The middle of November is rivalry time in the world of college football. It is also the time of year when the retailers and restaurant start blaring “Le Beaujolais est Arrivè”. For many, there is no connection between the two, but not for my friend and wine lover Andrew Hall. You see Andrew lives in Columbus, Ohio. There may not be a city in the country more crazed over its college football team, in his case, the Ohio State Buckeyes. And, there may not be a more storied or bitter college rivalry than Ohio State vs. Michigan. So bitter is the rivalry, that the word Michigan is rarely uttered by the denizens of Columbus, euphemistically referring to them, as did former OSU coach Woodrow Hayes, as “that school up north”. The last game of the Big Ten football season always features these two teams.
I am not sure why or how, but the idea came to Andrew that during the madness that ensues in the week before the big game, this would be a great time to focus on the wine industries of these two states. Andrew, being the gourmand and wine lover that he is, also observed that this would be a great time to take the focus away from Beaujolais Nouveau. Neither I nor Andrew wants to give the impression that we don’t like wines from this often maligned region near Burgundy. Far from it, there are some hard working producers making great wines capable of ageing that are absolutely worth buying. It is the Beaujolais Nouveau wines, made from grapes that were hanging on the vines just two short months before and now flood our grocery stores every November, that were the target for this assault. Wouldn’t it be great, Andrew thought, if instead of these banana and cherry juice flavored wines, the restaurant and grocery store communities of Columbus and Ann Arbor, and even the whole state of Ohio and Michigan capitalized on the excitement of the game and used that week to promote the local wine industries?
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A quick word about the local wine production of these two states is in order. One might be tempted to call these fledgling industries. All across America wineries are popping up. Wine is now produced in all fifty states. Yet as far back as 1850, Ohio led the nation in wine production. The Civil War and it resultant lack of manpower devastated the wine industry. A death knell came as Ohio never recovered from Prohibition. In the 1960’s and 1970’s a few dedicated and hearty souls began to make wines again. In the last twenty years, however, there has been a rebirth with new wineries popping up all the time. There are two main geographical hubs for wine production in Ohio now. Many wineries are located close to the southern shore line of Lake Erie. The lake provides a moderating effect on the temperatures. It also holds heat late into the fall. The other area is along the Ohio River Valley. A bit farther south, the climate is somewhat warmer and the vineyards in close proximity to the river also enjoy the moderating effects of the water.
Michigan also takes advantage of its position near the water. There are two main areas that produce wines. At the top of the glove (the tip of the ring finger) shape of Michigan are the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. The waters of Lake Michigan help keep the wines grown here healthy during the long summer days and cool summer nights. The other productive area is the southwest corner of the state, across Lake Michigan from Chicago. Again, the lake has the supportive significance.
So, on a cold and snowy day in November, I found myself driving down Interstate-71 to attend the first of what hopefully will become an annual battle of the Ohio versus Michigan wines. Andrew had accumulated the wines and in fact, been up in Ann Arbor a few nights before where he had assembled a group of Michigan wine lovers to go thru the same tasting. It must be noted that Andrew did this out of his love for wine and purchased most, if not all of these wines, himself. Hopefully, as this event grows in stature, more wineries will participate by submitting their wines to him for the tasting.
We all arrived around 7:00. The wines were served to us blind and in flights. We did not know who the wineries were, what the price point was or even the exact grape varietal. The results were tabulated both as a group and individually. There were about twenty of us in Columbus and each of us was asked to score the wines based on appearance, tastes, aroma and overall satisfaction. Only once we returned home were we given the results.
The first flight consisted of Sparkling wines. Before you laugh, let me tell you that some of the best domestic sparkling wines I have had came from the L. Mawby winery in northern Michigan. We tasted three wines from Shady Lane, L. Mawby and Ravenhurst. All three were good wines. The group preferred the Shady Lane and at $24 an excellent value. My favorite was the Ravenhurst from, surprisingly enough, north central Ohio. At $38, however, I doubt I am a buyer. As a group, these were nice crisp wines with lots of bubbles. Certainly the Shady Lane was competitive with anything from anywhere else at that price point. A pretty good start!
