Wine: Seasonal Sipping

Michigan’s lighter and fresher-tasting wines are just right for summer

I usually avoid going to walk-around wine tasting events.

I don’t get much from a wine when I’m crowded around a table where dump bucket fumes from blended white and red wines waft into the path of wine being poured. And, almost without fail, someone in the crowd is wearing a heavy cologne or perfume that totally kills the aromatic delicacy of any wine.

But to most experiences there is an exception. There was an eye-opening Michigan wine showcase at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit in April that revealed the leaps and bounds that Michigan’s wine industry continues to make.

One relatively new grape variety that seems to do marvelously well in Michigan soil and that bears close watching is Gruner Veltliner. Fans of Germanic wines will know this grape mostly as an Austrian dry white. It’s also grown in Germany, Hungary, and in the mountainous areas of northern Italy.

With summer now heading into full swing, boats are back in the water, cottages are reopened and cleared of mice and cobwebs, and lighter and fresher-tasting wines are a good idea.

Of the baker’s dozen or so wineries at the Rattlesnake Club event, several were pouring impressive Gruner Veltliners.

One of the big early promoters of the grape in recent years has been winemaker Sean O’Keefe, of the family that owns Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula. Since the O’Keefes were the first to introduce riesling to Michigan in the 1970s, Germanic wines are very much in the family background. Sean is at heart a riesling maker who learned his winemaking skills at Geisenheim University, one of the world’s great academic research facilities for wine — A University of Riesling, if you will. His Gruner Veltliner is called Laika, and it’s an exceptional wine.

One of the nicest newer Gruner Veltliners at the walk-around tasting was from Good Harbor Vineyard, a fresh, crisp wine with great minerality. Good Harbor, on the Leelanau Peninsula, is one of the stalwart, early pioneers of wine in northern Michigan. The family-owned winery continues the work of the late Bruce Simpson, its founder, winemaker, and jack-of-all-trades. His wife, Debbie, holds the rudder as owner. His son Sam is now making wines and overseeing vineyard operations, and daughter Taylor heads up sales and marketing.

I find that Gruner Veltliner is one of the best white wines to put with fried lake perch, walleye, trout, or any freshwater fish. It works so well with fish that its interaction with food reminds me of Muscadet de Sevres et de Maine, the great French white and a favorite throughout northern France.

The wine itself has a lot of minerality. Sometimes it’s described as chalky, but it also has some of the character of cantaloupe melon with a zingy lemon zest, which gives it a good palate-cleansing, mouth-freshening property. The wine is actually fairly viscous, which is to say that it has some thickness in the same way that chardonnay tends to have more heft than, for example, pinot grigio.

Chris Cook’s summer wines

2011 Good Harbor Gruner Veltliner ($18.50)
2011 Chateau Grand Traverse Gruner Veltliner “Laika” ($17)