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TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan – Spending the better part of a day tasting and judging 21 wines from the latest vintage of Northern Michigan winemakers is enough to kill the palate. But the effort showed this quirky corner of the northern state is producing some world class wines with more to come.

I was one of four invited to preview the 2013 releases of the Leelanau Peninsula Northern Wine Loop wines before a major public event Saturday night.

Our tasting panel discussing a group  of Michigan wines.

Our tasting panel discussing a group of Michigan wines.

It’s always a great and educational experience to taste with other wine enthusiasts to see where we agree and disagree. Our panel featured two wine writers, a restaurant sommelier, and a retail wine manager. And though we certainly were not lock-step on 21 wines we agreed far more than not. We even identified with more than a few quirky descriptions of particular wines.

Since my 2010 visit to this area the reputation of Northern Michigan wines, and the white ones in particular, has solidified. It’s widely accepted Michigan Riesling holds up against most of the great Reislings of the world. Riesling has become Michigan’s calling card and they get it right. It wins big in all sorts of wine competitions and is hailed as the state’s calling card in the industry.

Consumers have agreed buying up sweet, semi-sweet, late–harvest and bone-dry Riesling wines. Are they rivaling the Mosel River Valley from Germany? That’s probably another debate but Michigan Riesling is as good as any you can find in the Midwest.

The winemakers have capitalized on that knowledge and success with really good bottles of Pinot Gris, Grigio and Blanc. I tasted restrained Gewurztraminer that didn’t feel like someone was shoving a floral bouquet up my nose or down my throat.

Owner and Verterra winemaker Paul Hamelin led us through the 21 Northern Loop wines.

Owner and Verterra winemaker Paul Hamelin led us through the 21 Northern Loop wines.

Many also experiment with Chardonnay. You’d expect great unoaked Chard and Michigan has plenty to offer. But more winemakers are trying to produce traditionally oaked Chardonnay with mixed results. There are some great oaked versions, but it’s just not as consistent as the unoaked whites yet.

There is also a faction who believe Chardonnay can be big for the area. The grape does well with the shortened growing season.

Then there are the red wines and that’s been a past shortcoming that now looks like a bright future. In 2010, I tasted several Cab Francs and a few were decent. I tasted several Pinot Noirs and very few were varietally correct.

After one day of tasting, I liked the consistency of the Cab Francs I tasted. During the tasting event we blind-tasted four Pinot Noir wines and none were ready for prime time. But that being said, I had a couple of winery experiences later in the day where the 2011 Pinot was outstanding while 2012 remained unfocused and not ready to show.

But the surprise of the day – and many are saying it could be the dreaded ‘next big thing’ -was Merlot. We tasted three solid Merlot offerings during the morning and each panelist rated them with high marks. The wines were a tad lighter in style but varietally correct, rich fruit, and not as heavy, musty, and plodding like many California Merlots.

A couple of the winemakers agreed the growing conditions are perfect for good Merlot which can be a successful varietal with its growing season shorter than the widely planted Cab Franc.

On Saturday, I’m going to try to visit a handful of wineries I didn’t get to in 2010 and a few which were recommended today. Saturday night is the big public unveiling at the Bluebird Restaurant in the charming old fishing village of Leland on the Lake Michigan coast. Lots of Michigan wine, great food, and wine people – not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.