I just returned from a road trip far to northern Michigan to visit one of my best friends who just built a French-tastic house on the shores of beautiful Lake Leelanau (“Do you think it’s too aggressively French?” he asked me after the cinq-cent tour. “Non! J’aime Le Escape Hatch!” I said!)
During my three-day excursion to this summer playground near Traverse City, we tripped the wine fantastic for one day, hitting three wineries and I’m here to say this: do not sleep on wines from northern Michigan! I mean, it’s on the 45th Parallel, putting it at the latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux and Oregon’s famous Willamette Valley. Sure, it’s a colder climate and there’s plenty of snow in the winter, but wineries were founded in these parts some 40 years ago, and they’ve learned a thing or two about growing grapes and making wines.
First, let’s get our bearings. From Chicago and its about a five-hour drive to Traverse City. The town is full of hotels and there are Air BnBs everywhere (but book early, especially in the summer.) I’m sure there are campgrounds around, but don’t ask me where (camping; please). If you want to fly, Traverse City also has a decent sized airport.
Okay, back to the wines. White grapes are the name of the game, if only because they ripen a little sooner than most red grapes. And sparkling wines are huge here – again, because grapes for sparkling wines are usually the first to be picked, because you want lower sugars to ensure brisk acidity in sparkling wines.
Speaking of sparkling, Mawby Vineyards located in Sutton’s Bay specializes in it! In fact, they only make sparkling wines – both Methode Traditionelle (aka Methode Champenoise)and Cuve Close (aka Charmat method, aka Tank Method – sheesh, so many names for the same things). We did not have a reservation (always handy these days), but they were super accommodating and seated us at a fabulous table on the breezy porch with a view that will put you in a trance.
As soon as we were seated, a server delivered a glass of their house sparkler called Sandpiper which is a Semi-Dry wine (so 1.5% residual sugar). I’m not getting into the sweetness scale for sparkling here, because it’ll make your head explode. (I mean, who decided that Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut and Dry is sweeter than Extra Dry? It could not be more confusing for the average person). Anywho, the Sandpiper is all green-apple-y, bubbly goodness with just the right amount of imperceptible sweetness, and as served it, she said, “You need a little something to sip on while you study the offerings!” Amazing hospitality!
Another server walked us through the flights, which are designed around sweetness levels and style. I did the Premium flight, which was all Methode Traditionelle wines, and my friend did the”Dry-er” flight, which was a mix of the two types.
One of my faves was the Sandpainting X Brut, a Methode Traditionelle wine made from Leelanlau Riesling and Leelanau Pinot Gris ($33). It’s a super-dreamy wine offering generous crisp green apple and lemon curd on freshly toasted brioche and fine bubbles. Cha-ching!
My next fave was their pet-nat – short for pétillant naturel – which translates to “naturally sparkling.” After fermentation, the wine is bottled quickly before all the natural CO2 has dissipated, creating bubbles in the bottle. The Mawby pet nat is called EffNat ($29) and it’s a blend of Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Gris and Marquette. It’s bone dry but super juicy – think Fruit Stripe gum and strawberry Froot Loops. We both loved it!
Okay – time to bust a move . On to Black Star Farms! This is a beautiful, sprawling property with an inn, a winery, barns (it’s a working farm), a restaurant and of course, a wine tasting room. (FYI, they have two tasting rooms, and their second one is over in Old Mission – we went to the original property in Sutton’s Bay.) Black Star Farms was founded almost 25 years ago in 1998 and today they have 130 acres under vine.
We pulled up to the bar, where you can choose your own flight of three wines for $13 (and you get a cute stemless wine glass to take home, with the black star emblem!) I had three favorites that I brought home.
The 2019 Arcturos Pinot Blanc ($17.50) had nice weight and texture with lime zest and peachy orchard fruit bursting from the glass.
Their 2021 Sur Lie Chardonnay ($17.50) rested on the lees, or the spent yeast cells after fermentation, giving it a bready richness that I adored. I’s really fun, offering apple butter, pear clafouti and vanilla note – yuh-mee!
Then there was the 2017 Tribute Off-Dry Riesling ($18), which had that signature petrol aroma of riesling, backed up with ripe orchard fruit and limeade. Really well-balanced and tasty. I can’t wait to have it with some Thai food!
Our last stop of the day was Mari Vineyards, over in Old Mission, where Josh in the tasting room took great care of us (his wine knowledge is solid). This is a super popular destination because it’s high atop a hill, affording amazing views of the lake and the spacious yard is chock-full of seating areas for hanging out and sipping.
A three-wine tasting flight goes for $18, or four for $21. Their 2018 Grüner Veltliner ($30) was beautiful, and Josh snuck in a taste of their 2020 Malvasia Ambra, which is 75% Malvasia Bianca, 20% Sauv Blanc and 5% Tocal Friulano. This creative and well-balanced blend had my head spinning! And I lost my tasting notes, but I remember how much I loved it! And I splurged on their 2017 Ultimate Thule ($80) red, which is 52% Nebbiolo, 28% Schioppettino and 20% Cabernet. What? Who thinks to blend these three international varietals? The winemaker at Mari, that’s who. This wine was so juicy, so bright with lush red fruit and a tiny under-current of anise to frame it all up – I loved it.
Alright, this concludes our brief tour of the Leelanau Wine Trail and a bit up into Old Mission! All of these wineries ship if you get curious, and if you’re in the neighborhood, head on up there. It’s a beautiful destination with beautiful wines! In Michigan, known as the Mitten State!