For Winter Wine Pairings, Think Michigan

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When it comes to wine, Michigan might not come to the top of the list of wine country destinations. But for Cortney Casey and her husband, Shannon, Michigan doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and they are on a mission to put the wines of the Great Lakes State on the map. 

In 2009, the husband-and-wife team launched MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website dedicated to wine from Michigan. “We had fallen in love with visiting Michigan wineries and felt like many of them were hidden gems that weren’t getting the recognition they deserved,” says Cortney, a certified sommelier. 

It was a fun side project for the duo, who added more video features on wineries, podcasts, interviews, articles, tasting notes, and contests on the blog and website. But as time went on, they were surprised by how well received they were. The pair decided that the Michigan wine industry was where they belonged, and they wanted to make it their “real” jobs. “Thus, the brick-and-mortar offshoots were born,” Cortney says. 

Through partnerships with several Michigan wineries, the Caseys established two collaborative wine bar/tasting rooms in suburban Detroit with another one in the works. They maintain MichiganByTheBottle.com to focus on the entire Michigan wine industry.

Below, Cortney gives Foodable some insights on how to build a wine list for the winter, pairing food and wine, and how far the Michigan wine industry has come in terms of red wine production.

Foodable: What should wine lovers know about wines produced in the Great Lakes State?

Cortney Casey: I think some people tried Michigan wine in its early days and began associating the state’s capabilities exclusively with sweet whites. Over the last 20 years, the Michigan wine industry has evolved tremendously, and some people have never bothered to give Michigan wine another chance. 

There are now 115+ wineries in Michigan, ranging from tiny mom-and-pop-type wineries to large companies with massive production capabilities. The state’s wine repertoire now runs the gamut from sweet whites to dry reds and everything in between. There are wonderful dessert wines, fantastic sparkling wines. There are many great "big reds," even though people seem to have the misconception that that’s not the case. 

Obviously, there are some grapes that grow better here than others due to our climate, but there are really exceptional wines of every style being produced here. 

Overall, I do feel like people are much more attuned to the fact that Michigan is an up-and-coming wine region nowadays than they were when we first started our website, thanks to the whole “support local” movement. Someday, I’d love to see the Michigan wine lovers get to the passion level that the Michigan craft beer lovers seem to already be at.

Foodable: Does the season, specifically winter, play into what you offer at the tasting rooms?

CC: In the winter, we do find that a lot of people tend more toward red wines — versus the more refreshing whites that are so appealing in the summertime — so we try to keep that in mind. In general, we try to keep an extremely varied slate of wine on our tasting list and retail shelves year-round to make sure we’re appealing to all wine drinkers. So at any given time, our guests know that they’ll have a solid lineup of dry, semi-dry, and sweet whites and reds to choose from, along with fruit wines, hard ciders, a sparkling wine, and a handful of dessert wines. 

A selection of different wines at Michigan by the Bottle | Instagram @compassrose83

A selection of different wines at Michigan by the Bottle | Instagram @compassrose83

Foodable: In terms of winter wine, how do Michigan producers come into play?

CC: A lot of wine drinkers gravitate toward reds in the winter. They’re like the liquid equivalent of comfort food. There are tons of wonderful reds in Michigan; just a few that we currently carry at Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room include Chateau Aeronautique’s Aviatrix Crimson, Chateau de Leelanau’s and 2 Lads' Cabernet Franc, Verterra Winery’s Chaos Red Cuvee, and Domaine Berrien Cellars’ Crown of Cab. But throughout the state, there are tons of examples of quality reds available. A few reds from other Michigan wineries that consistently deliver deliciousness include 2896 Langley from Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Leorie Vineyard Cabernet Franc Merlot from Black Star Farms, and St. Julian’s Braganini Reserve Meritage. The fact that that’s only scratching the surface shows just how far Michigan has come in terms of the quality and quantity of red wine production.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of port-style wines, and Michigan has some great ones. These are wines produced in the style of classic port, but can’t truly be called a “port” because they’re not made in Portugal. Since they’re fortified with brandy, these dessert wines have a fuller body and higher alcohol level, which produces a warming effect. We currently have one port-style wine on our tasting room menu, Sandhill Crane Vineyards’ 840. It’s like figgy, vanilla, caramel goodness in a glass. 

Foodable: As a sommelier, how are you sourcing and discovering different wines/varietals? What are the challenges and objectives?

CC: At Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, we’re specifically teamed up with several Michigan wineries, so all of our wine comes from those partner wineries. We wanted to help Michigan wine lovers in Metro Detroit discover great local wineries that perhaps they’ve never experienced before. 

The challenge recently has been the ripple effect of the past two brutal winters. Due to the extreme cold, many wineries throughout the state experienced lesser grape yields and, therefore, diminished production. Some wineries have been forced to bring in grapes/juice from out of state to augment their own harvests to help keep their retail shelves full. Our goal at the tasting room is to only feature wines with at least a Michigan appellation on the label, which requires that at least 75 percent of the grapes in that wine come from within the state. The “polar vortex” has not made that easy, by any means, but hopefully this winter will be kinder and we will begin seeing the production rates across the state getting back to normal. Despite everything, we’ve still managed to maintain our goal of having around 40 wines — representing a variety of styles — available on our tasting menu at all times.

Foodable: What are some tips on pairing Michigan wine with food for the winter season?

CC: Comfort food begs for comfort wine. Big reds go well with big meats, like a hearty Syrah or Cabernet blend with a steak. You want a wine that will stand up to the power and intensity of the dish without getting overpowered.

Pinot Noir has a lighter body, but is still a great winter wine. Michigan makes some great Pinots, and the wine is incredibly versatile. It pairs wonderfully with lamb, ham, turkey, and even salmon. 

If you’re serving a rustic stew of some sort, I think Lemberger is a fantastic option. Michigan wineries are producing some wonderful Lembergers (also known as Blaufrankisch), and these medium-bodied wines have a rustic, spicy quality to them that dovetails well with the flavors of earthier, hearty-style dishes.

Foodable: How do you rotate wines as seasons change?

CC: At our tasting rooms, we try to rotate a few new wines in and out every few weeks, but it also depends on availability from our partner wineries. In the spring, many of the whites get released; you often see more reds released in the fall. But it really depends on the individual winery. 

Foodable: What are your tips for building a wine list for the winter? 

CC: In the winter, a solid lineup of reds is a must. [Consumers are] trying to get warm in every sense: through their food, through their drink. But you’ll always have some guests who aren’t red fans, so it’s not like you can dismiss whites altogether for wintertime. Some fuller-bodied whites might do the trick. And the aforementioned ports — the inclusion of at least one port gets my vote. 

As a sparkling wine fanatic, I’m a firm believer that bubbly should be a fixture on every wine list. Too many people have the misconception that sparkling wine is only suitable for special occasions. I’m definitely a random-Tuesday-night sparkling wine drinker. It’s great as a precursor to a meal and it goes well with anything salty, like bar snacks or charcuterie. I even like it by itself for dessert.