The next grouping was labeled simply aromatic whites. The wines included (in order of the groups favorites) the 2007 Ferrante Golden Bunches, 2006 Meranda-Nixon Traminette, 2007 Chateau Fontaine Riesling, 2007 Raven’s Glen Chardonel, 2007 Debonne Riesling Reserve, 2006 St. Julian Riesling, 2006 Domaine Berrien Vignoles, 2005 Wyncroft Riesling, and 2007 Firelands Gewuertztraminer. All of the wines in the flight cost between $10 and $20 a bottle. The group’s clear and overwhelming winner was the Ferrante Golden Bunches Riesling. In fact, this was the highest scoring wine of the tasting! At $15, this is a clear winner and a wine worth buying. In this price range and style, this is an area where both Ohio and Michigan can compete on a worldwide stage. My personal favorite was the 2006 Meranda-Nixon Traminette. At $12, this had soaring aromatics with floral and fruit notes. Easy to drink with enough acidity to serve with food, I would be a buyer of this wine. It was actually the group’s second favorite of the flight.
Actually, there were a few wines that for logistical reasons only were served to the Columbus tasting panel. For this flight those also included in order of preference the 2006 Gill’s Pier Riesling, the 2006 Ferrante Golden Bunches Riesling, 2007 South River Vineyards Riesling, 2007 Kinkead Riesling, 2006 Penninsula Cellars Gewurztraminer Manigold Vineyard and the 2007 Chateau Grand Travers Riesling. Of these the winner was the 2006 Gill’s Pier Riesling and would have tied for second place if included with the other flight. The 2006 Ferrante Golden Bunches showed nicely but I suspect this is a wine to drink sooner rather than later.
The next category was described to us simply as Whites. The wines in this category ranged from $10 to $50 per bottle. The results of the wines served to both groups in order of preference were the 2006 Black Star Arcturus Chardonnay, 2007 Firelands Pinot Grigio, 2006 Firelands Pinot Grigio, 2007 Chateau Fontaine Woodland White, 2005 Wyncroft Chardonnay, 2006 Bel Lago Auxerrois, 2005 Maple Ridge Chardonnay Cadus, and the 2006 Brys Pinot Grigio. Personally, I found the Bel Lago Auxerrois more enjoyable than the group but I am not a fan of most Chardonnay. My favorite of the Chardonnays was the Wyncroft. The Maple Ridge, which finished tied for last was the real shocker as it carries a $50 price tag.
Again some wines were served just to the Columbus group. In order of preference of the Ohio judges, these were 2007 Forty Five North 45 White, 2007 Harpersfield Chardonnay, 2006 Left Foot Charley Murmur, 2007 Kinkead Ridge Revelation, 2004 Markko Chardonnay, 2004 Maple Ridge Pinot Gris, 2005 Brys Signature White, 2005 Pelee Island Chardonnay and 2006 Peninsula Cellars Pinot Blanc. The Pelee Island wine was sort of a ringer. That Island, just off the coast of Sandusky Ohio, is actually part of Canada. The wines in this group cost between $13 and $19 with the exception of the Markko Chardonnay at $30 and the Maple Ridge Pinot Gris at $45. Personally I agreed with the group on the Forty Five North 45 white but I also really enjoyed the Peninsula Cellars Pinot Blanc.
After reviewing the results of this blind tasting, some conclusions about the whites can be drawn. Both states have the potential to make interesting white wines and be competitive in the under $20 range. The terroir’s (the French word covering soil, climate, etc) of these two states allow for crisp fruit filled wines with enough body and acidity to stand up to foods or to drink on their own. I would like to see and taste more of these wines in this price range.
There were also two flights of red wines. The first was Pinot Noir. I have often said that Ohio (and presumably Michigan) only gets 2 or 3 ripe enough vintages for Pinot Noir per decade. These wines did not come from one of those. Perhaps global warming will increase those odds or better vintages in the future. For now, I would want to taste the wine before spending much cash on these. That said, most of these were not expensive wines. In order of the group’s results, both states tasted 2006 Black Star Arcturus Pinot Noir, 2006 Wyncroft Pinot Noir, 2005 South River Pinot Noir, 2006 St. Joseph No Oak Pinot Noir and the 2004 Maple Ridge Pinot Noir. As a panel, these were the lowest scores given to any flight. With the exception of the Wyncroft and Maple Ridge, however, these were all around $20 or less. I have had the last few vintages of Wyncroft and was surprised to see this label revealed as one of the Pinot Noirs we had tasted. The 2006 Wyncroft was weaker and thinner than the prior year’s versions that I remembered. At a price of $45, I would not be a buyer. I mentioned this to the owner/winemaker at a separate tasting a week or two later, he told me that the wine was a weaker vintage but he expects it to improve with a year or two in the bottle. He knows his wines better than I do, so, we shall see.
