Winery hopping through Leelanau Peninsula is beginning to feel a bit like traveling through Sonoma a couple of decades ago.
Lots of scenic beauty, winding roads, friendly tasting room staff, wines achieving international recognition and a rapidly expanding roster of wineries. The Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association (lpwines.com) boasts 25 winery members, with more set to come next year. One can no longer plan to visit all the wineries in just a weekend — rather, plan for several extremely enjoyable weekends on the peninsula.
The Leelanau Peninsula Vintners has helped the process by suggesting three distinct wine trail loops: The Sleeping Bear Loop comprises six wineries west of Lake Leelanau and south of highway 204; the Northern Loop is 10 wineries north of 204; and Grand Traverse Bay Loop has eight wineries. Recently, the group invited wine media to spend a weekend touring and sampling. Our starting point was the Leland Lodge in Leland, which also served as the watering hole for the adjacent Leland Country Club. The beneficiary of a seven-figure upgrade, the Lodge has two restaurant/bars and an expansive wine cellar. It is a perfect anchor for Leelanau winery touring. For those who choose not to drive, consider contacting Grand Traverse Tours or Traverse Bay Tours.
My tasting partner and I chose a specially created winery tour for our day of sampling, which could also be an interesting circle for veteran Leelanau Wine Trail aficionados. This circle featured visits to the Verterra, Brengman Brothers, Blustone, Boathouse and Laurentide wineries. These wineries tap into the skills of veteran winemakers and vineyard managers.
Indeed, Leelanau Peninsula wineries are increasingly garnering national and international acclaim. Paul Hamelin, co-proprietor of Verterra, did the math. He said in 2013, four of the top international wine competitions reviewed 15,256 wines from around the globe. In these competitions, Leelanau Peninsula wines won 52 gold medals and 14 best-of-class or double golds. Hamelin observed that Leelanau Peninsula wineries create about 250 distinctly labeled wines, and that small sample on the international stage achieved 66 best of class and gold medal designations. Quite an accomplishment.
Leelanau Peninsula focuses on grapes that excel in cool climate growing conditions: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Each bears a distinct Michigan stamp, emphasizing crisp, clean fruit, and acid balance. The new wineries are quickly perpetuating the foundation already established by the veterans.
Verterra Winery, 103 River St, Leland. (231) 256-2115, verterrawinery.com
Verterra Winery has a tasting room located in downtown Leland across from the Bluebird Restaurant & Bar. Most of the wine is created from the estate Matheson Winery and Swede Road Vineyard, which are located in a narrow part of the peninsula where they are influenced by the waters of Lake Michigan. Look for a second picturesque tasting room located at the Swede Road site in a couple of years. Pinot Blanc from the region is some of the best in the world and Verterra’s is excellent. The rosé of Pinot Noir won double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Verterra 2013 unoaked Chardonnay was clean and refreshing with bright, green apple fruit. The Reserve Chardonnay was more about tropical fruit, pineapple vanilla and cream. Other worthy offerings included Reserve Red (22 months oak aging) and dry Gewurztraminer.
Brengman Brothers, 9720 S. Center Highway, Traverse City. (231) 946-2764, brengmanbrothers.com
Brengman Brothers, located on Center Highway between Suttons Bay and Traverse City, began planting vineyards in 2004 and emphasizes dry styled wines from vineyards culled to low crop levels. Winemaker Nathaniel Rose uses a cement “egg” for the Unoaked Chardonnay. Neutral cement vats are commonplace in Chablis, France, home of some of the finest unoaked Chardonnays in the world, but rare on this side of the pond. Check out the Pinot Noir, Dry Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Block 65 Blend Reserve, a creative mélange of Pinot Gris, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc.
Blustone Vineyards, 780 N. Sylt Road, Lake Leelanau. (231) 256-0146, blustonevineyards.com Blustone Vineyards is the love child of Chicago transplants Tom and Joan Knighton. Named after the iconic bluestone found along the western shore of Leelanau Peninsula near Leland, Blustone features a stunning tasting room nestled among the vineyards. Blustone’s 10 acres are planted to Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The Pinot Blanc recently won best of class at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in Southern California. Pinot Grigio and Naked Chardonnay show clean bright fruit and supportive natural acidity. Blustone’s Gewurztraminer has a twist: It is aged in both stainless steel and acacia wood barrels to round out the spiciness of the Gewurztraminer. Blustone’s Pinot Noir highlights the minerality of the soil, showcasing a broad, earthy bouquet. For an interesting treat, try Blustone’s Connexion, a Port-style wine made from three types of cherries aged in heavily toasted French Oak.
Boathouse Vineyards, St. Mary´s St., Lake Leelanau. (231) 256-7115, boathousevineyards.com Boathouse Vineyards’ tasting room is on the Narrows in downtown Lake Leelanau, about three miles north of its vineyards. You can exit the back door of the tasting room and enjoy sampling while overlooking the water. Proprietors Dave and Jane Albert left the automotive business in Ionia seven years ago to pursue a dream that included making top-notch dry red wines in Northern Michigan. They are accomplishing that goal with some of the most creatively named, proprietary blended wines in the region. In addition to straightforward Pinot Noir, dry and sweet Rieslings and Pinot Grigio, the fun tasting room with the wraparound bar and fireplace features “Knot Too Sweet” Riesling, “Sweet Seaduction” cherry dessert wine, “License to Chill” Rosé of Pinot Noir, “Boathouse Red” Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend, “Cabin Fever” Pinot Noir-Regent-Merlot blend and “Sun-set” Pinot Noir-Regent-Merlot blend with a hint of residual sweetness.
Laurentide Winery, 56 S French Road, Lake Leelanau. (231) 994-2147, laurentidewinery.com
Last on the new winery stop was Laurentide Winery, named by Susan and Bill Braymer after the Laurentide glaciers that shaped and defined the land. Located just southwest of downtown Lake Leelanau, Laurentide is forging its own way with Sauvignon Blanc as a flagship wine. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for only a tiny fraction of Leelanau grape acreage (it can be cold tender) and Laurentide is making its mark with this estate-grown wine. Not as aggressive or herbaceous as a New Zealand Sauv Blanc, it is beautifully balanced, but shows distinct vintage-to-vintage differences. Other wines already earning accolades in competitions include Chardonnay, Riesling and semi-Sweet Riesling, Pinot Noir rosé, Pinot Noir, Cherry Wine, Pinot Gris and “Emergence White,” a semi sweet proprietary blend.
Pick up a map this summer and plan your journey down the Leelanau Wine Trail. Explorers are sure to make many palate-pleasing discoveries.
In Vino Veritas. (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at email@example.com.)