Oct. 3 2012 12:00 AM

Annual festival featured bumper crop of Michigan wines

Tasting dozens of wines from Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula at the annual Traverse City Art and Wine Festival this summer, it was evident that the wines of the region continue to reach new heights. Over 5,000 attendees seemed to agree, as the event showcased wines from 27 area wineries, plus cuisine from area purveyors. These impressions were firmly supported by the judging at the 2012 wine and spirits competition conducted at East Lansing’s Kellogg Center on Aug. 7, followed by the annual gold medal reception at Kellogg Center.  

This year, a record 448 Michigan wines were entered into the competition, an increase of over 20 percent from 2011. The wines were rated by judges from across the country, including master sommeliers, winemakers, restaurateurs, distributors, critics and buyers. Michigan has 94 wineries, with 52 of them entering wines in the competition. Gold medals were awarded to 62 wines, and double gold medals were awarded to just four, three of which hailed from Leelanau Peninsula or Old Mission Peninsula (the fourth came from Fenn Valley Vineyards near Saugatuck). Six “best of class” winners were selected, along with a judges’ merit award. As a testament to the quality of wines grown in the nurturing region of Grand Traverse Bay, four of the six “best of class” winners were from Leelanau Peninsula wineries: Chateau Fontaine’s 2011 Pinot Blanc, Shady Lane Cellars’ 2010 Blue Franc, L. Mawby’s Blanc de Blancs Sparkler and Chateau de Leelanau’s Cherry Wine. The best of class semi-dry white wine was a 2011 Vignoles Reserve from Fenn Valley and the best of class dessert wine was a 2011 Late Harvest Vignoles from Kalamazoo’s Lawton Ridge Winery. The judges’ merit award went to the L. Mawby Blanc de Noir Sparkler. 

Michigan is making high quality wines to satisfy every palete, including dry white, semi-dry white, ros, sparkling, dry red, semi-dry red, fruit wines, dessert wines and spirits. Whether you’re a savvy wine consumer purchasing wines at a local retailer or just charting a weekend winery tour, checking out the medal winners at http://www.michiganwines.com/docs/Competition/2012_medal_winners.pdf  will help narrow your focus to wines which have been rigorously peer reviewed and are of indisputably high quality. 

The vast majority of wines entered into the competition were from the 2010 and 2011 vintages, but what’s in store for 2012? The heat wave in March followed by the severe cold snap may have been devastating for Michigan’s cherry and apple industries, but most vineyards had good fruit crops, which benefitted tremendously from the hot, dry summer and the long growing season. Michigan winemakers are very excited about the promise of the 2012 vintage. There is no diminishing the importance of a skilled winemaker, but 90 percent of the journey to a good bottle of wine takes place in the vineyard. Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms — which produces wines on both Grand Traverse Bay peninsulas — reports that the incredible summer has pushed harvest well ahead of schedule. Lutes predicts lush, ripe fruit characteristics in the white varieties and full, rich dark fruit components for the reds.  

Coen Stassen, winemaker at Old Mission Peninsula’s Brys Estate, reports that harvest is in full swing, with Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewrztraminer already picked. Stassen reports that thanks to the dry summer, there was little to no mildew and rot in the vineyards, conditions which can present a vineyard management challenge in high humidity, rainy summer seasons.  Stassen expects the whites to be big and bold with lower natural acidity. Some growers may pick whites a bit earlier than usual in order to keep the sugars and acids in better balance and the alcohol in check. Stassen also expects reds to be bigger than normal, with soft tannins and great color. It seems like 2012 is shaping up with the potential to be an historically great vintage.  For more information about wine competition winners and wine events, visit michiganwines.com.

Drink for a cause
If you’re looking for a superb mid-Michigan wine-tasting opportunity, consider attending the 9th Annual Lansing Area Wine Opener sponsored to benefit cystic fibrosis research. The event is at Eagle Eye Golf Club on Oct. 11, with a VIP reception from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ($100 if purchased in advance) and the general wine opener from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ($60). Eight local restaurants and caterers will provide cuisine. This will not be an ordinary wine-tasting fundraiser — 30 different wines will be featured at six tables, including wines from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain and Chile. All will be current release wines available at retail, and potential candidates for your next shopping list. Hope to see you there. For more information, visit the cystic fibrosis website at detroit.cff.org/lansingwine.  

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)