The Best Riesling in the World?

Michigan's Winery at Black Star Farms wins top honors at international competition

by Linda Jones McKee
The Winery at Black Star Farms tasting room and white wine production winery on the Mission Bay Peninsula in Michigan.

Sutton’s Bay, Mich.–When wine aficionados think of the best regions of the world for producing Riesling, most would probably name Germany first. Many in this country might also consider the Finger Lakes in New York state or possibly Oregon and Washington in the Northwest.

But Michigan? Unless you have been there and tasted Michigan wines, the northwestern part of the state might not be high on your list.

However, the cool climate regions of the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula AVAs should be recognized as a superior wine producing areas. On Oct. 19, the best Riesling in the World Award at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge in Australia went to the 2017 Arcturos Dry Riesling produced by the Winery at Black Star Farms in Sutton’s Bay, Mich. In addition, the 2017 dry wine was recognized as the Best Dry Riesling and the Best American Riesling. The other five Rieslings entered by the winery also won medals:

Elite gold (96 points) – 2016 Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling (only 18 wines at CIRC were in the elite category)
Gold (95 points) – 2017 Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling (Leelanau Peninsula)
Silver (90 points) – 2016 Arcturos Dry Riesling
Bronze (89 points) – 2016 Semi-Dry Riesling
Bronze (89 points) – 2016 Sparkling Riesling (Old Mission Peninsula)

An elite gold was also awarded to Chateau Lafayette Reneau in Hector, N.Y., for its 2017 Dry Riesling. Gold medals went to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash., for a 2016 Cold Creek Vineyard Semi-Dry Riesling and 2014 Columbia Valley Dr. Loosen Eroica Gold Sweet Riesling; and to Colloca Estate Winery in Sterling, N.Y., near Lake Ontario for the 2017 Colloca Estate Lake Effect Vineyard Dry Riesling.

Ken Helm, owner of Helm Wines in New South Wales, Australia, started the Canberra International Riesling Challenge (CIRC) 19 years ago. CIRC is now the largest Riesling competition in the Southern Hemisphere, and a total of 567 Rieslings were entered in this year’s competition. Entries came mostly from Australia, with 240 wineries represented, as well as from Germany, France, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and the United States.

Jim Trezise, founder of the International Riesling Foundation and currently president of WineAmerica, was one of the six judges at CIRC in October. “Black Star Farms and winemaker Lee Lutes achieved a huge accomplishment by winning Best Wine of the 2018 Challenge with their 2017 Arcturos Dry Riesling as well as for medals for all five of the other Rieslings they entered,” Trezise said. “Having judged at the CIRC for four years, and many other competitions around the world, I can attest that this is the most rigorous and thorough in terms of analyzing the wines. Black Star’s success shines a light not only on them, but on Michigan as a premier Riesling-producing region. Bravo!”

Making Riesling at Black Star Farms
The Winery at Black Star Farms was founded 20 years ago by Kerm and Sallie Campbell as a grower-owned winery on the site of the Sport Valley Farm, a 160-acre equestrian facility, on the Leelanau Peninsula north of Traverse City. The estate now is home to Black Star’s red wine production facility, a tasting room, distillery, farm-to-table café, an inn in the former estate house, meeting and event spaces, and extensive hillside vineyards. Black Star Farms added a white wine production winery and a tasting room on Old Mission Peninsula northeast of Traverse City in 2007. The combined vineyards in the two locations total 185 acres and the winery produces approximately 35,000 cases annually according to Wines Vines Analytics.

Lee Lutes, general manager and head winemaker, told Wines & Vines that the Riesling grapes for the award-winning wine came from the winery’s vineyards on both the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. Lutes, who has been making wine for Black Star Farms since the first vintage in 1998, reported that “the 2017 season was on the cooler side, and then, on Sept. 1, summer started. From September into October, we had a beautiful dry ripening season. We could pick grapes, clean fruit, when the grapes were optimally ripe, not because we had to. The winemaking was easy; it was a unique season.”

The grapes for the dry Riesling were picked by hand on Oct. 17 and 18, according to Lutes, and at harvest had 21.7° Brix, 7.5 g/l total acidity and the pH was 3.26. “Our winemaking is traditional. We gently press the fruit the same day it’s picked, it’s cold settled and then racked into tanks,” Lutes said. “We add maybe one-third to one-half of what’s recommended for yeast additions and keep the fermentation cool, at 55° F or less. We try to flatten out the fermentation curve; the dry Riesling fermentation can take five weeks or more.”

One aspect of the fermentation that is more unique, especially for Riesling, is that neutral oak chips are added to the fermenting wine. According to Lutes, they add a couple of pounds of Pronektar Fresh by Tonnellerie Radoux to 1,000 gallons of wine, not to add an oak profile to the wine but to increase the phenolic presence. “You do taste wood tannins in the fermentation,” Lutes said. “That fades but [the chips] add to the mouthfeel. Then, as soon as the fermentation starts to struggle, we do macro-oxygenation.”

When the Riesling is dry, sulfur is added and the wine is chilled down after being racked off the gross lees. “The wine rests on the light lees, the sweet lees, for about three months, until February or March,” Lutes said.

About 120 days before bottling the wine, the winemaking team begins bench trials to see if the Riesling is lacking anything that could be remedied by adding small amounts of Riesling from a different location. “Our vineyards are a mix of clones,” Lutes stated, “and different vineyards respond in different ways. We’ll spend a couple of weeks in the lab trying different blends. One may have a lot of body and texture in the mouthfeel. We may want to elevate the aromatics and improve the fruit profile if it’s more muted.”

Vladimir Banov, Black Star’s production winemaker at the Old Mission Peninsula winery, manages the operations of that white wine facility and brandy distillery. He reported that the 2017 dry Riesling was bottled in two parts, first on June 8, 2018 and then on July 11. At bottling, the wine had a residual sugar of 0.55% and an alcohol of 12.04%. Other wine chemistry numbers included: pH of 3.13, total acidity, 7.09 g/l, free SO2 of 29.9 ppm, total SO2 of 82 ppm, and malic acid at 0.260 g/l.

Lutes noted that the 2017 Rieslings have not yet been released by the winery. He anticipates that will happen until the end of the year or early in 2019. Because the weather was so nice in September and October in 2017, the winery was able to produce 1,500 cases of the dry Riesling, which is considerably more than they make in an average season.

Trezise wins Riesling award
Wolf Blass, owner of Wolf Blass Wine in Nuriootpa within the Barossa Valley wine region in Australia, presented the Wolf Blass International Award at CIRC in October to Jim Trezise, founder of the International Riesling Foundation. The award is given bi-annually to a person or organization that has made a major contribution to Riesling development and promotion. Trezise received the award in large part because of his role in founding the International Riesling Foundation in 2008 and in serving as the Foundation’s president until recently. Trezise has supported CIRC as a judge for four years and as a proponent of American wineries entering that competition.

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