April 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

Image: © 2002 leelanau communications, inc.

Image: © 2002 leelanau communications, inc.

April has once again been designated as Michigan Wine Month by the Governor of Michigan. As I have written before, wine has been a steady growth industry of late for Michigan. New wineries are opening every year, though, truth be told, some wineries are way ahead of the pack. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new wineries assimilate into this pack; I think some Michigan wineries still struggle in striking a balance between making sweeter-style wine to suit more occasional wine drinkers, and making wine with more nuance and complexity to suit the more experienced oenophile. However, as the second most diverse agricultural state, and a leading grower of fruit, it should be natural for this state to develop a winemaking industry, and I don’t just say that as a wine-lover.

One area that is ahead of the pack is the Leelanau Peninsula in Northwestern Michigan. Last weekend, the Leelanau Peninsula Vintner’s Association (Twitter: @lpwines) invited a group of people who regularly write, talk about, or otherwise imbibe local wine to gather and discuss this burgeoning local industry. The main purpose of the event, though, was to try the much-anticipated 2010 vintage. Why is 2010 so anticipated? The weather during the growing season was relatively warm, which means that the wine had enough time to fully ripen on the vine, an issue for any winemaking in a colder climate.

I had the chance to spend a good deal of time barrel tasting the 2010s at Bel Lago winery, one of the best wineries in the region. As the name suggests, Bel Lago winery is located high above the beautiful Lake Leelanau.  The winery attracts people interested in trying their unique bottling of a 100% Auxerrois, normally a blending grape in Alsatian whites. They also produce many other wines, particular standouts include a fantastic Pinot Grigio (though more in the style of Pinot Gris), Gewürztraminer, and a sparkling Brut Rosé, made in the méthode champenoise, which was delicate-as-a-spring-flower on the palate, but packed with a dry, lingering finish.

Bucking the Riesling and white wine trend so pervasive in Northern Michigan, Bel Lago produces a signature red, called “Tempesta,” which is a blend of 45% Cabernet Franc, 22% Regent (a hybrid grape), 13% Lemberger, with the balance being comprised of several other varieties. I was pleasantly surprised by this red (normally, I’m a little selective about the reds being produced in Michigan). It had such ripe fruit and complex flavors, I think it would change most people’s minds about whether it’s possible for Michigan to produce complex reds that could eventually rival those from Washington and Oregon.

I had the chance to talk with Bel Lago’s winemaker, Charlie Edson, a knowledgeable and passionate winemaker who has been plying his trade since he started experimenting by making wine in carboys decades ago. After winemaking professionally for over twenty years in the region, it would be an understatement to say that he’s familiar with the tempestuousness of Michigan seasons; although Edson did not say this, it seems as if Tempesta was named for the region’s weather (n.b. it was snowing last weekend). Edson produces Tempesta only during the years when the fruit is the ripest, which means that it has been produced recently during the years ’02, ’05, and ’07, and is currently in barrels for the ’10 season. I tasted some straight from the barrel, and a few sips demonstrates the potential for full, ripe cherry fruit, complex spices, tobacco, minerals, and cocoa, balanced by restrained acidity, even though the wine has approximately ten more months in the barrel.

I’ve long been a fan of Black Star Farms and its winemaker, Lee Lutes. I didn’t have the opportunity to try all the 2010 wines (some other time, hopefully), but I did taste the 2010 Pinot Gris, one of my favorite Black Star wines. Having had the ’09 Pinot Gris, the difference between it and the ’10 vintage was stunning. As 2010 was blessed with plenty of hot, sunny days, 2009 was damned with just as many cold, rainy ones. As many ’09s from Michigan tended to have a thinner finish and more acidity, the ’10 Pinot Gris by Black Star Farms showed the season’s potential: For the first time in a long time, I could taste fuller fruit, and a longer finish.

Finally, it wasn’t all wine last weekend: I was lucky to have the opportunity to taste two of Nikki Rothwell and Dan Young’s Tandem hard ciders, labeled as “Farmhouse” and “Crabster.” The couple have been making hard cider for a few years (and the ciders’ insignia is aptly emblazoned with a tandem bicycle, a nod to the couple’s hobby). Even the British-style Farmhouse, made from a variety of dessert apples grown on the Leelanau, is more like wine in its lightness and complexity, whereas the Crabster is more continental in style, and has more complexity, grace and tartness than the usual hard ciders, which differ from their juicy, non-fermented cousins only by the presence of alcohol. Nikki and Dan discussed their plans to plant European apple varieties that are not necessarily for eating, but grown specifically for making hard cider. I look forward to learning more about what they bottle in the future.