Sampling the champs

By Michael Brenton

The 2009 Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition, held in early August at East Lansing’s Kellogg Center, included entries from most of Michigan’s 64 wineries judged by a nationwide panel of experts, including three master sommeliers.

Consumers benefit, as experts do the heavy lifting of winnowing down several hundred wines to a shorter list of Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze Medal winners. At the top of the pyramid are six “Best of Class winners,” a Judges’ Merit Award winner and 14 wines achieving “Double Gold” status. These wines are dependably well made, clean, balanced and correct for their variety. (If a wine is a Pinot Noir, it better smell and taste like a Pinot Noir!) The judges do not know the identity of the wineries or winemakers when the wines are tasted, yet year in and out out, certain winemakers populate the top of the heap; they must be doing something right.

This year’s Best of Class and Judge’s Merit winners included six wines from Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula and an Ice Wine from Fenn Valley Vineyards, south of Holland. It is a testament to the quality grape growing and winemaking in the Traverse City Region. Close to home, Burgdorf’s Winery, of Haslett, achieved its first Double Gold, with 2007’s “Perfection,” an eclectic blend of Michigan black raspberries and tart cherries.

Complete competition results are posted at, but it is helpful to taste wines before purchasing.

Fortuitously, the Traverse City Wine and Art Festival held its inaugural celebration on Aug. 22 at the Grand Traverse Commons. Twenty-two area wineries and several diverse restaurants rimmed the edges of a circus-sized tent, while wine devotees sampled many of the Gold Medal and Best of Class wines. Forming a perimeter around the tent was a juried fine arts show, featuring many artists recognizable from the East Lansing Art Fair. On a stage off to the side, Okemos’ own Thom Jayne & the Nomads entertained the crowd, along with other bands.

“Best of Class” winners sampled by this writer included Left Foot Charley’s 2008 Pinot Blanc. It is a wonderful marriage of bright, sweet, ripe fruit and acidity in a dry-finished wine.

The State Champion semi-dry white is Bel Lago Vineyards 2008 Gewurztraminer, a personal favorite. It does not develop the sometimes-overpowering spice, which some people dislike about Gewurztraminer, but presents just the right balance of spice, fruit, typical Gewurztraminer flavors and viscous mouth feel.

Shady Lane Cellars took Double Gold with its 2007 semi-dry Riesling, displaying peach and honeysuckle with a nice acid backbone and a long, lingering finish.

Bel Lago 2008 Auxerrois, a silver medal winner, features an effusive and fruity bouquet, melon and apricot on the palate and a clean presentation. If you enjoy dry Riesling or a fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc, give this rare wine a try. It would be a stumper in blind tasting.

The State Champion dry red wine from Gill’s Pier, 2007 Cabernet Franc-Merlot, may cause some to question misconceptions about whether a ripe, concentrated Bordeaux-style wine can be made in Michigan. It has a deep, opaque purple color and concentrated black cherry and plum fruit overtones, all aged in French oak. I would defy most tasters to select this as a Michigan wine.

This year’s Judge’s Merit Award went to Black Star Farms’ 2008 Arcturos Dry Riesling, another personal perennial favorite for its dependable combination of mouthwatering acidity and broad, soft fruit.

Black Star Farms’ Be Dazzled, a Gold Medal-winning sparkler, fills the mouth with bubbles, a hint of sweetness and bright acidity. Think backyard party on a summer day.

The combination of medal-winning wines, good food, fun music and fine art made the inaugural Traverse City Wine and Art Festival a hit. Look for it again next August.

In vino veritas

— Michael Brenton

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