As for the Maple Ridge, that runs $50 and was the most expensive bottle of the night. I am sure a last place finish was not what they hoped for. My tastes differed with the group, however, and I found it the clear winner of the red wines. To me, it had a Savigny-les-Beaune (for those familiar with this Burgundy appellation), type of earthiness. It did not have a lot of fruit yet if priced at $25, I would be a buyer. Alas, at $50, I can find lots of Pinot Noirs from around the world that give me more pleasure. I don’t know if the pricing of the Maple Ridge wines is based on cost, perceived value or marketing, but they were easily the highest priced wines of the tasting. I would not be a buyer of any of them.
The Columbus group tasted three more Pinots none of which impressed anyone. They were the 2007 Harpersfield Pinot Noir, the 2006 Chateau Fontaine Pinot Noir and the 2003 Markko Pinot Noir.
The final group was miscellaneous reds. The group’s favorites mirrored mine for this flight. They were the 2006 Kinkead Ridge Revelation Red, the 2006 River Village Syrah, the 2005 South River Karma, and the 2006 Fenn Valley Cabernet Franc. All of these are $15 or less. Mine, and the groups’ favorite came from Kinkead Ridge. They are an Ohio Valley winery just east of Cincinnati and in my opinion making the best red wines in Ohio. I would easily spend the $15 on the Revelation or around $20 for the Cabernet Sauvignon (which was not in the tasting).
Finally, the Columbus group tasted the Fenn Valley Capriccio, the 2005 Black Star Arcturus Cabernet Franc, and 2004 Brys Signature Red, Busch-Harris Refractory cuvee 4, 2006 Harmony Hill Serenade, and Tabor Hill Red Arrow. I wasn’t sure if those listed without a vintage were multi vintage or the vintage was just not supplied to me. All of these were decent wines with the Fenn Valley an excellent value at $13.
There were no dessert wines in this inaugural event. That is too bad as some of the best wines in this area are the late harvest and ice wines. The grapes take advantage of the warm lake air and can mature until late in the season. These dessert wines have a similar climate to the famous Niagara dessert wines. I often take these wines when visiting winemakers in other parts of the world. They are, in my opinion, some of the best Ohio and Michigan have to offer.
As for some general conclusions, it is clear there are some very nice wines being made. I believe our climates and soils favor the whites over the reds. Although there are good red wines being made. Just as Europe has learned, northern latitudes and climates are often more suited to white varieties of grapes.
A huge issue as the wine industry moves on, is pricing. Some wineries exist on a tourist model. They depend on people out for a day who stop at the winery. These customers have a lovely time and buy some wine to take back home with them as a souvenir. The consumer is not looking at twenty or thirty competing wines on a store shelf or ten other wines on a restaurant wine list. The sale is more about the personal experience. Many wineries can afford to charge top dollar because they sell out their wines this way. For those wineries wishing to compete on a world stage, pricing is an issue. Some of the wines we tried just were not competitive in quality for the dollar. If these wineries can sell out at their pricing, more power to them. In the long run, I fear that they need to take a more global approach to the sale of their wines. They need to price their wines against similar quality wines from Europe and California.
As for Andrew Hall’s brilliant idea, may it continue and flourish! The wine industries of both Ohio and Michigan should be thankful there is someone with Andrew’s passion and generosity taking up their cause. Hopefully next year, restaurants will get in on the festivities and offer special tasting menus. The wineries represented here and others (which were not tasted this year) seem to be on the right track. They are making wines where you no longer have to add the appendage on to the statement “it’s a very nice wine for Ohio/Michigan” and can just say, “It’s a very good wine.” As for the winner of the tasting, I think both states represented themselves quite well. My results were split evenly so I will take the easy way out and say both sides were the winner. The loser? Le Beaujolais est Arrivè
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.