable producers in marginal climates than vinifera. The tradeoff is that they usually don’t taste as good. I’m not anti-hybrid. I’ve had good wines made from hybrid grapes. Some, like Chardonel and Traminette, work well bottled as a varietal but I think most are best used in blends or special applications like sparkling or ice wines. The hybrid grapevines used in northern climates are mostly ones developed by the University of Minnesota like La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac.
I’m all for bringing hybrids to respectability and using them for “the production of top quality wines” but that’s a long journey, one that none of the TotM producers seem to be taking at the moment. None of the wines from SAGGA members that I’ve tasted have conveyed a “mastery of growing grape in a challenging climate”. Many of them were made with grapes grown elsewhere, even the ones made with hybrid grapes. At best they’ve been boring wines. In fact, two of the worst wines I’ve ever had were from producers in TotM. One was an unintentionally sparkling Merlot that also tasted bad and another was a red hybrid blend of some sort that smelled like store brand bacon. Highlighting these wineries by giving them an AVA, at least as they are now, isn’t exactly putting Michigan’s best foot forward. A Michigan wine newcomer could get a poor impression of Michigan wines after drinking something from Tip of the Mitt.
There’s room in the Michigan wine world for table wines. I don’t object to unambitious, or unbalanced wines for weeknight dinner or porch sipping. If the AVA designation is to be meaningful it should denote a certain level of quality, though. Contrast TotM with the situation of winemakers in Southeast Michigan. Many of them are making very good wine, especially reds, but all they can do is put “Michigan” on their labels, with no AVA or estate grown designation. The value of an AVA is undermined when a marginal area receives one but an area producing high quality wine grapes has to soldier on without. AVAs should be granted to areas that are already producing quality wine as a recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of their area, not handed out to areas that might, under some circumstances, produce decent wine at some point in the future.
All this makes me wonder if the creation of the new AVA was for wine reasons or for tourism reasons. When the Bay View wine trail was created, I questioned the wisdom of creating a wine trail to promote wineries in a marginal area that were producing marginal wine. By “questioned” I mean that I made snarky remarks about it on Twitter. I called it the “tourist trap wine trail” because I think what motivated the creation of the Bay View wine trail and Tip of the Mitt was vitis envy. The Lake Michigan Shore and Northern Michigan are popular tourist areas. Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City (home to the Old Mission Peninsula) have their own AVAs, as does the Lake Michigan Shore to the southwest. Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan and Boyne City to the north didn’t, even though tourism has been just as important there as it has been elsewhere in Northern Michigan. SAGGA may have wanted the AVA and wine trail to keep their tourists from driving south to spend their wine tourism dollars. The first paragraph of this article implies as much. A trail and AVA help in that regard but the quality of wine in the area needs to improve quickly or momentum and tourist dollars will be lost. As much as I snarked about the Bay View wine trail, a wine trail is an instrument for tourism. Its creation is appropriate for the goal of promoting wine tourism in the area. An AVA should be about the wine itself, not tourism.
What the Tip of the Mitt AVA has brought into focus for me is the need for Michigan winemakers and the state department of agriculture to work together to develop a unified strategy for increasing the number of AVAs in the state (among other things). Letting regional wine organizations like SAGGA go it alone will result in a crazy quilt of AVAs some of which will be TotMs types. Luckily a new organization has brought together winemakers, famers, retailers, tourism boards and others for support and cooperation. It is the called the Michigan Wine Collaborative. It has the potential to prevent such a and advance a unified strategy for Michigan’s expanding wine industry. Yours truly inquired about being on the board, but all the positions were already filled at the time. Also, taking care of a six-month old baby sucks up a lot of my time.
I already mentioned the need for an AVA or AVAs in Southeast Michigan but another possibility for expansion could the subdivision of existing AVAs. Lake Michigan Shore is big itself and is ripe for further division. Maybe an arrangement similar to the villages in Beaujolais or Cote de Rhone could be adopted. It would be great to see Baroda, Paw Paw and Coloma join Fennville as AVAs within LMS. Perhaps there could even be an LMS Villages designation for wines made from a combination of grapes from near those towns. Leelanau could benefit from a similar arrangement or it could be divided into three parts based on the Sleeping Bear, Northern and Grand Traverse Bay loops of the Leelanau Wine Trail. These subdivisions could also add another layer of interest to wines made by Michigan’s growing stable of garagiste style winemakers.
If Michigan wine is to continue to grow its regional and national reputation, its wine producers and the state need to be strategic and deliberate about adding AVAs and wine trails. It might even be a good idea for to meet with winemakers from Ontario and New York to come up with regional strategies as well. Then, hopefully, we avoid any more Tip of the Mitts. Or is it Tips of the Mitt?
Maker: Chateau de Leelanau, Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Leelanau Penninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Production: 210 cases
Price: $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting room Sipper Club selection)
Appearance: Dark plum
Nose: Wild blackberries, toasted oak.
Palate: Raspberry juice, black cherry, crimini mushrooms, oak, smoke.
Finish: Blackberry jam, oak.
Parting words: I wrote off Chateau de Leelanau for dead years ago after visiting the place and being unimpressed with everything, except the cherry wine which rose to the level of mediocre. I reviewed the wine back then, and got an annoyed comment from “Matt” who rattled off a long list of awards and an “interesting reaction” comment from MBTB’s Courtney Casey. I stand by that review, but after hearing that they’ve changed ownership since then I decided to give them another chance at a review.
