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January 14, 2015 | 9:30 AM

Every year, when Wine Business Monthly chooses our annual list of the top 10 Hot Brands, we look for vintners, growers, wineries and wines that are making a statement in our industry. While quality is always our first and foremost consideration, Hot Brands is not simply a list of the best or most interesting wines we’ve tasted during the year. This list delves more deeply into what it means to be a part of the American wine industry. These are wineries that best exemplify their region or variety, or that dared to take big risks (with big rewards) in creating a new category or technique. In 2014, that common thread was that these wineries are all pioneers in some way. Each of the wineries on this list are helping to forge new paths that will be used for generations to come.

We are releasing the Top 10 Hot Brands in alphabetical order, one per day, leading up to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. Wine Business Monthly will be serving these wines to winemakers, grape growers and industry members at our annual gathering Bottle Bash during Unified on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 5:00-8:30pm at cafeteria 15L (1116 15th Street, Sacramento).

Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery

2013 Dry Riesling, Traverse City, Michigan
Delicate Riesling, the Cornerstone of Michigan Wine
 

Like any young wine region, Michigan has struggled to gain a foothold in the American wine scene. Wine Business Monthly completed a Michigan Riesling tasting in 2014, and we were impressed with the overall quality of the wines. They were uniformly well-made, varietally distinctive and had a good handle on sugar and acid balance. There were recognizable vineyard and winemaking stylistic differences, which is good to see, yet there were enough points in common to give us an idea of the region as a whole. In looking for the state’s best Riesling, we found Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, located in the heart of the 19-mile-long, three-mile-wide Old Mission Peninsula.

Located in the Northwestern corner of Michigan, Old Mission Peninsula juts northward from its foot at Traverse City, dividing Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay into two arms. Old Mission Peninsula is protected by a phenomenon known as the “lake effect.” With depths of around 400 feet to the west and 600 feet to the east, the bay acts as insulation against the region’s harsh seasonal climate. In summer, the temperature at Brys Estate is 10 to 12 degrees cooler than that of Traverse City; in winter, that’s reversed. If the bay freezes, as it did in 2014, growers will lose plants and production. Even in “normal” years, there’s the threat of spring frosts or September rains that arrive mid-veraison.

But, as South African-born winemaker Coenraad Stassen says, winemakers learn to adapt. “Mother Nature throws you a curve ball, but that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “You’re able to counteract and make changes on the fly and hope things work out. The positive is that we can produce wines that are very expressive of the soils where they grow and very expressive of the region. They maintain their beautiful acidity and aromatics that I think are very unique to this area.”

Stassen’s winemaking style is to make as few adjustments as possible in the cellar as he believes manipulation tastes artificial in the end result. For Riesling, in particular, he focuses on producing wines with intense aromas and good flavors and acidity rather than hitting a particular set of laboratory numbers. “What you taste in the vineyard is pretty much what you taste in that bottle,” he said. “I’d rather pull fruit at 19.5° or 20° Brix when the acidity is at seven grams versus trying to get high sugars, which we normally don’t get, and end up with something that’s flabby.”

For the 2013 Dry Riesling, he harvested at 6.5 tons per acre, with grapes at 20.5° Brix, a pH of 2.9 and 10 grams of acid, stopping the fermentation at 2.9 percent residual sugar. “It’s crazy when you look at the numbers, but the wine is beautifully balanced for me,” he said.

“Riesling is definitely the variety we need to focus on if we want to compete on any global stage,” said Stassen. “I always say, it took Burgundy 500 years to figure out the best varietal to grow in that region. We’re just breaking the surface when it comes to figuring out the best wine we can make and best varietals that suit here. Riesling is one of the varietals that fits this region and fits this area. A couple years down the line, I see us becoming the next hot Riesling producer in the world.”

The winery’s Michigan-born founders, Walter and Eileen Brys, first planted the property to vines in 2001. In 2006, Stassen, who’d come to the region in 2003, was hired as winemaker. Under his direction, the winery has devoted about half of its production to red wines, a rarity in the Riesling-dominated state. The decision was made, in part, to help determine the future of the region. “I think, like any wine region, you go through growing phases. You are figuring out what variety grows best,” he said. “Maybe the next time I have to pull out a vineyard and replant it in different varieties, maybe some of those reds won’t make the cut. That’s a learning curve that we’re going to have to go through.”

The full story on Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery ~ and all our Hot Brands ~ will be available in our February 2014 issue of Wine Business Monthly. You can find it here starting Feb. 1, or come by our booth (#1620) at Unified and pick up a copy. Click here to subscribe to WBM.

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