An impressive group of judges gathered Tuesday to evaluate a record number of entries in the 35th annual Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition in East Lansing.
In a twist this year, sparkling wines made a strong showing in the sweepstakes list — think L. Mawby Vineyards — and a lesser known red variety, Lemberger, with the proprietary name of Blue Franc from Shady Lane, sailed past the Pinot Noirs and proprietary blends for Best Red.
“What impressed me most was the improvement in red wines,” said Dr. Richard Grant Peterson — at age 81, the dean of California winemaking and viticulture.
“The reds are more professional,” he said, comparing them to two years ago when he judged the competition.
“You have to compete on a world stage at some point, and I have nothing but good things to say about Michigan wineries; they are headed in the right direction,” Peterson said. “The Cabernet Francs in particular stood out. You can tell the winemakers knew what they were doing.”
The all-day judging organized by the Michigan Wine & Grape Industry Council, in conjunction with Michigan State’s Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, evaluated a field of 448 entries, compared to 367 in 2011. Fifty-two of the state’s 100 wineries competed, each sending more entries than ever before. Competitors were not just from the northwest and southwest, but wineries in Haslett and Adrian medaled too.
There were 25 judges from around the country and state, including Napa winemaker Nick Goldschmidt, California wine educator Robert Small, Kansas City wine consultant Doug Frost and Michigan’s own Master Sommeliers Ron Edwards, Claudia Tyagi and Madeline Triffon.
Tyagi zeroed in on the high quality of the sparkling wines, as did Peterson.
“They were magnificent,” she said. “People at my table compared Larry Mawby’s Blanc de Noirs to Bollinger. It deserved the Judge’s Merit Award hands-down.”
Commented Peterson about the bubblies: “The good ones were really good, whether they were made by Methode Champenoise or Charmat.” He said the ones made from Pinot Noir stood out.
Judges also validated the hybrid grape Vignoles, used for mostly sweeter-style white wines. The 2011 The 2011 Fenn Valley Vineyards Vignoles Reserve was Best Semi-Dry White. The Vignoles from Lawton Ridge — a newer winery in Kalamazoo owned by longtime growers and winemakers — was Best Dessert Wine.
Noticeably missing from the sweepstakes list: Riesling, the signature grape for the state. What happened?
Tyagi said the judges were stumped by the lackluster showing of some of them. “They were missing varietal character,” Tyagi said, “and they lacked aromatics.” They may have been recently bottled and suffering from bottle shock, she said.
Best of Class trophies will be presented to the winners at the Gold Medal Reception at 5 p.m. today at the Kellogg Center. Tickets for the public are $45 at the door.
Best of Class Dry White: Chateau Fontaine Pinot Blanc 2011
Best of Class Dry Red: Shady Lane Blue Franc 2010
Best of Class Sparkling Wine: L. Mawby Blanc de Blancs
Best of Class Semi-Dry White: Fenn Valley Vineyards Vignoles Reserve 2011
Best of Class Dessert Wine: Lawton Ridge Winery Late Harvest Vignoles 2011
Best of Class Fruit Wine: Chateau de Leelanau Cherry Wine
Judges Merit Award: L. Mawby Blanc de Noirs