Made-in-Michigan dessert wines that dazzle — with tasting experiences to match
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township and Royal Oak. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a place known for its brutal winters, it's no surprise that Michigan produces exquisite ice wines.
These "nectar of the gods" dessert wines are created from grapes harvested and pressed while frozen, leaving behind a mere drop of juice that's brimming with concentrated sugar.
"Ice wine and winter have a special relationship," says Jay Briggs, winemaker at Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery, located in northwestern Michigan. "When the snow is deep and life slows down, it seems fitting to sit back and enjoy a small glass of sweet nectar."
The snow was indeed deep when Briggs and his crew set out to harvest grapes for their 2013 Riesling Ice Wine at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 10, 2013. Wading through the drifts, bundled against the 17 degree chill, they painstakingly handpicked 4 tons of frozen grapes from vines illuminated by vehicle headlights, personal headlamps and floodlights.
With only a few harvests under his belt as Forty-Five North's winemaker, the 2013 ice wine was Briggs' very first — and it was well worth the labor. In August 2015, it netted the Best in Class Dessert Wine trophy at the prestigious Michigan Wine Competition.
Thanks to the balance of acid and sugar, says Briggs, the wine "layers the palate with honey-dipped peaches and apricots."
"While the obvious pairing is a dessert, I think going 180 degrees and starting (a meal) with an ice wine is pretty cool," he says. "Fruit tarts are great, and an easy pairing, but getting creative with cheese and charcuterie would be a blast."
Visitors at Forty-Five can sample an extensive lineup of whites, reds, ciders and fruit wines, amid a comfortable, rustic ambiance. The tasting room is wood through and through, with a quirky horse figure at one end of the bar and a leather saddle at the other. Colorful, intricately lettered chalkboards inform visitors of the specials. Guests are typically greeted by Channing Sutton, the tasting room manager, who has become widely known among the wine-loving set for her bubbly, welcoming demeanor. The winery also boasts 3 miles of adjacent trails for hiking and mountain biking, offering breathtaking views of the neighboring farms.
As at Forty-Five North, Riesling also is the grape of choice at Black Star Farms, a few miles south down the Leelanau Peninsula.
"Riesling is classic for ice wine, and it has an aromatic and flavor intensity that lends itself really, really well to the concentrated flavors you get in ice wine," says winemaker Lee Lutes, who has produced numerous vintages of Riesling ice wine, labeled under the proprietary name "A Cappella," since 2000. "With Riesling, the wine gets more complex, not just deeper in flavor and richness."
In terms of pairings, Lutes has two personal favorites.
“One is to dip a good almond biscotti into a glass of ice wine and drink it afterward,” he says. “Two is to enjoy it with a silky dessert, like panna cotta or creme brûlée."
Visitors at Black Star Farms' pastoral estate may never want to leave — and they don't have to, at least not immediately, thanks to the luxurious inn attached to the tasting room. Inn guests enjoy indulgent gourmet breakfasts and receptions replete with wine and hors d'oeuvres. Only a few paces away are the estate's farm-to-table Hearth & Vine Restaurant, equestrian facilities, an outdoor terrace, a petting farm and more. The main tasting room itself boasts soaring ceilings, colorful murals and a massive bar to accommodate thirsty guests.
Black Star Farms also maintains a smaller but equally cozy tasting room on Old Mission Peninsula, an approximately 30-minute drive east, where a portion of the winery's products are made onsite.
An offsite tasting room, TASTES of Black Star Farms, is located just outside of downtown Traverse City in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Formerly a mental hospital, the sprawling commons — marked for demolition but saved by a local developer — is now a hub of retail and residential activity. TASTES is partially underground, with exposed brick walls and niches now used for Matterhorn dinners: meals featuring vegetables, meats and bread, warmed on a small grill and topped with melted local Raclette cheese.
Downstate, Fenn Valley Vineyards & Wine Cellar in Fennville, on Michigan's southwestern coast, relies on the Vidal Blanc grape for its 42 Ice Wine — with much success. The wine has accumulated numerous accolades, including Bronze, Double Gold and Best in Class from the Michigan Wine Competition over the past six years, along with kudos from the Tasters Guild Wine Competition, Great Lakes/Great Wines Competition and American Fine Wine Competition.
Surprisingly, the much acclaimed 42 is one of (if not the) least expensive ice wine in the state, at less than $25 a bottle — compared to the usual $45-$90-plus pricetag.
"At Fenn Valley, we strive to make table wine, or wine that is meant to be consumed daily, rather than once a year," says winemaker Brian Lesperance. "So, we only take on projects where we can deliver products at a reasonable price."
Lesperance says Fenn Valley is able to keep the cost down by making large batches of the wine, and also by accepting a lower profit margin, knowing that "it introduces lots of people to our brand, and builds lifetime customers."
Choosing Vidal Blanc also played a part. Late-ripening, with a thick skin, the hybrid grape is more protected than more sensitive vinifera while awaiting the requisite cold temperatures suitable for harvest, he says. Vidal Blanc also is readily available, inexpensive to grow and "has a powerful character that is amplified by the freezing process, resulting in an ice wine with a unique flavor profile that makes it easy to market," he adds.
Lesperance describes 42 Ice Wine as bursting with ripe peaches, mango, apricots, honey, raisins and a hint of violets on both the nose and palate. Like Lutes, he touts biscotti as the perfect pairing.
"The twice-baked nature of biscotti lends itself to dipping," he says. "We often dip it in ice wine for a sort of adult version of milk and cookies."
Guests at Fenn Valley can immerse themselves in wines spanning the entire spectrum: dry, sweet, white, red, ciders, dessert wines, sparkling wines and fruit wines. Besides everyday tasting activity, the winery hosts myriad special events, including winemaker's dinners, educational tours, a chili cook-off, girls’ afternoons out and Vine Wine’d, an annual 5K race through the vines.
With Fenn Valley's vineyards licensed as a tasting room, visitors also can safely wander the property with glass in hand. The property itself spans 240 acres on the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, a cluster of 17 wineries in close proximity to the eponymous Great Lake. The region has become a popular destination for tourists across the state line in Chicago, yet seems to remain off-radar for far too many Michiganders.
"The Lake Michigan Wine Trail is a truly wonderful way to experience Michigan wines," says Lesperance. "There's a ton of variety, from the small boutique wineries to larger ones like Fenn Valley. Also, as the southernmost (American Viticultural Area) in Michigan, we have the longest growing season, allowing us to make consistently solid dry reds such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot."