As a supporter of some of the nation’s more obscure wine-grape-growing regions, I relish the early summer months each year when I am asked to be a judge at wine competitions in far-flung areas.
Although I have enjoyed judging wines in Australia and New Zealand, Europe and British Columbia, in recent years the most excitement has come from the Midwest and the East.
In early August each year, I judge a Michigan wine competition followed by one in upstate New York. This year, the excitement was even greater than ever since the quality of wines in both regions has risen dramatically.
Of particular importance in terms of world-class status were the dry rieslings from both Michigan and the Finger Lakes area of New York State, where such astounding strides have been made in the last decade that it has created an entirely new category of wine that may not be compared to anything else.
Germany clearly is the world leader in world-class riesling, and its “trocken” (dry) wines can be seen as the ultimate standard.
New York’s best wine makers have taken it one step further. Their dry rieslings have achieved world-class status with a slightly different aromatic perspective that does not necessarily focus on the honeysuckle and floral aspects that so typify great German wine.
The top rieslings in New York (including Fox Run, Kemmeter, Red Newt, and Keuka Spring) display a minerality and earth tones that make them hard to put down.
And in Michigan, many of the rieslings (notably from Black Star Farms, Bel Lago, Château Grand Traverse, and Left Foot Charlie) now display handsome floral characteristics with just a trace of sugar.
Wine judges usually are asked to evaluate both white and red wines, and the latter are often seen as the most challenging, especially in areas where full ripeness cannot be regularly achieved. The main problems stem from a certain “green” or herbal quality that often creeps into the aromas of the red wines.
What was truly startling this year, however, was that many of the red wines of both Michigan and New York showed such distinctiveness and a variety of attractive fruit components that most of the experienced judges were buzzing.
And the few people who judged both in Michigan and New York were simply amazed.
To attribute this to the gradual warming trend of global climate change may be a bit simplistic. Viticultural strides have become so sophisticated that the current state of affairs could well have been predicted.
So I wasn’t shocked that one or two of the wines were so good. What was shocking, after we had awarded the gold medals, was the remarkable number of silvers and bronzes that showed how pervasive this trend has become.
Sadly, Michigan and New York wines are having a difficult time finding any love in local retail stores or restaurants.
Trying to find any of each state’s wines wines in Detroit or Manhattan, respectively, is nearly impossible.
(I have also seen this trend played out all around United States. Virginia now makes some sensational red wines, notably cabernet franc—-try Pollak Reserve. But if you don’t buy them at tasting rooms or through the Internet, chances are you’ll never see them.)
One sniff and one sip of the better wines from these once-obscure regions is enough to prove the greatness of what we now are being offered. And only a fool would parrot a line I got a few years ago from a magazine editor: “Virginia wines are junk.”
Maybe a decade ago, but not anymore.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc, Colchagua Valley, Gran Reserva ($17): Some people may hate this handsome Chilean import. But I love it because it is so reminiscent of the cool climate sauvignon blancs from the 1970s, with their herbaceous and green tea notes. The acidity is excellent, so it will pair well with food. It is often discounted and with a screwcap.