Mawby - The Gruet of the upper midwest by Carl Eischen

Massachusetts, New Mexico, Maine, Michigan. These places are not likely to be on the tip of your tongue when naming superlative wine regions. Add to that list England and Ontario. None of these places are bottling lush Cabernet or exemplary Syrah, but you’ll find cold tolerant grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and more than a handful of hybrids - all of which can contribute to exceptional sparkling wines. As climate change continues to reshape the global winegrowing landscape, formerly marginal regions are now able to support consistent, high-quality harvests. Southern England, with its chalky soils akin to what is found in Champagne, has been a success story in recent decades. We should also look within our own borders to find new favorite bottles of bubbles, now made to a very high standard from coast to coast, and many places in between. The Leelanau Peninsula, extending north from Traverse City into Lake Michigan, is just such a place. More than two dozen wineries can call this region home, and Mawby is easily the best sparkling wine producer among them.

Mawby produces two distinct lines - wines made in the traditional method from estate grown grapes, and wines produced in the Charmat method from widely sourced grapes. The traditional method, or méthode champenoise, though that term is restricted to bottles from Champagne itself, relies on a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Without exception, all of the best sparkling wines are made with this method, which leads to prized qualities like very fine bubbles, and complex aromas with yeasty or bready notes. This contrasts with the Charmat method, or tank method, cuve close, or metodo Italiano, where fermentation takes place in large, sealed steel tanks. The resulting wine is typically fresh, full of bright, ripe fruit character. 

Those distinctions hold true at this unique Michigan property. Their Blanc and Grace bottlings are made from 100% estate grown fruit - Chardonnay and Riesling for the blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Regent (a cold hardy German hybrid, used for its intense red color in blending) for Grace. These are both brut in style, made from the earliest, most delicate fractions of pressed juice. The quality of fruit and careful winemaking are given a voice in these refined, pretty wines. 

By focusing only on sparkling wines, the Mawby team has taken the craft to a level rarely seen in the US, or anywhere. Hand harvesting in the vineyards, thoughtful blending with well-aged reserve wines, and slow fermentations and bottle aging all point back to the model of quality, small-producer Champagne. Like the very best grower-producers like Anselme Selosse or Pierre Peters, Mawby utilizes a solera, or perpetual reserve, to add unique complexity to some of their bottlings. Inspired by sherry, another fascinating, process-driven wine, a solera will contain portions from each vintage since it was started, or every year since 1992 in the case of Mawby.

Mawby produces an additional five wines made in the tank method, from dry to noticeably sweet, made from grapes sourced in Michigan, California, and Washington. Unique blends, like their so-called “most provocative” bottling named Sex, might feature Sangiovese and Zinfandel, others will see Muscat, Traminette, or Cayuga - an American hybrid. The spirit of experimentation is strong here, and quality is always readily apparent. Among these, the Us bottling, the driest and most versatile, is a standout.   

What has recently gained great traction in the marketplace, and frequently commands remarkably high prices, are the single vineyard bottlings of Champagne. When the whole estate is small, farmed and bottled by the same hands, the applied concept is not essentially very different. For sparkling wine, the terroir conversation should encompass more than vineyard soils and climate. The question at the heart of many wine debates, especially around natural wine, is this - does process obscure place? 

A beautifully made bottle of sparkling wine is not exactly non-interventionalist, as it takes a precise application of the craft and science of winemaking to make a great bottle. I haven’t tasted enough other wines from Leelanau to tell you more about what that particular terroir can or should express. I’m afraid it might be a question without a clear answer, but the work wineries like Mawby are doing helps to drive the debate forward. At the very least, it’s something to think about while you are enjoying a delicious glass. What is clear is that this winery, and this region deserve much wider recognition. There is not a single bottle in the whole Mawby range that will disappoint.