Northern Michigan in the summer is prime Instagram material. The Grand Traverse Bay area is an embarrassment of riches, with views for days. The restaurant scene is adventurous and diverse, and the wineries show personality in a region that fiercely champions its own producers.
The past 18 months have been hard on Northern Michigan grape growers. The 2012 and 2013 harvests performed reasonably well, but early 2014 brought a long patch of severe cold weather with little reprieve. Yields and production were significantly reduced. This year is shaping up to be just as problematic, with another early season deep freeze and a frost that hit the region in the third week of May.
It’s a tough combination of factors in play: Less production, a thriving tourism industry and an overhead that’s rarely spartan all contribute to a Michigan wine market with prices that may very well creep up and up. Smartly, many wineries have expanded to produce ciders. The cider market is rapidly growing, and it’s not a stretch for wineries to find space to ferment apples instead of grapes.
After recently tasting about 200 wines on Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, it’s clear that white wines run the show for value. But there are elegant, complex reds worth a look.
Overall top values
2 Lads riesling, 2012 ($16) — Crowd-pleasing wine of the summer. Big citrus, lemon, apricot, papaya flavors. Great depth of fruit flavors that don’t want to go away.
Bel Lago pinot grigio & chardonnay, 2013 ($14) — Like fresh melon at a produce stand (a complete mess if you drop it), a semi-ripe apple/pear dynamic that should be a go-to for those who enjoy dry white wines.
Big Little Wine “Dune Climb” sauvignon blanc, 2014 ($21) — An exciting find from a small producer with limited distribution. It has a tasting room on Leelanau Peninsula that’s only open four days a week. By smell, this wine is a dead ringer for New Zealand sauvignon blanc, with obvious grapefruit and passionfruit aromas. The palate is a little less racy, veering into softer citrus and honeysuckle-like flavors.
Hawthorne pinot noir, 2012 ($18) — A surprising find under $20. Michigan pinot noir is a tough category to hit at this price, but winemaker Brian Hosmer has done a great job creating a pomegranate/cherry flavor-driven, youthful wine that manages to be full-flavored.
Brys Estate riesling/gris, 2013 ($16) — White peach and yellow apple notes battle for supremacy in this ultimate showdown of how-to-taste-like-a-wine-all-of-us-would-want-to-drink-as-the-mercury-hits-80.
Shady Lane Coop de Rouge, 2010 ($12.95) — Normally, 5-year-old inexpensive red wine from Michigan would seem past its prime, but this fits a great mold like barbera or gamay could: playful red fruit and enough acid that makes it a go-to party/grill wine.
Highly recommended white wines and rosés
45 North pinot gris, 2013 ($26) — Loads of green/red apple flavors with a dried floral component to this wine. Shows versatility because there’s enough fruit, but also secondary earthy/herbal notes. Excellent.
Blustone riesling, 2013 ($20) — Nectarine, apricot, semi-ripe peaches and a subtle sense of minerality that is not too common in Michigan wines.
Left Foot Charley 7th Hill riesling, 2012 ($23) — Elegant stone fruit and a slight orange peel, up-front citrus note. Aging well in the bottle.
Black Star Farms medium dry riesling, 2012 ($15) — Jasmine, apple and citrus blossom flavors. Drink this wine on a boat. Boat does not have to be in water.
Brys Estate signature rosé, 2014 ($28) — The most exciting, well-developed rosé I tasted. The result here from Brys is not that different from famed Oregon producer Domaine Serene’s “R”: floral notes but delicate and continuous cherry, raspberry, cranberry, and strawberry flavors.
Laurentide sauvignon blanc, 2013 ($26.99) — This comes across like a California sauvignon blanc, with lemon, white pepper and slight grassy notes.
Verterra unoaked chardonnay, 2014 ($16) — Excitingly bright fruit profile makes this a strong candidate for favorite chardonnay of this vintage from Leelanau Peninsula.
2 Lads Fouch Vineyard late harvest riesling, 2013 ($20) — A bit showy aromatically, peach/apple flavors are certainly supported by acid. Enjoyably sweet juice.
Highly Recommended Red Wines
2 Lads pinot noir, 2013 ($29) — Sweet cherry and plum flavors with a very soft mouthfeel. While some pinots feel a bit assaulted by oak, this wine remains pretty and youthful.
Bel Lago pinot noir, 2012 ($25) — Fun strawberry/pomegranate flavors, with well-integrated French oak. Drinks perfectly right now.
Chateau Chantal Proprietor’s Reserve cabernet franc, 2012 ($26) — Cabernet franc bell pepper flavors can range from “mild” to “Taco Bell.” This one shows on the mild side. An age-worthy gem, with dusty leather, dried flowers and a currant fruit profile. Compelling.
Bowers Harbor “Wind Whistle” claret, 2012 ($36) — A charming, full-bodied blend from this Old Mission Peninsula winery.
Hawthorne cabernet franc/merlot, 2012 ($35) — Expressive, bold, rich red and black fruit flavors, with an oaky/tobacco undercurrent. California cabernet drinkers may look to this as something in their wheelhouse.
Recommended Sparkling Wines
Forty-Five North peach cremant, NV ($20) — The current batch is sweeter than last years’, and sales are taking off. Peach fanatics shouldn’t walk away from this. Well done.
Big Little Wines C-3 Pinot brut, NV ($25) — This wine excels at being highly drinkable. Friendly biscuits/pear notes on this dry wine that continue very cleanly. Sometimes the alcohol burn and synthetic-feeling fruit flavors or off-notes can dominate a wine’s finish. Not here.
L Mawby Blanc de Noirs, NV ($23) — A Michigan wine standard. Pinot noir grapes that show a complex mix of toasty brioche, apple, lemon, bright cherry and apricot.
M. Lawrence Sex brut rosé, NV ($15) — This bottle has been the source of much low-hanging innuendo fruit for many cheeky parties. (You know who you are.) Showing tart, cherry flavors, this dry rosé made from pinot noir and chardonnay carries some light pepper and strawberry undertones as well.