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Thursday, July 5,2012

Good news from the north

If two recent events are any indication, expect wonderful wines from upstate

by Michael Brenton

The Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula dinner at Traverse City’s renowned Trattoria Stella on June 7, and the annual Leland Wine and Food Festival — held June 9 — provided perfect venues to sample the new releases from northern Michigan’s expanding array of wineries. Summer wine country tourists surely won’t be disappointed, nor will they be let down as the new releases begin popping up on store shelves.

After a challenging 2009 vintage (which nevertheless generated a nice array of sparkling wines and white wines), 2010 created a somewhat light crop of very good, ripe fruit, and 2011 had all the winemakers licking their chops for both the quality and the abundance of the fruit. Trattoria Stella, located in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons — a converted historic building that was originally part of the old Traverse City State Hospital — has been earning well-deserved raves for the creative cuisine of Chef Myles Anton and an impeccable wine list established by co-proprietor/sommelier Amanda Danielson. The pairing on June 7 was magic.

Two days later, a bright blue sky and warm sun welcomed the 2012 iteration of the Leland Wine and Food Festival.  Thousands enjoyed wines from Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula.

Sparklers always serve as a festive starting point. The 2009 reserve sparkling wine created by winemaker Cornell Olivier of Two Lads on Old Mission Peninsula was clean, crisp and tongue-tingling, a good match with fried shrimp on a stick. 

 A pair of Gew'rztraminers demonstrated the yin and yang of the grape variety, which can be subtle or in-your-face. Left Foot Charley’s 2011 Manigold Vineyard Gew'rztraminer is somewhat restrained on the palate at this stage of its evolution. Winemaker Bryan Ulbrich explained that these grapes are from newer plantings on the vineyard, which promise to be a reliable source of excellent Gew'rztraminer for years to come. The 2011 Gew'rztraminer created by Coenraad Stassen of Brys Estate was a sweeter, broader, more viscous and mouth-filling style. Both were great companions to Chef Myles’ rabbit sausage with pancetta crust and apricot sauce.

Northwest Michigan unwooded Chardonnays continue to impress. The 2011 tasting lineup:

Bowers Harbor Unwooded was extremely refreshing; Naked Chardonnay from Brys Estate Winery is drinking exceedingly well, as is Lee Lutes’ Black Star Farms Arcturos Sur Lie Chardonnay. Verterra’s Unwooded Chardonnay, fashioned by winemaker Shawn Walters, is crisp, clean and beautifully balanced. For those who prefer a bit of woodiness with their Chardonnay, consider the 2010 Chard from John and Jo Crampton’s Willow Vineyards, which features a balance of French oak and fruit exuding tropical melodies with creamy mouth feel.

Winemaker/proprietor Charlie Edson’s Bel Lago barrel-fermented Chardonnays are predictably top-notch. Barrel samples of his 2011 output suggest that these wines show great promise and will typify the traditional Bel Lago balance of fruit, acid and just the right amount of French oak. The 2010 Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay from Chateau Chantal really amped up the creamy, ripe fruit with a good dollop of oak. It exemplified the stylistic differences winemakers Mark Johnson and Brian Hosmer bring to a single grape variety. Affirming that “two can be better than one,” Bel Lago’s 2010 blend of 75 percent Pinot Grigio and 25 percent Chardonnay showcased a magical marriage of varietals: fruity and effusive, rich and balanced.

Pinot Grigio, a.k.a. Pinot Gris, and Riesling are extremely reliable — and highly consumed — grapes in the region. The 2011 Pinot Grigio from Margaret and David Bell’s Circa Estate Winery offered a very clean nose, crisp mouth feel and fine acids, leaving an expectantly satisfying finish. Willow Vineyards 2010 Reserve Pinot Gris presented with a softer mouth feel, just enough sweetness to balance the acids, and a nice, long lingering finish. 2011 Verterra Pinot Gris was lean and crisply fruity in the nose, with a balance of rich fruit and acid on the palate.

Cherry wines are always Michigan crowd-pleasers. Peninsula Cellars’ Hot Rod cherry wine was all about tart cherry and cinnamon in the nose and cherry cough syrup (in a good way) on the palate. Bel Lago’s cherry wine continues to be a benchmark year after year.

Regional Pinot Noir continues to impress. We were presented with two excellently divergent examples of Old Mission Pinot Noir. Black Star Farms’ 2007 A Capella demonstrated the virtues of bottle aging in a well-made Pinot Noir:   balanced, classic flavors and a nice mouth feel. As a counterpoint, a much younger 2010 Brys Estate presented with ripe, dark fruit flavors and a mild vanilla backdrop. 

Willow Vineyards 2011 emphasized strawberry/cherry nose, well-integrated French oak and pleasing red berry flavors. A much younger 2011 Pinot Noir from Black Star Farms showed bright ruby color, a pleasing red berry nose and very fruit-forward palate: sweet fruit in a dry red wine.

Of course, no tasting of Michigan wines is complete without sampling a dessert wine, and Michigan is making some of the best dessert wines in the world. Black Star Farms A Capella Riesling Ice Wine is a phenomenal example of this style, year in and year out. A huge, botrytis-tinged nose, unctuous mouth feel and a zing of acid combine for a delightful “dessert-in-a-glass” ending to a meal. This is not an everyday drinking wine, but a fabulous occasional treat.

Judging from the array of wines sampled at these recent events a rich smorgasbord of appealing wines should be on the shelf for the indefinite future. Although it is too early to predict an outcome, the 2012 vintage shows all the signs of being the third great vintage in a row.

Keeping fingers crossed.

In Vino Veritas

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