What Michigan wines are you interested in this holiday season? How do you pair them with foods?
There are many new entries in the Michigan wine scene lately. On-premises locations (restaurants and bars) were mostly closed this year, limiting our exposure to new Michigan wine experiences. I thought that I would reach out to my network of sommelier friends to expand my reach.
Sparkling wines are a great way to greet friends, but as opportunities to gather may be limited, any time also works. Festive and universally compatible, they go with almost any dish. Wine educator Michael A. Schafer, who teaches wine classes at colleges around Detroit, finds Mawby’s sparklers to be always well made. He’s especially impressed with Mawby’s Sex. The cuvee has changed to a drier, more serious wine with character. And he loves to start his classes with, “Who’s in the mood for a little Sex today?”
Mike Fifer, wine team leader at Plum Market-West Ann Arbor, says Mari Vineyards’ sparkling Riesling “Simplicissimus” is an eye-opener. This natural sparkler sings with the delicate complexity of Riesling. “Having turned to a vegan diet this year, I am excited to pair it with both veggies and some slightly spicy dishes on my Christmas menu,” he says.
Riesling is the bright star for Michigan, producing many excellent dry versions. I tasted a 2019 late-harvest from 2 Lads Winery in October. It almost exploded with big, bright crispness, softened by a touch of residual sugars — like a sword wrapped in whipped cream. Black Star Farms’ 2017 Dry Riesling won “Best Riesling in the World” in a recent competition featuring more than 500 bottlings from around the world. Bright, crisp fruit with a hint of peach would complement many salads and fish dishes.
Michigan’s First Lady of Wine, master sommelier Madeline Triffon, now with Plum Market, loved Left Foot Charley’s 2018 Luthier, a dry white blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc.
“It’s a new wine for (LFC’s) Bryan Ulbrich and one that he’s excited about,” she says. “It’s rich without wood tones — how cool that it combines the white grapes that sing in Michigan. All I can think of is a plate of housemade sage-scented stuffing made with nutty whole grain bread. Yum.”
Schafer notes that Charlie Edson of Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery makes three styles of Auxerrois, an ancient white grape from Alsace that has found renewed interest. There’s a bright, crisp style from stainless and a richer, weightier barrel-aged version. He recently won awards for a sparkling rendition. All would brighten a holiday meal of turkey — or even scallops.
An old wine style with recent renewed interest is orange or skin-contact wines. White grapes are handled like reds; after pressing, the skins remain sitting in the juice together for a time and pick up a deeper color with more flavor and body. Like natural wines, many use native yeasts — no filtering or sulfur. Putnam Weekley, wine guru at Western Market in Ferndale, particularly likes Mari Vineyard’s Bestiary Ramato, a skin-fermented Pinot Grigio, describing it as exhibiting flavors “reminiscent of a fruity steeped tea with delicate tannins.” Mari’s website says the wine is “able to stand up against strong flavors — try with a bitter green salad, Brussels sprouts, spicy curry, fermented kimchi or Korean beef tacos.”
Light Red Wines
Light red wines have become more popular because they are, as the French say, “glou-glou” or “gulpable” — easy to drink and pair with many food styles.
Weekley liked a light red made from the hybrid grape De Chaunac made by Nathaniel Rose Wine, with Boskydel vines at Warren Raftshol’s old winery.
Bigger Red Wines
Many say that Cabernet Franc is the benchmark red wine for Michigan, as it seems to do well throughout the state. Left Foot Charley crafts a rich reserve version from the MacDonald vineyard. At Shady Lane Cellars, winemaker Kasey Wierzba crafts a blend of Cabernet Franc with the rare Blaufränkisch grape, a fruity, dark red from Austria.
Few would expect Bordeaux blends from Michigan. The powerful red blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc require warmer growing conditions than those we usually see in Michigan. But who could argue with Jim Lester of Wyncroft-Marland, as his BDX blend, Shou (a traditional Chinese symbol meaning “longevity” or “quality”), is a rich, tannic red from the Lake Michigan Shore AVA in the southwestern corner of the state — just 5 miles from Lake Michigan.
Daniel Hochrein, a sommelier in southeast Michigan, tends to serve only white wines at Thanksgiving. The flavor of ginger in Gewürztraminer pairs well with herbed stuffing, and the hint of sweetness tames spicy foods (he sometime adds a touch of cayenne pepper) or pairs well with cranberries. Bel Lago and Brengman Brothers make notable selections, he says.
Hochrein only serves red wines at Christmas. The fatty richness of short ribs demands bigger flavors. He turns to a Cabernet Franc — rich from oak barrel treatment — and its lively acid cuts through the ribs’ fattiness. The rosé versions are great with roasted Brussels sprouts, parsnips or roasted kale, as they balance the green flavors.
Mick Descamps, advanced sommelier and wine director of the Red Wagon Wine Shoppes, is proud of his Sicilian heritage. His family traditionally enjoys a handmade Italian wedding soup on Christmas Eve. Pinot Bianco is his go-to: the Mari version is blended with a splash of Tocai Friulano and Pinot Grigio. Descamps also suggests Jim Lester’s Marland Chardonnay, which rested on its lees over the winter to add body and complexity. As for red wines, Descamps highlights Pinot Noir from Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery and Cabernet Franc from Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery. And keep an eye on 2 Lads Winery, as new winemaker Thomas Houseman has recently moved here from Oregon, where he made Pinots for years.
Michigan dessert wines — including ice wine — can be made from late-harvest grapes. Chateau Grand Traverse has produced a botrytized version of Gewürztraminer, a late-harvest affected by noble rot, which added honeyed notes. A visit from the Polar Vortex can kill grapevines, but can also produce one of the rarest wines in the world — ice wine. Chateau Chantal’s winemaker Brian Hosmer recently crafted a rare ice wine from Cabernet Franc fruit — incredible sweetness and fruitiness, with intense complex Cabernet Franc flavors.
There are many more wines from all of the state’s wine-growing regions that deserve mention for holiday consideration that we couldn’t fit into this article, but should be explored.
Marshall Wehr is a retired hospital pharmacist. He obtained the certified specialist of wine in 2012, certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2017 and French wine specialist in 2019 with the Wine Scholar Guild. Currently he is working on the Italian wine specialist certification with the Wine Scholar Guild. Most recently, he worked as sommelier and wine buyer for a wine bar in Chelsea, Mich., then transitioned to Plum Market in Bloomfield after the Chelsea operation closed during pandemic lockdown.