“Great Lakes, Great Times,” the highway signs promised on the way into Michigan from its neighbors — Indiana, Ohio, and in certain places even from the south, Canada — for most of my life. For the last few years, and perhaps more appropriately, “Pure Michigan,” has been the state’s motto. Because while the lakes remain great, the times have been better. But one thing that has never been better are the wines of Michigan.
We are all familiar with the heartbreaking tragedy that is Detroit. Less well known is Michigan’s bustling wine industry, which, I can only hope, might one day help stimulate the state’s economy through increased oeno-geekism, while simultaneously providing an elixir to Michiganders during the darker times.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Michigan,” wrote Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times in a 2010 Diner’s Journal blog entry. “It has what I imagine to be a thriving wine country.” And while Mr. Asimov’s thoughts were focused on the award-winning rieslings of the Old Mission Peninsula AVA, don’t ignore the red wines of the mitten state, including those of Bowers Harbor Vineyards.
As you pull up to Bowers Harbor Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula, near Traverse City in the north western part of the state, Brix, a 110 pound Berenese Mountain Dog, will give you a friendly greeting and may even rest at your feet while you sip wine. The tasting room is a rustic old horse barn turned winery, and the people of Bowers Harbor are eager to teach you about their wines and Michigan wine country.
I recently tasted the 2896 Langley: a blend of 65% cabernet franc, 32% merlot, and 3 % cabernet sauvignon, from the 2007 vintage. (Langley is the single vineyard designated to wine maker/proprietor Spencer Stengenga’s grandfather, and 2896 is the address of Bowers Harbor.) With a complex bouquet of strawberry preserves, licorice, ginger, mint leaves, and tasting of spicy green pepper notes on the mid palate, this midwestern American wine could easily be mistaken as old world — perhaps a byproduct of French oak barrel aging and the studying of French wine-making by Mr. Stengenga.
While 2006 proved to be an elegant vintage for Bowers Harbor, tasting room manager Kristy McClellan assured me that 2007 has been their best vintage to date for reds:
“We don’t make this wine every year, but 2006 and 2007 were great. We individually taste each barrel and come up with the wine after a few blending trials. The 2008 vintage will be the first time the blend has been predominantly merlot.”
The 2896 Langley can be found in the $40 to $50 price range — not an easy sell to those looking for value, but well worth it to experience the potential that is Michigan’s red grape terroir. Bowers Harbor also produces a pinot noir from Dijon clones, and a sweet red table wine called Red Wagon Red. But if you want to try excellent wines at recession prices, Michigan can deliver with its whites. Bowers Harbor produces a variety of chardonnays, dessert wines, a gewürztraminer, a rosé made from cabernet franc, and of course, rieslings.
At $14 the BHV Estate riesling from 2009 is a beautiful golden color, with green apples, melon, petrol, and figs on the nose, with a syrupy thick body, though not without great acidity. Well balanced lime and cilantro flavors make up the finish. Northern Michigan’s climate is ideal for a number of different styles of rieslings.
“The fruit doesn’t ripen too quickly because of our cool nights, so we get a wonderful quality while maintaining superior levels of acidity,” said Ms. McClellan. “Lake Michigan’s surrounding water extends our growing season for the late harvest styles, but for the BHV Estate riesling we pick on the earlier side to keep its bright fruit characteristics.”
The Bowers Harbor gewürztraminer, also from 2009, is straw fading to green in color, with tropical fruits and floral aromas on the nose: banana, pineapple, roses. It’s an off-dry, low acid wine on the palate, with a bitter back end of citrus peels to balance it out.
“Our gewürztraminer is very popular. We’ve made it more on the dry side in the past, but to be honest, the ones that balance with a little sweetness seem to better please our costumers,” Ms. McClellan tells me. “Telling them to pair it with Thai or Chinese dishes helps them put an image in their mind as far as a use for such a unique wine.”
It’s still tough to find Michigan wines outside of Michigan, but that is changing. A recent night out at the New York City wine bar Castello Plan, in Ditmas Park Brooklyn, confirmed it: the Blue Franc (100% lemberger), from Shady Lane Cellars, a Michigan winery from the Leelanau Peninsula, is featured on the menu. “We used to serve it by the glass too, and it sold great,” bartender Justin Walsh told me.
I remember the first time I saw a sparkling wine from Gruet of New Mexico on a menu and thought, “huh?” Gruet is now served in close to 5,000 restaurants across the country. I’m not asserting the same will happen for Michigan wines, but with wineries like Bowers Harbor Vineyards producing well balanced red and white wines full of finesse, I can at least feel confident telling people that Michigan does indeed have great lakes and great wines.