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So riesling is bright and beautiful and tastes like a travel brochure for the Grand Traverse region, but it’s the stylistic scope of the Northern Michigan wine, the unrivaled range of bone dry to intensely sweet, that turns regular folk into riesling zealots. A late-ripening grape, riesling is capable of producing naturally high levels of both sugar and acidity, a duality that gives the wine balance and longevity. The degree-days over the course of a growing season determine the development of acids and sugars, with cooler years yielding lean high acid wines and warmer years producing richer wines with more sugar and higher potential alcohol.
Racy dry riesling wines represent grapes that were picked earlier and retain more malic acid (also responsible for the tartness in green apples). Viscous, honeyed late-harvest rieslings, like the enigmatic and oft-coveted ice wine, are made from grapes left to hang into December. The Northern Michigan winter freeze concentrates the grape sugars and they become shriveled amber shadows of those juicy round October fruits. To lock in the sugar level of a particular riesling, vintners chill the wine to arrest alcoholic fermentation once it reaches the desired sweetness. Chateau Grand Traverse's O’Keefe and other winemakers maintain that the sweet spot, or maybe the not-so-sweet spot, for Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula rieslings is in the medium-dry range between 0.8 percent and 1.5 percent residual sugar. This range avoids the occasional bitterness that can result from the uneven ripeness of early harvesting, allows the aromatic and textural nuances of the wine to shine and is delightfully versatile when paired with food.
With a flavor range spanning the spectrum between citrus peel and stewed apricots and innumerable iterations of sweetness and texture, Northern Michigan riesling can be rightly dubbed the ultimate food wine. The surging popularity of dry and medium-dry riesling is intrinsically linked to the current American food revolution, where the noble grape has found a delicious symbiosis with the noble pig, riding its own wave of popularity. Duroc, Berkshire, Mangalitsa, pick your heritage pork, put it in a roasting pan, sous vide machine or sausage grinder with almost any alchemy of seasonings and you’re guaranteed there’s a riesling to go with it. “Riesling and pork were made together in heaven,” says O’Keefe, whose wines (along with those by other riesling star vintners like Left Foot Charley’s Bryan Ulbrich and Chateau Fontaine’s Shawn Walters) are well represented on local wine lists and in iconic temples of Midwest gastronomy, like Chicago restaurants Publican, Avec and Vie among many others.
Take the pig out of the picture though and riesling’s still got plenty of pairing love left for complex international cuisines that might confound other wines. Drink a medium dry riesling like the Two Lads Fouch Vineyard with sushi and dashi-based ramen dishes. Pour a medium sweet wine like the late harvest rieslings from Blustone or Verterra with Korean barbecue and kimchee or a not too fiery red Thai curry. Cream sauces? Veal sweetbreads? Stinky cheeses? No problem, Northern Michigan riesling’s got you covered.
Battling itself out of the blue-bottle stigma of yester-century’s insipid sweet schwag, riesling, more importantly Northern Michigan riesling, has scraped up some serious street cred from the international wine press. Highly respected wine critic Jancis Robinson gave her first shout-out to Northern Michigan riesling with resounding praise for Chateau Grand Traverse’s Lot 49 Riesling. British-born and Berlin-based riesling guru Stuart Pigott was recently on American Public Radio’s heavily syndicated Splendid Table show singing the praises of Old Mission Riesling. Local winemakers from both peninsulas have swept some mighty shiny international prizes, like The Jefferson Cup that went to Left Foot Charley’s Seventh Hill Riesling and the prestigious John Rose Award that Chateau Fontaine’s Dan Matthies scored two years in a row, beating out rieslings from all over the world.
“I’m just a winegrower from Northern Michigan, but walking into that room I felt like Mick Jagger,” said Matthies, thinking back to when he received his award. Matthies just completed a tour of German vineyards in the Rheingau, where he “affirmed that what’s happening here on our peninsulas is every bit as good as what the Germans are doing.” Our local vintners have concentrated 600 years of European tradition into three decades of innovation and have shelves full of trophies to back it up. Go riesling.