Red-Letter Days

Always strong in white wines, Michigan Wine Competition results show progress in pinot noirs, cabernet franc, and more


At this point, after years of analysis, comparison, debate, competitions, and praise, there is no longer any question that Michigan makes some of the finest white wines in this country.

Rieslings lead the way, of course, but the state is also strong in pinot blanc, gewürztraminer, and a few other varietals. And let’s not forget cold-climate style (as in Chablis-like) chardonnays, which are lean and crisp and very true to the chardonnay character.

If we’ve struggled anywhere, it has been with our red wines. But now, that appears to be over, judging by the 17 Michigan dry red finalists that made it into sweepstakes round at the annual Michigan Wine Competition in East Lansing in August. 

All were superb, about as good a final round of reds in any of the seven competitions I have judged in the last year, and better even than most reds I’ve experienced in final rounds in the previous two or three years.  

Madeline Triffon, director of wine for Plum Markets, described “an exciting array, especially the reds,” adding that “Pinot, cabernet franc, meritage, and other blends were very strong.”

It used to be that reds in Michigan were sweet and made from hybrid grapes. No more. Those still exist, but have now been largely pushed aside by French “vinifera” varieties.

Among those judging at this year’s competition were some of the best palates in North America: Joe Borrello, longtime head of Tasters Guild International; Dr. Richard Peterson, winemaker at Beaulieu BV and Atlas Peak and an associate of André Tchelistcheff; and master sommeliers Kathy Morgan, Doug Frost, Claudia Tyagi, and many others.

A disclaimer: I’m the superintendent of the competition, which means I help organize how wines are served, decide who judges, and track the results. But I do not judge the wines.

I do, however, enjoy tasting the results of their work, and this year there was pretty much unanimity on the reds.

That final round of 17 included five pinot noirs, two merlots, a syrah, three cabernet francs, and four Bordeaux blends.

The Best of Class award winners in the two red categories were Villa Mari Vineyards 2012 Praefectus for dry red, and Karma Vista Vineyards 2014 Devil’s Head Red for semi-dry.

Others that ran and are made from pinot noir grapes included: 2013 Boathouse, 2013 Lemon Creek Winery, 2012 Black Star Farms Arcturos, 2011 Chateau Aeronautique Winery, 2011 Fenn Valley Vineyard, and 2011 French Valley Vineyards.

In cabernet franc grapes, the sweepstakes finalists were 2013 White Pine Winery reserve and 2013 Contessa Wine Cellars. In the final round, those made from merlot were 2012 French Valley Vineyard and 2013 Contessa Wine Cellars.

In a significant side note that may well be a “first” in a wine competition anywhere in recent memory, one panel judging semi-dry white wines awarded gold medals to all 10 wines in the flight. 

Veteran judge Peter Bell, winemaker from Fox Run Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes region who was on that panel, said it was a “once in a lifetime experience.” Bell happens to be one of the three New York winemakers who made Tierce, the dry riesling served at the Obama inaugural luncheon in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

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