Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Certain brave and ballsy Michigan vintners have been producing drinkable, even wonderful reds for the past decade, gradually discovering which slopes and soils offer them their best chance for success. There’s some delectable cabernet francs, merlots—even Tony Ciccone’s dolcetto up in Sutton’s Bay—to show that with sufficient TLC (not a chemical additive), reds can hold their own even in the most unforgiving of climes.
But pinot noir? Just ask Sideways hero Miles; he’ll tell you how fickle this grape is, how ornery it can be in the hands of amateurs, even back home in Burgundy where it lives.
Even so, this random sampling of Michigan pinot noir, tasted blind, offered a surprising array of styles and qualities. In the interest of full disclosure, Michigan’s really childish stabs at pinot noir, of which there were more than a couple, are not reviewed here.
That said, those that made the final cut—though clearly not on Côte d’Or’s scale of the best of the best—proved to me (and my humble mea culpa) that Michigan pinot noir ranks a viniferous cut above the worst of Burgundy’s best.
2008 Black Star Farms Pinot Noir ‘Arcturos’, Grand Traverse/Leelanau, about $28.: A fleshy pinot noir with clove and vanilla cream dominating the nose and a mid-palate of strawberry, cherry and bit of bright acidity. Light, but showing a long, luxurious pinot noir finish.
2010 Chateau Chantal Pinot Noir, OMP, about $15: Young, but from a spectacular vintage. Rich ruby in color with some pleasant minerality along with bubblegum and pecan on the nose. Somewhat fruit-challenged at first, but opens up to a meaty mid-palate filled with cola, pie spice and Stella cherry. Tannins need to settle in for another six months or so.
2008 St. Julian Braganini Reserve, Michiganm about $20: Too light to be technically termed pinot noir, this wine is perhaps better off wearing the rosé label. The nose is pleasant, with perfumed strawberry and orange peel, but the wine itself drops off from there and dies a quick death on the palate.
2007 Domaine Berrien Cellars Pinot Noir, LMS, about $15.50: Foresty, broody and aromatic; the wine shows much better than the previous vintage. Lots of Burgundian integrity in the profile—cigar-box and tart cherry mingle with cinnamon, toast and vanilla. A bargain for the bucks.
2007 Shady Lane Estate Pinot Noir, LP, about $23: Firm, focused and juicy with expressive red fruit, especially red melon and cassis with a perfumed nose of violets and roses. Polished tannins and a blackberry-accented finish; a beautiful example of Michigan pinot noir.
2009 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Ontario, about $21: Since these wines were tasted blind, an Ontario pinot noir was thrown in as a control subject. This one proved to be filled with sweet currant and black cherry flavors that nestled in a leathery backbone. Simple (but richly simple), the tannins seem to have sufficient age to fully integrate, and the vineyard’s commitment to low-yield cropping is evident in the wine’s concentration.
2008 Wyncroft Pinot Noir ‘Avonlea’, LMS, around $45: Winemaker Jim Lester aims for a Pommard or Chambertin style pinot; something masculine but nuanced, and he comes as close as he probably can with Lake Michigan Shore fruit. This commercially viable pinot noir, but there are some phenolic acids present in the nose which come across as nail polish. (2009 vintage will be available any day now).
2007 Raftshol Pinot Noir, LP, around $12: Almost rosé-toned, this wine displays tart pink fruits up front, including grapefruit and wild strawberry. The nose offers a quickly dissipating whiff of iodine and settles into a lightweight, rather thin wine with some of the positive and unique characteristics of a Côte de Beaune red.
2008 Two Lads Pinot Noir, OMP, about $22: An odd menthol nose blows off within a few seconds, leaving a chocolate-cherry palate which is pleasant but somewhat short lived. The titular two, Cornel Oliver and Chris Baldyga, have offered a small-production (220 cases) pinot from young vines; it’s thin with a moderate finish punctuated by a slight alcohol bite. This is a wine with good intentions made by a couple lads with massive talent, but the first vintage misses a bit on execution; 2009 is now available and is said to be much better.