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Traveling Up North to Michigan’s own wine country

It’s a common rite of passage for many Michiganders to drive up North in the warmer months, and then again as the leaves turn.

Views abound across myriad peninsulas, and it just so happens that some of the best views live tucked away in Michigan’s wine country of Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas.

Surely, you either own, or have seen, the “M-22” bumper sticker. Perhaps the sticker serves as a reminder of those beautiful fall colors, or, at the very least, a mental antidote to the wear and tear of narrowly avoiding summer construction barrels.

“M-22” is Michigan State Highway 22.

It’s a road that stretches from just north of Manistee, to near the tip of Leelanau Peninsula, then back down south to Traverse City.

And you do have some opportunities to drink some lovely creations near this locally famous roadway in the fall.

If you’re “all in” for the Michigan experience, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not try a riesling or two. Most of Michigan’s best rieslings are produced from vines near M-22. And while stopping to try wines from Verterra don’t exactly get you up close to their vines, it won’t matter once you see where their tasting room is.

The drive into the sometimes sleepy village of Leland is usually both relaxing and pretty. There may be less boats or cars out nearby, but it certainly won’t be a ghost town. There are a handful of noteworthy diners and restaurants, but swinging by for a Verterra wine flight should be a must-stop.

In the past, I’ve consistently been impressed with their pinot blanc and unoaked chardonnay, but the 2017 dry riesling is perhaps one of the more deliciously gulpable Michigan wines I’ve had this year.

It should cost about $18 and is teeming with fresh fruit aromas and flavors that are sometimes like a perfect nectarine, or perhaps some Granny Smith apples. The point is that the fruit is quenching, not flabby. Riesling is a high-acid grape, so it’s ideal for a cooler climate like Michigan. Verterra does make some sweet wines, but they excel in the drier styles.

Next, take M-22 northbound up for a side jaunt near Cat Head Bay to Leelanau State Park. You won’t need much time, and hopefully you’ll have some blue skies in the process to help you appreciate its serenity.

As you head south on M-22, check out Black Star Farms, about a mile south of Suttons Bay. Lee Lutes has been a real Michigan winemaking leader and ambassador for a long time, and I marvel at how well these wines are priced for how decent they taste. Granted, usually if your winery has been in the game a little bit longer, it’s feasible to think you’ve paid off your bills, but that’s neither here nor there to the average tourist that walks into a tasting room.

The Arcturos 2016 gruner veltliner is an impressive $20 example of a non-traditional grape variety starting to come into its own here. There’s not much of this dynamic Austrian grape grown here in the mitten. It generally does not provide the same leafygreen vegetative and peppery notes that one might see a stone's throw from the Danube.

Is there a bit of herbaciousness? Yes. But like most Michigan white wines (that get aged in steel in lieu of oak), there’s plenty of tree and stone fruit that rounds out this wine. A touch less aromatic than riesling, less sweet than most Michigan examples, and tastes like a bottle you could age for 5-8 years if you manage to save some bottles.

Heading south to Traverse City, you should plan for a tasting at Left Foot Charley, and then walk over to Trattoria Stella for some bonkers amazing food (and a killer wine list). Their one wine that seems to be a permanent crowd-pleaser (regardless of vintage) is the Mission Spire riesling.

It’s off-dry, zippy, and complex with pretty floral notes, slight honey, and pear-like flavors. It’s $20, and I’ve never had a bad bottle (their ciders are worth checking out, as well).

If you have an hour or two to spare, get yourself up on Old Mission Peninsula, just north of Traverse City. About eight wineries worth checking out there, and many excel at something a little unique compared to the others. But for the money, the Bowers Harbor Dry Table Red is dependable and fun, even if it can’t be life-changing.

It’s only going to cost you about $17, so don’t sweat it. They say it’s comprised of Bordeaux varieties, which is vague. Considering it’s a medium-bodied wine, with plum and cherry-like flavors with not a lot of tannin, it seems like there would be a healthy amount of cabernet franc in this wine.

The important thing is the wine should be pitch perfect with your favorite takeout pizza that you demolish in your Up North hotel room.

Justin King is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and was named Wine & Spirits Magazine 2017 Best New Sommelier. He is the owner and general manager of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt.


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