Holy cats, am I glad I did. This is a fantastic wine, easily one of the top five Michigan Cab Francs I’ve had, maybe the best one. It’s earthy, fruity, oaky, perfectly balanced and delicious. Only two things about this wine disappointed me. First, that I only had one bottle. Second, that I didn’t wait for another year or two to open it. It’s only gonna get better kids. CDL’s 2012 Cab Franc is an example of the best that vintage has to offer. This is one to seek out. Highly recommended.
Maker: Bel Lago, Cedar, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Bel Lago estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $19 (website price for 2012 vintage)
Nose: Cut golden apple, peach, pear, leather.
Palate: Full bodied, dry. Subtle pear, cantaloupe, a drop of brown butter.
Finish: A little tangy and a little sweet, then a touch of smoke as it fades.
Parting words: Auxerrois is not a grape that finds its way onto labels very much. It’s a member of the Pinot family grapes. According to geneticists, Auxerrois shares the same parentage as Chardonnay, making it something of a fraternal twin. It’s primarily grown in Alsace in eastern France, where it is one of the most commonly grown varieties (in 2008, it was grown on twice the acreage of Pinot Blanc). Alsace is between Burgundy and Germany geographically and wino-graphically. It is best known for its white wines which include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling. Where does that leave Auxerrois? There’s a strange quirk in French wine laws that allows Alsatian wines labeled Pinot Blanc to contain any white wine from the Pinot family. Auxerrois is one of the most popular choices for Pinot Blanc, whether blended with Blanc and Gris or even all by itself(!). It brings Chard-like mouthfeel and fruit to the blend as a counterpoint Pinot Blanc’s crispness.
Bel Lago became the first winery to plant Auxerrois in Michigan in 1987. They’ve treated it with care and made a great wine out of it, year after year. Pinot Blanc has been raised as a possible signature grape for Michigan but maybe its old pal Auxerrois is a better choice. Bel Lago Auxerrois is highly recommended.
Parting words: Non-vintage (NV) wine has suddenly become much more popular in Michigan because of the two apocalyptic vintages in a row, 2014 & 2015. For reds this was especially the case, but even for Chardonnay and Riesling the polar vortex vintages were disastrous. So wine makers blended reserves of previous better vintages together so that they would have decent wine to bottle in 2016.
Bel Lago is one of the best wineries in Northern Michigan. They’re known for cherry wine, rosé
and whites (like their excellent Auxerrois) but ain’t shabby with reds either. I didn’t expect this non-vintage Pinot Noir to be good, but my expectations were exceeded. It’s not as well integrated and balanced as vintage editions, but it goes well with food and there are no obvious flaws. Chilling brings out an inky taste and aroma, so drink at room temperature if possible. $25 is about $5 too much, but I feel sorry for our wineries having to struggle through those two winters so I don’t mind paying it. Bel Lago NV Pinot Noir is recommended.
Chateau Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= CGT
Gill’s Pier (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= GP Now defunct.
Place of origin
CGT: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
GP: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (estate)
CGT: Medium gold.
GP: Pale gold
CGT: Rich. Slightly musty, old Riesling aroma when first opened, then peachy all the way through.
GP: Crisp yellow apple, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme.
CGT: Full-bodied, old Riesling feel. Mandarin orange, sage.
GT: Bracing, but still sweet. Tangerine, bottled lemon juice.
CGT: Dry, with a little bitterness.
GP: Cheek-filling tartness. Fades slowly.
Parting words: I got the idea for this head to head when I pulled a wine out of our liquor cabinet to put in our china cabinet for near term-consumption (we have an overly complex three-part staging system for wine in our house). I pulled out the CGT Semi-dry Riesling and then went to move up the bottle below it and noticed it was the Gill’s Pier Semi-dry of the same vintage. I’ve done a lot spirits head to heads, but not many wine ones so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.
I didn’t expect there to be much of a difference between these two, honestly. I was quite surprised at the contrast between two wines made from grapes grown a few miles apart in the same style and year. It’s a testimony to the varied terroir of northwest Michigan and the flexibility of Riesling. CGT is lush and decadent where Gill’s Pier is focused and elegant. If I had to choose one over the other, I would probably opt for Gill’s Pier, but just by a hair. Both are recommended. Unfortunately, Gill’s Pier estate is now an alpaca farm, but Chateau Grand Traverse is still going strong and readily available all over Michigan.
Purchased for $13 (Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
Appearance: Bright gold. Very little carbonation noticeable.
Nose: Canned peaches, sweetened apple sauce.
Palate: Fresh white peaches, Golden Delicious apples, minerals, lemon thyme.
Finish: Semi dry with a tart tingle on the tongue.
Parting words: This is the third Chaos cider I’ve reviewed. Like the other fruit flavored ciders in the line, the unfermented apple cider is combined with a fruit wine base and then fermented together. That process makes it less of a flavored cider than a compound fruit wine.
It was not as sweet and sticky as I expected, but it still has enough weight to hold up to club soda and ice. Cherry Blush is more complex and frankly better than this, but Sweet Blush is still worth a try if you’re in the mood for some light patio drinking. Sweet Peach is recommended.